- Nursing Civil Rights: Gender and Race in the Army Nurse Corps by Charissa J. Threat
segregation, WWII, Vietnam War, discrimination, integration, gender
In Nursing Civil Rights: Gender and Race in the Army Nurse Corps, Charissa J. Threat accomplishes her purpose of broadening our thinking about discrimination history beyond race and gender to economic rights and labor as part of an equal rights agenda. Her narrative vehicle is the story of the integration (of both race and gender) of the Army Nurse Corps between World War II and the Vietnam War. The Army Nurse Corps is an effective subject choice for her analysis: Nurses are the largest group of women workers in the United States, and the Army Nursing Corps provides a novel way of thinking about gender and race as cofactors in reshaping American perspectives of masculinity, femininity, and race within the context of changing ideas about social structures, citizenship, and nationhood.
Threat argues that there is a shared history between African American women nurses and white men who are nurses (very little data exist on African American men). In the introduction, and in the five chapters and the conclusion that follow, Threat’s narrative weaves African American women’s and white men’s attempts to join the war effort through their professional nursing role. Although race figures highly in the book’s narrative, both groups, their supporters, and their detractors, used gender as an argument for inclusion and exclusion and as a way to solidify and undermine traditional gender assumptions and redefine the work of nursing.
In Chapter 1, Threat traces the movement of nursing from a domestic, unpaid responsibility to paid work, tying in the role of war and the growth of hospitals to the social perception of nursing as women’s work. Threat begins to detail African American nurses’ integration campaign during World War II in chapter 2. African American nurses used gender as an argument for their inclusion in the Army Nurse Corps, emphasizing that race should not be a factor in the care of soldiers. All of the military branches denied African American women entry into the Nurse Corps (or kept a strict quota) until 1944 when a severe shortage of nurses in both battle and civilian hospitals forced policy changes. Lifting the quotas for African American nurses was a first step to help alleviate the shortage, although most of these nurses were ultimately assigned to segregated hospitals. The threat of a draft of primarily white women nurses in 1945, through the Nurse Draft Bill, pushed the Army to open the Nurse Corps as public sentiment overwhelmingly favored inclusion of all nurses—except men who were nurses.
The military leadership, including women officers, used a conservative gender argument against the inclusion of men of any race into the Army Nurse Corps. Men who were nurses were denied nursing roles during World War II and were assigned as Corpsmen or medical technicians, and they only began to break the gender barrier in 1955 via an amendment to the 1947 Army-Navy Nurse Act. In chapter 3, Threat [End Page 363] examines the very delicate (and sometimes not so delicate) dance between men who nursed and the woman-dominated hierarchy in the Army Nurse Corps. Women feared encroachment on their domain in the Corps and actively resisted the inclusion of men, although men were admitted to membership in the American Nurses Association beginning in 1930. The military hierarchy proved harder to crack. Threat points out that African American nurses and men who nursed could have seen their causes as compounded and supplemental, but their efforts were divisive. African American nurses were better organized, connecting to the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses and to the nascent Civil Rights Movement. They also effectively and consistently used the rhetoric of gender—as women they were naturally best suited for nursing roles. These arguments resonated with the military leadership and the public, who believed that gender rather than race determined who should care for soldiers during World War...