Joy Bright Hancock was a “Bright” light focused on serving her country and leading the fight for gender equality in the navy.
Joy worked hard to win the battle against gender confines. She did this by following the naval chain of command knowing her small victories would eventually help to win the war for America and its women.
It’s impossible to imagine the multi-pronged war that Joy waged at the turn of the twentieth century. She lost two husbands, one after the other when Joy was just in her twenties.
Both Lieutenant Charles Gray-Little and Commander Lewis Hancock died in horrific airship accidents. Joy was devastated and could easily have given up.
Deeply depressed, Joy gathered the strength and determination to overcome her grief, knowing her country need her and she make a difference.
All this despite the many barriers for women who enlisted as volunteer reserves in the Navy. Even though their work helped to put more men on the front lines, women were treated as peripheral or temporary replacements.
But Joy didn’t let that stop her and did what courageous woman do – she found a way around the impediments and forged a path for building a good life and progress for other women.
The first challenge was to show the Navy that the war wasn’t too dangerous for women and that women could work alongside men, united in their patriotism.
Having the fortitude to challenge a massive government system and gender-bias rules was not something to be taken lightly during this time. Consider the machoism of the time and the beliefs about what was considered a man’s job. But Joy identified a way around this prejudice by carefully planting ideas for change and encouraging their cultivation.
The first order of business was getting her male colleagues to agree to train women to assist in the engineering shops.
Joy asked for training stations to be set up alongside the men knowing this would ultimately show the men on the floor that women were capable. By building inroads and steady and manageable expectations, Joy’s ideas won favor. The best ideas were so good in fact that men claimed them as their own while Joy smiled knowingly from the sidelines.
Joy was unphased by this and reveled in the knowledge that slow progress was happening. By pushing for shared classrooms, Joy also knew the men and women would eventually develop a mutual respect for each other and learn to work out their differences.
Joy used this success to expand the job roles for women and began to set her sights on also increasing their geographic reach. Why couldn’t women handle overseas assignments with the proper training? Joy argued it was no different than being at home. Despite the inherent dangers women faced, they freed more men for the front lines and this translated into a winning navy.
In 1942, Joy became a lieutenant and the highest-ranking woman in the Bureau of Aeronautics.
This helped bolster her cause and she was granted permission to study the training methods of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).
Joy knew the RCAF already included women in their ranks so she could use this stealth move to drum up further support. Eventually, Joy persuaded the government to allow women to serve in Hawaii, Alaska, and parts of the Caribbean in 1944.
But Joy’s final victory came as Director of WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services). She successfully lobbied President Truman to sign the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act into law in 1948. And, in October of that year, Joy became one of the first women officers sworn into the regular Navy.
Joy retired in 1951 and married for the last time. Sadly, history seemed to repeat itself when her husband died two years later. In yet another act of bravery, Joy published her autobiography, Lady in the Navy: A Personal Reminiscence.
Today, Joy Bright Hancock’s name reminds women to work together with each other and America. There is a celebrated JBH organization in the Navy that provides female midshipmen with a place to discuss how to balance personal and career choices. A JBH Leadership Award is presented every year to a female yeoman in honor of Joy’s work.
Joy’s model for success is also an interesting one because the men who are part of the problem become part of the solution. By identifying ways to work together with those who challenge your ability or ideas, women can achieve a more universal success.
I realize from Joy’s story that there is still so much work and learning to be done. In many ways, Joy Bright Hancock’s life is a road-map reminding us not to lose sight of the most basic and shared goals we have in this world. Together, we should champion change, whether big or small, knowing the bright role it plays in helping women to harness their power.
To learn more about Joy, you can read her book, Lady in the Navy: A Personal Reminiscence.
According to the publisher, Naval Institute Press, “This personal account of those formative years has long been considered the best study available. Originally published in 1972 and out of print for nearly twenty-five years, it is now being reissued in paperback to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the birth of the WAVES.”