Nursing Civil Rights: Gender and Race in the Army Nurse Corps by Charissa J. Threat (review)
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Nursing Civil Rights: Gender and Race in the Army Nurse Corps. By Charissa J. Threat. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015. Pp. 132. $85.00 cloth; $25.00 paper)

Charissa J. Threat’s Nursing Civil Rights: Gender and Race in the Army Nurse Corps examines the admittance policies of the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) to reconceptualize the civil rights movement of the 1960s. By combining narratives of African American women and white men and analyzing the Army Nurse Corps’ policies regarding both race and gender, Threat links together gender and racial equality to provide a new framework in which to understand the 1960s civil rights movement.

African American women and white men, according to Threat, employed gendered language to justify their suitability for the corps. [End Page 273] African American women insisted that, like their white female counterparts, their femininity “naturally” positioned them to be good nurses. On the one hand, society assumed women had a gentle and comforting touch, while on the other hand many believed that women would motivate servicemen by reminding them of sweethearts back home. Threat demonstrates that as African American women asserted that they too fit the model of the feminine nurse, they challenged conservative army policies regarding race while reinforcing those concerning womanhood. White men, by contrast, argued that women, because they were physically weaker than men and were sensitive to traumatic situations, were not suited to be near combat lines. By petitioning for their admittance, white male nurses challenged the public’s perception that nursing constituted woman’s work.

Threat’s second contribution involves expanding the grand narrative of civil rights struggles in the 1960s to include white male nurses. By petitioning to perform “women’s work,” white male nurses faced discrimination based on their sex and attacks on their masculinity and sexuality. Threat insists that the ANC’s excuse that male nurses would require accommodations that the army could not afford was similar to the argument made in response to African American female nurses and are indicative of a parallel discrimination between the groups.

The greatest strength of Threat’s work is her willingness to call attention to the history of white men’s efforts to join the corps, which has been often overlooked. Additionally, her analysis of how gendered language played a role in ANC politics is thorough, uncovering discourses present in ANC policies as well as in petitions from the nurses themselves. However, her assumption that African American women’s and white men’s fight for inclusion in the corps mirrored one another ignores the particular obstacles that both of these groups faced. One reason for excluding men, for example, was to protect the corps as a woman-run institution since army leadership assumed men would rise in rank and command—a risk not applicable to the corps’ view of African American female nurses, who were often overlooked for promotion. In this way, discrimination against white men was not [End Page 274] because they were inferior, but rather superior to female nurses. The story of white men’s fight for inclusion, while important, does not link with African American women’s challenges.

Threat’s arguments make Nursing Civil Rights an important work in understanding the gender and racial structure of the Army Nurse Corps in the 1960s and 1970s. While Nursing Civil Rights reads as the combination of two separate and distinct projects with similar questions, the previously unheard stories of African American women’s and white men’s struggle for equality are a worthwhile and important contribution to the study of gender and war.

Margaret B. Montgomery

MARGARET B. MONTGOMERY is a graduate student at the University of Alabama. She researches twentieth-century gender, focusing on war and society. Her current project is about the Women’s Army Corps in the 1960s and 1970s.

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