Smashed with rocks, blown up with firecrackers and even set on fire, plastic Army men would fight to the bitter end. Sometimes, your Army would be victorious and other times it was your best friend down the street. The best part when your Army was knocked out, a couple dollars would buy you a new batch of them.
“I won't tell you the ways that we destroyed those,” said Navy veteran JoAnn Ortloff.
She recalls playing with the Army figures as a kid. She spent 33 years serving in the United States Navy and was the senior enlisted woman when she retired in 2015.
“I did, even at that young age, you know, wonder, 'where are the women?'” she said.
In 2018, she set out on a mission having pondered the question even more once she got out of the service. She had gone on a cruise with some fellow active service members and veterans and the discussion came up about the lack of representation for women who serve. Not just in the toy industry, but overall in society.
“I got off the cruise and I thought, 'why aren't there more women's toys or toys that are, you know, female oriented with the military?' So that's when it started in early June 2018, when I started a letter campaign to several toy manufacturers,” said Ortloff.
Every day, she would check her mail, waiting for a response from the big toy makers and every day, she was disappointed at the lack of response. Then one day, a letter showed up from BMC Toys in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
“Jeff Imel wrote back from BMC toys, and that started our relationship and a very good conversation back and forth about the plastic Army women project and what he could and couldn't do right off,” Ortloff recalled. “(He was) a little hesitant in the beginning because of the cost, doing the molds, and we chatted back and forth for a couple few weeks about getting interest from the community.”
BMC Toys president Jeff Imel said it wasn’t the first time someone had brought up the question about women toy soldiers.
“I just told her, 'I'm sorry, I don't have them. I don't know where to get them. I'd like to make them someday. But I haven’t been able to do it so far,'” he said. “I thought that would be the end of it. But if you've talked to JoAnn, you know, it wasn't.”
Imel started a blog and an email newsletter to see if there was interest in the creation of the Army women soldiers and JoAnn got busy telling every person she knew about the project and through a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign was able to draw up enough interest and money to get Jeff Imel and BMC Toys into the toy manufacturing game.
His sister drew up the sketches for what the figures would look like and detail was important for Ortloff.
“Just put us in regulations, keep the hair up, keep that armament appropriately appropriate and the proportions appropriate,” she recalls telling Imel during the beginning stages of design.
For Imel, it was a quick lesson in military appearance and regulations.
“I learned way more about military women’s hairstyles than I could have guessed in my lifetime,” he said.
Tweaks were made based off the feedback from Ortloff and other female veterans.
From Ortloff's letter in 2018 to the end of the crowdfunding in December of 2019, the molds and machinery were setup and ready to start creating the tiny soldiers in October of 2020.
Just before Christmas of 2020 a 7-year-old girl got headlines when she wrote to toymakers wondering the same thing JoAnn Ortloff had wondered for years, why there weren’t any women Army toys? The story went viral and Good Morning America picked it up and featured Vivian Lord getting those Army women from BMC Toys.
Imel wrote Ortloff a letter after the little girl’s story picked up speed and he began to get attention for the creation of the women Army figures.
“I hope you don’t mind a six-year-old girl stealing your limelight about initiating this project,” she recalls him writing.
Ortloff said she was just happy the country was enamored with the toy soldiers, but she also wants Americans to know that it was women veterans who initiated this project with BMC Toys and it was women veterans who wanted to bring forward the importance of a unified and gender-neutral toy environment.
“Women aren't just male green toy soldiers colored in pink anymore. We are actually represented the way that we are, as part of the American team in the military, serving our country, proudly, equally, and now, thankfully, in the hands of young children learning, boys and girls that women and men serve together, and I hope that that's the takeaway,” Ortloff said.
The Kickstarter orders are currently being filled in a warehouse in Akron, Ohio. Public pre-orders are available through BMC Toys website.
Take a deeper dive into the history of women in military service by visiting the United States Army Women's Museum website.
This story was originally published by Craig McKee at WCPO.