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History and Heritage

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.

It wasn't every mid-grade officer, particularly a mid-grade female officer, who received a medal from the chief of naval operations himself, and she was proud to display the World War I Victory Medal on her brand-new, designer World War II WAVE (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) uniform.

Just then, an elderly admiral stopped her.

"Young lady ... are you a WAVE?"

"Yes, Admiral."

"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.

Women Warriors

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

Three photo collage of Cmdr. Hancock: During WWI; later as a WAVE; Hancock with other WWI female yeoman as WAVES

Still at BuAer as a civilian when the war broke out, Hancock accepted a direct commission in the WAVES, becoming the liaison to BuAer. The aeronautics bureau would employ about a third of all WAVES during the war. It would also integrate training for men and women. This wasn't an accident, Akers said. This was directly as a result of Hancock's influence and her long-standing relationships with admirals and other senior aviators.

In fact, Hancock had an impeccable Navy pedigree. In addition to her own status, she was a Navy widow, twice over. She had married two aviators in the 1920s. Both were Navy Cross recipients and both men died in crashes of then-experimental planes. In 1954, she married a third time, to Vice Adm. Ralph A. Ofstie, commander of the U.S. Sixth Fleet and another Navy Cross recipient. He died only two years later. She also had two brothers who served in the Navy.

Hancock, then, knew how to speak Navy, and "I was aware of the overall planning as well as the operations and the needs of the training already in action. I had been fully accepted by the other members, in fact, made welcome at all the conferences. I was free to ask questions, make recommendations, or express disagreement."

She never hesitated to ask why a woman couldn't take over a particular duty, and she also "advised the women, officers and enlisted, to the effect that we were now into what was heretofore a man's world and we had to prove ourselves step by step. This meant we must do each small assignment efficiently and cheerfully, always observing the work done by others, so that we could learn as much as possible about each task in order to be prepared to take over. And this is exactly what happened. As orders transferring men to the Fleet came in, the women had to take over and do their job. At last the women could feel that they were needed, and that feeling was the greatest morale builder that could have been conceived."

A Permanent Place

After the war, Hancock was promoted to captain and became the third director of the WAVES. In this role, she developed policy and helped write the Women's Armed Services Integration Act, which would make women a regular and permanent part of the armed forces in 1948. She cajoled naval leaders like Fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitiz, outgoing CNO, into taking up the cause as their own and advocating for women in the active duty military, not merely in the reserves. She allayed concerns about WAVE pregnancy rates and even asked the Navy surgeon general to respond to legislators' fears that menopause could render women unfit for duty.
Three photo collage of women during WWII: color photo of WAVES; WAVE aircraft mechanic; WAVES as signalmen.

She then testified before Congress about the necessity of women's service:

To me it is a wise acknowledgment that in any future emergency the services of women will be needed, and in overwhelmingly larger numbers that we even visualized during this war." - Cmdr. Joy Bright Hancock

"The peacetime Navy has always been the nucleus on which expansion could be carried out economically, effectively, and rapidly. ... It would appear to me that any national defense weapon known to be of value should be developed and kept in good working order and not allowed to rust or be abolished.

"It would emphasize to women generally that their country needed and expected contributions from them," she continued. "It is my opinion that the women will be proud and eager for an opportunity to contribute directly and vitally to the welfare and security of their country."

She's one of the most important figures in Navy history, said Akers. Through Hancock, there's a direct line between the first female service members during World War I and the Navy women of today, who now have opportunities the likes of which their grandmothers and great-grandmothers could have never dreamed.

"The yeoman (F) paved the way for today's women," said Akers. "They paved the way for today's military personnel."

The Vote

They paved the way in another area as well. Historians credit not only the Navy and Marine Corps women of World War I, but all of the women of World War I, with one other enduring legacy: The vote.

Suffragettes had been fighting for women's right to vote since the 1840s in the United States.

You were considered a radical, like something was the matter with you. Why on earth would you want to vote?" - Regina Akers

The momentum picked up around the turn of the century, and after the Great War broke out, she said, many women saw their participation as a way to prove themselves, whether that was in the Navy or Marine Corps, as Army and Navy nurses, as telegraph operators for the Army Signal Corps, in the Red Cross or the Salvation Army, or as factory workers building munitions.

Yes, they were patriotic and they wanted the war to end as fast as possible, she said, but they also hoped that by supporting the war, they would show men, particularly politicians, that they too deserved the right to vote.

According to Akers, this was particularly true of many of the yeomen (F).

Their gamble worked. The 19th Amendment passed, Aug. 26, 1920. The service of women across all facets of war work had even convinced President Woodrow Wilson himself that women's suffrage was in the national interest.
Three photo collage of women in WWI: yeomen in an office; recruiting poster; women in formation

"We have made partners of the women in this war; shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?" he had asked the Senate in September 1918. "This war could not have been fought ... if it had not been for the services of women - services rendered in every sphere - not merely in the fields of effort in which we have been accustomed to see them work, but wherever men have worked and up on the very skirts and edges of the battle itself."

*Editor's note: Written sources retain their original spelling and punctuation.

*Editor's note: This is part two of a two-part series about the yeoman (F) of World War II, the first women to ever enlist in the Navy.

Read part one here
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