Navy Women and World War I:
A Legacy of Service
Lieutenant Cmdr. Joy Bright Hancock walked down the hallway of the Navy headquarters building on Constitution Avenue in D.C., her head held high.
Just then, an elderly admiral stopped her.
"Young lady ... are you a WAVE?"
"Then there is one thing you ladies must learn. You do not wear decorations unless you have earned them."
But Hancock had earned her Victory Medal. She had proudly served in the Navy as a yeoman (F) during World War I, one of the first women to ever don a uniform and formally enlist in the United States military. In fact, she, as she recounts in her autobiography, "Lady in the Navy," she was the only WAVE then authorized to wear the medal. (Another former yeoman (F) would later join up as well, while a third became a woman Marine.)
Almost 12,000 enlisted women had served in roles from clerk to cryptographer to intelligence during the Great War. They did such a good job that after the war, the Navy was reluctant to lose them, hiring many of them as civil servants. Hancock, for example, went to work for the Bureau of Aeronautics. In the intervening years, however, their service had been largely forgotten, especially after Congress passed legislation in 1925 and again in 1938 that explicitly restricted naval service to men.
As a result, the Navy had to start from scratch when it came to recruiting and enlisting women during World War II, and it took months to push a bill authorizing women in the Naval Reserve through Congress in 1942.
"The first group to do it was the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, which was a blessing to the Navy because they made a whole bunch of mistakes, especially that uniform," said Dr. Regina Akers, a historian at the Navy History and Heritage Command who specializes in diversity. "We benefited from that. ... The Navy follows on July 30, 1942. ... These women are established as an integral part of the Navy's Reserve, a lesson learned from World War I."
One of the loudest voices supporting the service of women during the war was Hancock's. Like many other World War I women, she wanted better for this new generation. She wanted the Navy to avoid the mistakes of its past. She wanted to ensure women veterans would never be forgotten again.
"I firmly believed that women should be an integral part of the Navy," she wrote. "Experience after World War I, in which 10,000 women had at once been demobilized, with no opportunity to serve in the peacetime Reserve ..."*
.. resulted in the fact that some 20 years later practically no naval officer of junior rank knew, and few older officers remembered, that women had successfully served in the enlisted ranks of the Navy; hence, in World War II the very idea of women in service had had to be sold and planning undertaken from the ground up." -Cmdr. Joy Bright Hancock