Sunday, April 15, 2012

Invisible Women: Black Women in the Military

The movie, Red Tails (2012), is a fictional story about the Tuskegee Airmen, who were a group of black United States Army Air Force servicemen who fought during the time of World War II (WWII) (1939-1945). Red Tails was directed by Anthony Hemingway, produced by George Lucas, and the screenplay was by John Ridley. The cast includes Terence Howard, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and the adorable Elijah Kelley. The film follows these black men as they face racial discrimination in the military even as they were fighting for a country that devalued their worth. I have yet to see the film for myself, but I have been reading that black women are pretty much non-existent in it, which is not surprising. The film sounds as if it glosses over the crucial role that black women played during the war. The contributions of black women in history have always been ignored in order to focus on white masculinity and valor, white femininity, and black masculinity, valor, and hardships.

Willa B. Brown
The most ironic part about black women’s exclusion from Red Tails is that the Tuskegee Airmen existed because of Willa Brown...a black woman. Brown was the first black woman to earn a pilot’s license in 1937 (Ann, 2011). As one of the founding members of the National Airmen Association of America, her efforts led to Congress integrating the U.S. Army Air Corps leading to the creation of the Tuskegee Airmen (Ann, 2011). If it was not for Brown, the Tuskegee Airmen would not have existed or it would not have existed at that time to become such an integral part of American history. And yet, Red Tails does not even bother to mention her (even though her husband, Cornelius Coffey, was one of the real Tuskegee Airmen) along with the black women who risked their lives.

Let me remind everyone that WWII is not the first time that black women became involved in the military. American women in general have always participated in defending this nation, whether it was directly or indirectly (Enloe, 1998; Sheldon, 1998). But the services of black women have largely gone unrecognized and unrecorded in history. Not only did black women in the military have to deal with racial discrimination but gender discrimination/sexism as well (Sheldon, 1998).

As early as the Civil War (1861-1865), it has been documented that black women served as nurses or performed laundering and kitchen duties/services for the male soldiers (Sheldon, 1998). They even raised cotton on plantations for the northern government (Sheldon, 1998). Throughout the American Revolution (1775-1783), the Spanish-American War (1898), World War I (1914-1918), the Vietnam War (1955-1975), and let us not forget WWII, black women served as nurses and in other civilian service roles although a quota (10%) on the number of black permitted to serve was established when women were officially allowed to enlist (D’Amico, 1997; Sheldon, 1998; Ghajar, 2006). Black women served as members of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACs) later known as the Women’s Army Corps (WACs), the Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), and the Coast Guard SPARS. During WWII, 6,520 black women served in the WAAC (Sheldon, 1998). So, what up Ridley? What up Lucas? What up Hemingway? Can a bitch get some recognition up in this motherfucker or what?

Major General Marcia M. Anderson
In addition to occupying familiar roles as caretakers in the military, it is said that many black women fought on the front lines of war but in disguise (Enloe, 1998). If black women truly disguised themselves as men then it is no wonder that they have gone unrecognized. Major General Marcia M. Anderson (the first black woman to hold the position of “Major General” in U.S. army history) alludes to the same claim. She said, “During the American Revolution, African-American women dressed in men’s clothing and fought beside their husbands” (Miller, 2012, para. 8). Although highly plausible, there is very little proof that this actually happened (but there is no proof that it did not happen). There is, however, proof of one black woman who served in the army during the late 1800s. After the Civil War, Cathay Williams enlisted as William Cathey in the U.S. Regular Army and was mistaken as a black man even after a quick medical examination by an army physician (Sheldon, 1998). “Cathey” was the first black woman recorded in history to serve in combat. It makes you wonder how often events like this has occurred in the past.

Today, women no longer need to disguise themselves as men to enlist in the military. The 1990s was the first time that the most branches of the military were open to women of color. Black women, Latinas, Asian-American, and Native American women were finally able to wear the U.S. military uniform, follow orders, and give orders (Enloe, 1998). This was due to several changes in racial and discriminating policies that had previously kept them from fully participating in the military. Black women were not allowed to be members of the WAVES until October 19, 1944 with the help of Mildred McAfee, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, and the Secretary of the Navy (Sheldon, 1998). Then, on July 26, 1948, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 which eliminated segregation, quotas, and discrimination in the military (Sheldon, 1998). Later, during the 1970s, separate women’s services were abolished in the military and “Congress opened the military service academies to women in 1976” (D’Amico, 1997, p. 219).

Cathay Williams/William Cathey
Women also have more choices as to which branches of the military they prefer to enlist in if they are searching for opportnuties beyond nursing and supportive/clerical positions. For example, women can enlist in the Air Force and the Marine Corps and many have been in combat zones (this time with the full knowledge of military officials) (Doa, 2011). Although it may seem as if gender discrimination was finally disappearing, the motivation behind removing the tight control over women’s participation in the military was political in nature. Military policymakers were looking for a means to end the male draft and women were the perfect substitutes to fill the void (Enloe, 1998).

African-American women were huge responders to the change in women’s admittance into the military. In 1993, black women made up 33.6% of all active-duty women and 48% of the total 59,668 enlisted women serving in the army (Enloe, 1998). Today, 31% of the 167,000 enlisted women in the military are African-American (Doa, 2011). Many of the African-Americans in the military, both male and female, decided to enlist once they realized the few choices they had in the civilian job market (Davis, 1980; D’Amico, 1997). Black women especially were found to be high school recruits who needed assistance with college tuition and job training (Doa, 2011).

Maj. Charity E. Adams inspecting WAC members.
Gender discrimination and racism still exists in the military even with the high percentage of enlisted women and minority women. In any environment where men have always reigned supreme, women “intruders” will not receive warm welcomes. Women continue to be victims of sexual harassment and assault which can be used as an excuse to keep women out of the military (D’Amico, 1997). Motherhood and pregnancy are used as disqualifiers for women from service, so most tend to be unmarried (D’Amico, 1997). Military officials are still hesitant to send a large portion of women into combat zones simply because of their gender (D’Amico, 1997). And women of color are still largely unrecognized for their contributions to the military.

Male bravado in a male dominated environment are most likely the reason why black women have been eliminated from the story in Red Tails even though there are numerous women who took part in WWII (like Charity Adams Earley who was the Commander of an all-black WAC unit). There is an unwillingness (or incapability) to recognize black feminine energy. Masculinity and combat is championed in the film while women were only known to provide nursing services which were viewed as feminine and less important. I suppose it is silly to expect a group of white men to give recognition to black women when black men rarely recognize us for all that we have done for them.


Ann. (2011, July 12). Black women in America: Willa Beatrice Brown [Web log post]. Retrieved from

D’Amico, F. (1997). In Laurie L. Weinstein & Christie C. White (Eds.), Wives and warriors: Women and the military in the United States and Canada, pp. 199-234. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

Davis, G. (1980, July). Blacks in the military: Opportunity or refuge. Black Enterprise, 30(12), 22-30.

Doa, J. (2011, December 22). Black women enlisting at higher rates in U.S. military. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Enloe, C. (1998). Armed Forces. In Barbara S. Mankiller (Ed.), The reader’s companion to U.S. women’s history, pp. 38-39. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Ghajar, L. A. (2006). Earley, Charity Adams (1918-2002). In Bernard A. Cook (Ed.), Women and War: A Historical Encyclopedia from Antiquity to the Present (Vol. 1), pp. 159-160. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc.

Miller, R. (2012, February 24). First African-American woman to achieve rank of major general in U.S. army inspires many. Herald-Mail. Retrieved from

Sheldon, K. (1998). Brief history of black women in the military. Women in the Military Service for America Memorial Foundation. Retrieved from


Post a Comment