One of the earliest documented examples of black women serving in combat is the story of Cathay Williams. She disguised herself as a man, enlisting as “William Cathay” to become a Buffalo Soldier.
The National Parks Service has some of the few surviving documents about her service, including an interview with her published in the Saint Louis Daily Times in 1876. She describes her roots, and talks about becoming contraband:
“My Father a was a freeman, but my mother a slave, belonging to William Johnson, a wealthy farmer who lived at the time I was born near Independence, Jackson county, Missouri. While I was a small girl my master and family moved to Jefferson City. My master died there and when the war broke out and the United States soldiers came to Jefferson City they took me and other colored folks with them to Little Rock. Col. Benton of the 13th army corps was the officer that carried us off. I did not want to go. He wanted me to cook for the officers, but I had always been a house girl and did not know how to cook. I learned to cook after going to Little Rock and was with the army at The Battle of Pea Ridge”
She showed the reporter proof of her service.
“You will see by this paper that on the 15th day of November 1866 I enlisted in the United States army at St. Louis, in the Thirty-eighth United States Infantry Company A, Capt. Charles E. Clarke commanding.”
Her story is a tragic one: She (as William Cathay) was denied disability
, even though there were hospital records and proof.
In September 1891, a doctor employed by the Pension Bureau examined Williams. Despite the fact that she suffered from neuralgia and diabetes, had had all her toes amputated, and could only walk with a crutch, the doctor decided she did not qualify for disability payments. Her application was rejected.
The exact date of Williams' death is unknown, but it is assumed she died shortly after being denied a pension, probably sometime in 1892. Her simple grave marker would have been made of wood and deteriorated long ago. Thus her final resting place is now unknown.
Women served as nurses, of course, and there is documentation for black women who served in the Civil War:
Five black nurses served under the direction of Catholic nuns aboard the Navy hospital ship Red Rover. Four of their names—Alice Kennedy, Sarah Kinno, Ellen Campbell and Betsy Young—have been recorded.1 Black nurses are in the record books of both Union and Confederate hospitals. As many as 181 black nurses—both female and male—served in convalescent and US government hospitals in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina during the war. Susie King Taylor, Civil War nurse, cook, and laundress, was raised a slave on an island off the coast of Georgia. In April of 1861, Major General Hunter assaulted Fort Pulaski and freed all the slaves in the area, including Mrs. King. When Union officers raised the First South Carolina Volunteers (an all-black unit), Mrs. King signed on as laundress and nurse. Able to read and write, she also set up a school for black children and soldiers. Mrs. King's experiences as a black employee of the Union Army are recounted in her diary. She wrote of the unequal treatment,
The first colored troops did not receive any pay for eighteen months, and the men had to depend wholly on what they received from the commissary...their wives were obliged to support themselves and children by washing for the officers, and making cakes and pies which they sold to the boys in camp. Finally, in 1863, the government decided to give them half pay, but the men would accept none of this... They preferred rather to give their services to the state, which they did until 1864, when the government granted them full pay, with all back due pay.
Susie King was never paid for her service.
Black women also served as nurses in the Spanish-American War, which was not without risk.
During the Spanish-American War, African American nurses served as contract nurses. Mrs. Namahyoke Curtis, wife of the Superintendent of the Freedmen's Hospital in Washington, DC, worked as a contract nurse combating yellow fever and typhoid epidemics that plagued the military during this war. Contracted by the Army, as many as eighty other black women were hired to serve as nurses. These nurses, who were often erroneously considered "immune," handled the worst of the epidemics. Many of these nurses actually served in Santiago, Cuba caring for patients infected during the epidemics. Two of these African American nurses who served overseas died from typhoid fever.
The performance of nurses during the Spanish American War led to the establishment of the Army Nurse Corps on 2 February 1901. However, African Americans continued to fight for acceptance as nurses both in civilian and military venues. At the onset of World War I, administrative barriers existed within the Army Nurse Corps and the American Red Cross that prevented African American nurses from joining the war efforts. With political and public pressure building for acceptance of African American nurses for the war cause, plans were made to permit them to apply to the Army Nurse Corps. It was not until the last months of World War I, during the influenza epidemic of 1918, that the Army and the Red Cross began accepting these nurses who were so willing to serve.
By World War II, black women fought for more representation in the military as nurses, aided by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Although African American nurses were fully qualified and prepared to serve within the military nursing community at the onset of World War II, racial segregation and discrimination lingered. Mabel K. Staupers, the executive secretary of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, lobbied for a change in the discriminatory policies of the Army Nurse Corps. Recognizing the need for action, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt urged the army surgeon general to recruit African-American nurses for service in the Army Nurse Corps. While the Army did comply, it did so unwillingly. In 1941, the Army Nurse Corps began accepting African American nurses. Due to a quota system, only a small number, fifty-six, were allowed to join. Slowly, African American nurses pierced the barriers within the military system. By April 1941, forty-eight African American nurses were assigned to Camp Livingston, Louisiana and Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Della Raney Jackson, a graduate of Lincoln Hospital School of Nursing in Durham, North Carolina, became the first Black nurse to be commissioned in the U.S. Army. Jackson reported to duty at Fort Bragg.
We don’t often think of the military as an employment agency—but it was. Faced with racism at home and rampant jobs discrimination along with racial terrorism unleashed on black communities, the Army (and other branches of service) offered a partial solution, and not just for black men.
In 1940 the U.S. population was about 131 million, 12.6 million of which was African American, or about 10 percent of the total population. During World War II, the Army had become the nation's largest minority employer. Of the 2.5 million African Americans males who registered for the draft through December 31, 1945, more than one million were inducted into the armed forces. African Americans, who constituted approximately 11 per cent of all registrants liable for service, furnished approximately this proportion of the inductees in all branches of the service except the Marine Corps. Along with thousands of black women, these inductees served in all branches of service and in all Theaters of Operations during World War II.
Bitter Fruit: African American Women in World War II, written by Maureen Honey, covers some of this history.
Despite the participation of African American women in all aspects of home-front activity during World War II, advertisements, recruitment posters, and newsreels portrayed largely white women as army nurses, defense plant workers, concerned mothers, and steadfast wives. This sea of white faces left for posterity images such as Rosie the Riveter, obscuring the contributions that African American women made to the war effort. In Bitter Fruit, Maureen Honey corrects this distorted picture of women's roles in World War II by collecting photos, essays, fiction, and poetry by and about black women from the four leading African American periodicals of the war period: Negro Digest, The Crisis, Opportunity, and Negro Story.
Mostly appearing for the first time since their original publication, the materials in Bitter Fruit feature black women operating technical machinery, working in army uniforms, entertaining audiences, and pursuing a college education. The articles praise the women's accomplishments as pioneers working toward racial equality; the fiction and poetry depict female characters in roles other than domestic servants and give voice to the bitterness arising from discrimination that many women felt. With these various images, Honey masterfully presents the roots of the postwar civil rights movement and the leading roles black women played in it.
After the war, the next major military shake-up that took place was Harry Truman’s Executive Order 9981: Desegregation of the Armed Forces (1948).
In February 1948 President Truman called on Congress to enact all of these recommendations. When Southern Senators immediately threatened a filibuster, Truman moved ahead on civil rights by using his executive powers. Among other things, Truman bolstered the civil rights division, appointed the first African American judge to the Federal bench, named several other African Americans to high-ranking administration positions, and most important, on July 26, 1948, he issued an executive order abolishing segregation in the armed forces and ordering full integration of all the services. Executive Order 9981 stated that "there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed forces without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin." The order also established an advisory committee to examine the rules, practices, and procedures of the armed services and recommend ways to make desegregation a reality. There was considerable resistance to the executive order from the military, but by the end of the Korean conflict, almost all the military was integrated.
This in no way means that with integration, racism and discrimination in the military had ended.
A lot has been written about black GIs and the Vietnam War, which includes the impact of the civil rights and Black Power movements here at home. Many of the brothers I knew in the Black Panther Party were ‘Nam vets, and the Black Panther Party was actively organizing both in ‘Nam and on U.S. bases in Germany, via an underground publication called “The Voice of the Lumpen.” Yet rarely have I seen anything written about black women nurses who wound up in Vietnam. Cora L. Burton, author of If I Don't Laugh, I'll Cry Forever, “joined the USA NC in 1956 and retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1977. From September 1969 to September 1970, she served at the 91st Evacuation Hospital in Chu Lai, Vietnam, and for her performance in Vietnam, received the Bronze Star.” She was interviewed in an article titled, “Volunteering For Vietnam: African-American Servicewomen:”
In addition to the stress of living and working in a war theater, African-American military nurses in Vietnam frequently faced additional stresses related to racial and sexual harassment. Army MAJ Cora L. Burton served at the 91st Evacuation Hospital at Chu Lai from September 1969 to September 1970. A northern city, Chu Lai experienced almost daily rocket attacks during this period. MAJ Burton served as a hospital supervisor, monitoring patient triage and stepping in during emergencies. Initially, her chief nurse had resisted giving her a supervisory position. She believed it was because she was black, and complained to the hospital commander. The issue was resolved in favor of MAJ Burton, however, this meant that she “owed the commander a favor.” Wrote Burton, “The Colonel found ways to let me know what he wanted from me in return for my support–my body. I learned to duck with such grace and poise, I soon became as fleet of foot as any prima ballerina. I didn’t want to offend or anger him because I had been warned of his vindictiveness. Instead, I called on all the psychology I had learned as well as my intuitiveness to stay out of his clutches.”
The commander repeatedly asked MAJ Burton to visit him in his trailer and even gave her a sexually explicit book to read, saying “Why don’t you read this and think about it, and we’ll discuss it later.” Burton dodged his approaches. She said, “The only thing I wanted to do was finish my tour and get the hell out of there unscathed physically and mentally and without a vindictive blow from the commanding officer via my efficiency [report]. In those days this type of annoyance was called hitting on you. Now it’s called sexual harassment.”
The Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) defines their mission as one seeking to:
transform military culture by securing equal opportunity and freedom to serve without discrimination, harassment or assault; and to reform veterans’ services to ensure high quality health care and benefits for women veterans and their families.
SWAN has been aggressively combating sexual violence in the military, which the organization points out affects both women and men.
Despite over 25 years of Pentagon studies, task force recommendations and congressional hearings, rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment continue to occur at alarming rates year after year. Sexual violence has devastating, life-long effects on service members and their families. Sexual violence also threatens the strength, readiness and morale of the U.S. military, undermining U.S. national security.
According to the Department of Defense (DOD), tens of thousands of unwanted sexual contacts occur in the military every year, yet only a fraction of those get reported. Military sexual violence includes incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault and impacts both service men and women serving in the Active Duty, Reserves and National Guard, as well as cadets and midshipmen at the U.S. military academies. A culture of victim-blaming, lack of accountability, and toxic command climates is pervasive throughout the U.S. Armed Forces, preventing survivors from reporting incidents and perpetrators from being properly disciplined. The problem is exacerbated by a command-centric military legal system that gives commanders and not lawyers the authority to prosecute and manage the criminal courts system. Furthermore, service members are prevented from bring lawsuits against members of the military who either perpetrated these crimes against them or may have mishandled their cases.
You can read their fact sheet here.
These data are deeply disturbing:
For women soldiers, the leading cause of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is from sexual violence. It has been reported that survivors of military sexual violence experience a higher rate of PTSD than those that have combat trauma. Women often spiral into substance abuse, depression, and homelessness. Both men and women who have been sexually assaulted while in the military represent the fastest growing segment of the homeless population -- and the rate of women veterans that are homeless is particularly on the rise, with African American women being especially affected.
As we now move toward putting women into “official” combat positions, it is clear we must also address the combating of attacks on women who serve. “Official” is in quotes because in reality, women are already in combat.
An estimated 300,000 women in uniform have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Female service members have earned more than 10,000 combat action badges and Bronze Stars, respectively, and at least 12 Bronze Stars with a “V,” according to data gathered by the organization Women in International Security
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Army is facing criticism for its new appearance and grooming regulations, which some soldiers say unfairly target black women's hair.
Army Regulation 670-1 was released Monday, with rules on tattoos, hairstyles, grooming and uniforms for soldiers.
One of the new regulations, which applies only to women, is a ban on twists, dreadlocks and multiple braids/cornrows that are bigger than a quarter of an inch. Army spokesman Paul Prince told the Army Times that twists and dreadlocks have been barred since 2005, but these regulations go into more detail about specific hairstyles.
Women with these banned hairstyles will need to get rid of them or cover them with wigs or extensions, which can damage hair.
After a major outcry from sistas, including a petition to the White House, the military rolled back its restrictions.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced the U.S. military has rolled back prohibitions on popular black hairstyles within its ranks, following months of fierce backlash.
Hagel said the military had spent the past three months reviewing the definition of acceptable styles in a letter to Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, which led a charge against the military’s decision to ban natural hairstyles like dreadlocks and twists.
“Each Service reviewed its hairstyle policies to ensure standards are fair and respectful while also meeting out military requirements,” Hagel wrote. “As a result of these reviews the Army, Navy, and Air Force determined changes were necessary to their Service grooming regulations to include additional authorized hairstyles.”
It was no surprise to look through the stunning photos and interviews in When Janey Comes Marching Home: Portraits of Women Combat Veterans by Laura Broweder, with photos by Sascha Pflaeging, to see that so many of the women portrayed are black and Latina. They include Sgt. Jocelyn Proano, U.S. Marine Corps, who is on the front cover. The book was written in 2010, before “women in combat” rules were lifted.
While women are officially barred from combat in the American armed services, in the current war, where there are no front lines, the ban on combat is virtually meaningless. More than in any previous conflict in our history, American women are engaging with the enemy, suffering injuries, and even sacrificing their lives in the line of duty.
When Janey Comes Marching Home juxtaposes forty-eight photographs by Sascha Pflaeging with oral histories collected by Laura Browder to provide a dramatic portrait of women at war. Women from all five branches of the military share their stories here--stories that are by turns moving, comic, thought-provoking, and profound. Seeing their faces in stunning color photographic portraits and reading what they have to say about loss, comradeship, conflict, and hard choices will change the ways we think about women and war.
Serving in a combat zone is an all-encompassing experience that is transformative, life-defining, and difficult to leave behind. By coming face-to-face with women veterans, we who are outside that world can begin to get a sense of how the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shaped their lives and how their stories may ripple out and influence the experiences of all American women.
Many readers here (including me) have protested and fought back against the long line of U.S. wars and interventions (aka invasions) around the world. We cannot, however, ignore those who currently serve, and though we can fight to keep them out of harms way we must also continue to ensure they get veteran’s services, and are not discriminated against or sexually attacked while serving.
The Times article featured this interesting note:
Women in the military were also more critical of the recent wars than their male peers, the survey showed: 63 percent of women said the Iraq war was not worth fighting, compared with 47 percent of men; 54 percent of women said the same about Afghanistan, compared with 39 percent of men.
As more and more women serve, here’s hoping that they will go on to swell the ranks of those who will fight and vote to keep us out of war.
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