Oct. 15, 1948 marks the date the first women officers on active duty are sworn in as commissioned officers in the Regular Navy under the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of June 1948 signed by Secretary of the Navy John L. Sullivan.
The women are Capt. Joy B. Hancock, Lt. Cmdr. Winifred R. Quick, Lt. Cmdr. Anne King, Lt. Cmdr. Frances L. Willoughby, Lt. Ellen Ford, Lt. Doris Cranmore, Lt. j.g. Doris A. Defenderfer, and Lt. j.g. Betty Rae Tennant, according to Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC).
Perhaps the most well-known of this group is Hancock, who was born May 4, 1898, in Camden, New Jersey. During her remarkable life she witnessed four wars and tremendous technological and social change. As a young woman she was widowed twice when both husbands, Navy pilots, were killed while serving on active duty.
“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 to be abolished,” Captain Joy Bright Hancock told members of the U.S. Senate in 1947 during hearings on whether to make women permanent members of the U.S. Armed Services, according to a profile published online by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, Department of History and Art History of George Mason University.
Final legislation, the Women's Armed Service's Integration Act, passed Congress in 1948 and was approved and signed by President Truman in July of that year. In her autobiography, Lady in the Navy, published in 1972, Hancock stated simply, “The victory was sweet.”
Her testimony exemplified her career. One of the United States Navy's early women pioneers, Hancock was among the first group of women ever to serve in the Navy as a World War I Yeoman (F). By the time she retired from active duty in June 1953, she was a principal voice for women's equality in the military, according to her GMU profile.
In 1946, as Assistant Chief of Naval Personnel for Women, and then as director of the Women's Reserve that June, Hancock commanded what had been originally intended as merely a temporary World War II organization — the WAVES (Women Accepted for Emergency Military Service).
Hancock enlisted in the Navy during World War I at Camden, New Jersey, and was one of relatively few women to escape a clerical assignment. She served instead as a courier at the Camden shipyard until the Navy transferred her to the Naval Air Station at Cape May, according to the GMU profile.
Always pointing out that Navy women did more than clerical work, she wrote in her autobiography, "As I look back to World War I, I need to stress that the more than 10,000 Yeoman(F)...served ably as translators, draftsmen, fingerprint experts, camouflage designers, and recruiters.”
Following World War I, Hancock briefly worked as a civilian employee of the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics. When Congress authorized the stand-up of the WAVES in 1942, Hancock enlisted and her insider expertise as a Yeoman, a Navy wife, and a civilian employee, propelled her leadership as the organization's director, advocate and force for acceptance and progress, according to her GMU profile.
Joy Bright Hancock returned to the Bureau after attending Foreign Service School and obtaining a private pilot's license. For more than a decade before World War II and into the first year of that conflict, she was responsible for the Bureau's public affairs activities. In October 1942, she was commissioned a Lieutenant in the new Women's Reserve (WAVES). She initially served as WAVES representative in the Bureau of Aeronautics and later in a similar position for the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Air), rising to the rank of Commander by the end of the War, according to NHHC.
In February 1946, Commander Hancock became the Assistant Director (Plans) of the Women's Reserve and was promoted to WAVES' Director, with the rank of Captain, in July of that year. She guided the WAVES through the difficult years of Naval contraction in the later 1940s and the expansion of the early 1950s, a period that also saw the Navy's women achieve status as part of the Regular Navy, according to NHHC.
Captain Hancock retired from active duty in June 1953. The next year, she married Vice Admiral Ralph A. Ofstie and accompanied him on his 1955-56 tour as Commander, Sixth Fleet. Following her husband's death in late 1956, she lived in the Washington, D.C., area and in the Virgin Islands. She died on Aug. 20, 1986, according to NHHC.
The U.S. Navy established an award in her honor. The Captain Joy Bright Hancock (Officer) and Master Chief Anna Der-Vartanian (Enlisted) Leadership Awards honor the visionary leadership of service members whose ideals and dedication foster a positive working environment for reinforcing and furthering the integration of women into the Navy. Established in 1987, these awards are presented annually to recognize inspirational leadership of Navy service members on active or reserve duty. For more information, go to the Navy Personnel Command website.
Captain, Joy Bright Hancock USN, (1898-1986) – Naval History and Heritage Command
Pathbreakers: Joy Bright Hancock, “Lady in the Navy” – World War I, World War II-1953 – Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, Department of History and Art History of George Mason University
To learn more about U.S. Navy history, please go to the Naval History and Heritage Command website: www.history.navy.mil/ or visit the NHHC blog The Sextant.