As the saying goes; behind every man is a good woman. That cliché can now be reversed; behind every great woman is a strong man.
Throughout United States history, African-American women have played a role in every war effort. These women endured physical discomfort and personal criticism, while many of their contributions were unrecognized and unrewarded. They placed themselves in danger’s path – offering their abilities and strengths to preserve values and ensure freedom.
These heroic women stood side by side with their fathers, husbands, and sons to nurse and comfort the suffering; they successfully engaged in the danger of spying, chronicled the pain of war, and offered spiritual healing (Sheafer, 1996). In addition, black women faced racial and gender discrimination as part of their military service. Nevertheless, there were a number of “breakthrough” moments as they persistently pursued their right to serve.
“So maybe you had to work a little harder — and a little smarter. You may have felt a little lonely at times. At times, you may have gotten downright discouraged. But you stuck it out, each and every one of you. You found colleagues who supported you — of all genders and all races and all backgrounds. You found superiors who pushed you and encouraged you. And then you rose to the challenge. You rose and you found opportunities to advance and to build exciting, amazing careers. And along the way, you all broke one brass ceiling after another.”
– First Lady Michelle Obama
These pioneering women simultaneously mastered the art of building and sustaining family and community life while dealing with wars. They were practiced folk healers, skilled seamstresses, quilters, knowledgeable parents, gardeners, cooks, and kept a storehouse of history and communal information. They knew how to press their skills into service for others. Throughout history, their networking and institution-building skills and their commitment to caring and sharing found expression in educational and health care efforts, campaigns to support the troops, and protests against many forms of discrimination.
The National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses was founded in 1909. In 1917, the co-founder of the Red Cross urged black nurses to enroll in the American Red Cross, although they were not accepted until two months before the war ended in November 1918. For the first time in military history, African-American females had an official organization where they found leadership and direction to use their abilities.
In January 1941, the Army opened its nurse corps to blacks but established a ceiling of 56 women. In June 1943, Frances Payne Bolton, Congresswoman from Ohio, introduced an amendment to the Nurse Training Bill to bar racial bias. Soon 2,000 black women were enrolled in the Cadet Nurse Corps. By July 1944, the quota for black nurses was eliminated. More than 500 black Army nurses served stateside and overseas during the war. The Honorable Edith Nourse Rogers, Congresswoman from Massachusetts, introduced the first bill to establish a women’s auxiliary in May 1941. Congress approved the creation of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corp (WAAC) on May 14, 1942.
With the conclusion of the Vietnam War, the draft also ended. For a volunteer army to work, women of all races were needed. Women were able to join the National Guard and were admitted to ROTC programs. In 1976, women were allowed to enroll at the service academies.
On September 1, 1979, Hazel W. Johnson became the first black woman general officer when she assumed the position of chief of the Army Nurse Corps. Later, on June 22, 1995, at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, Brig. Gen. Hazel W. Johnson-Brown, U.S. Army Nurse Corps (retired), said:
In the past, women, particularly minority women, have always responded when there was a crisis or need. We acknowledge all minority women in uniform both present… and not present. You are the strength of our success. You represent the patchwork quilt of diversity which is America – race, creed, color, and ethnicity (womensmemorial, 2010).