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Lady in the Navy

Joy Bright Hancock

“Lady in the Navy”
World War I, World War II-1953

“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,” CAPT Joy Bright Hancock told members of the US Senate in 1947 during hearings on whether to make women permanent members of the US Armed Services.

Her testimony exemplified her career. One of the US Navy’s true women pioneers, Joy Bright Hancock, was among the first group of women ever to serve in the Navy as World War I Yeomen (F). By the time she retired from active duty in June 1953, she was a principal voice for women’s equality in the military.

Hancock became the Assistant Director (Plans) of the Women’s Reserve in early 1946 and by June of that year, director of the Women’s Reserve. As such she directed what had originally been intended as a temporary World War II organization–the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES). She was at ground zero for all the post-war political battles to fully integrate women into the military–or send them home. Her task was to draft legislation which would bring the women’s organization into the permanent peacetime regular Navy and Reserve and to nurture that legislation until it passed. It was a hard sell both within the military and Congress. Hancock even answered concerns from Congress about menopause, proving through documentation from the Surgeon General of the Navy that menopause was not a physical disability.

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, Hancock stated simply, “The victory was sweet.”

Named Joy, “to offset [my] father’s disappointment that his third child was not a boy,” when she was born May 4, 1898, she witnessed four wars, tremendous technological and social advances, and later marveled that “this could indeed be the same little red-headed, blue-eyed girl” who grew up in Wildwood, NJ.

Hancock enlisted in the Navy during World War I at Camden, NJ, 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, NJ.

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 Yeomen (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, where she edited what became the magazine Naval Aviation News, before marrying. Her first husband, LT Charles Gray Little was killed in the air crash of his zeppelin, ZR-2, in 1921. She subsequently married another airship pilot, LCDR Lewis Hancock, and was widowed again when his ZR-1 crashed in 1925.

She learned to fly–earning a student pilot license in the 1920s–“… not because it was the smart thing to do in the 1920s, but because I was afraid of anything that flew. … Despite accidents and fatalities, commercial flights were fast becoming the new and accepted means of transportation. I reasoned that if I learned to fly, I might conquer my fear of it. The remedy worked….”

Early in World War II, Hancock conducted research for the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics on the viability of recruiting women—a step the Navy was reluctant to take despite the successes of Yeomen (F) during World War I. When Congress authorized the Navy Women’s Reserve (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.

Hancock’s own life had convinced her that women could do anything, and she spent her career opening opportunities for women within the Navy and the US Armed Services. She retired as Director of the WAVES in 1953 and later pointed out, “The women in the Navy, as did those in the other military services, by their successful performance of duties, contributed mightily to the sociological picture of women in the 20th century. In fact, they created a new evaluation of the worth of womenpower.” Hancock’s autobiography, “Lady in the Navy,” published in 1972, tells this story in her own words.