On Monday, a day before Women’s Equality Day, a commemoration of the ratification of the 19th amendment that in 1920 gave women the right to vote, Ruth Gaddy died in Charlotte.
I didn’t know who Ruth Gaddy was until her great niece Cassaundra e-mailed to tell me she was a pioneer. I did some research and discovered just how remarkable she was. And this week, as we acknowledge the strides women have made over the last near century, Gaddy’s story illuminates that journey.
Her place in U.S. history was cemented in the 1940s when she became one of about 850 African American women sent overseas as part of the only all-black female military unit in the European Theater of Operations during World War II. They were part of the 6888th Central Postal Battalion Unit – the Six Triple Eight – that arrived in Glasgow, Scotland, in February of 1945 on the Ile de France, the sister ship of the Queen Mary.
Their 11-day trip across the Atlantic was marked by scary brushes with the Germans. First, German U-boats gave chase, firing on them and forcing the convoy to make sharp maneuvers to avoid confrontation. Then, once they disembarked, a V1 rocket known as a Buzz Bomb, sent the female soldiers scurrying for shelter in the cold and snow. They then marched 20 miles to a train that carried them to Birmingham, England. There, they began their work sorting through thousands of pieces of backlogged mail.
This was important duty. As military leaders would acknowledge in a belated tribute in 2009, “for the morale of soldiers in war time, only one thing counts more than somewhere to sleep or something to eat. That one thing is mail from home... The 6888th Battalion broke all records for redistribution of mail to front line troops in the European theatre.”
And Col. David Griffith acknowledged an even more remarkable thing: “These were strong women who faced prejudice in the United States, but still managed to complete their mission, putting their country ahead of their own trials.”
It was something that Ruth Gaddy remarked on in interviews: “Our country has not been too kind to my people, but it is still the best country in the world and I pledge allegiance to her.”
After she graduated from Second Ward High School in 1938, she went to New York to work to save money for college. She returned to Charlotte still without enough and worked as an elevator operator, where she saw the ads about World War II and military service.
“That patriotic spirit begins to well up in you,,” she told the Observer in an interview two decades ago. One of her brothers was already fighting in the war. “I loved him dearly, and I wanted to go in and do my part. Also, I wanted to save money for school. Money, love and patriotism” got her to sign up in 1942.
Her sense of patriotism sustained her through those war years, as she and the others worked long hours with bombs dropping all around them in their location near the Darby Air Force Base. “I did have that extremely patriotic feeling and I still have it, and I'm very proud of me and all the other women.”
Gaddy traveled the world with the Army, got her GI benefits and returned to the states to get the education she so yearned for. She got a bachelors degree in sociology from Johnson C. Smith University in 1949 and a masters in education from New York University in 1952. She was a parole officer in New York and taught in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools for 20 years before retiring in 1983.
Of her military service, she told the Observer in 1993: “Like women in all the wars that came before, we made a very significant contribution in World War II... It was a little different for us as African-American women, harder in a way. We were not accorded the same ranks or respect or benefits that white WACs (Women’s Army Corps) were. But I think it was the first time people began to recognize that we were as capable as anyone else.”
Her words echo those of the suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1848 in the Seneca Falls Declaration, considered the founding document of the women’s equality movement: “Resolved, that woman is man’s equal – was intended to be so by the Creator, and the highest good of the race demands that she should be recognized as such.”
The work and lives of women like Ruth Gaddy have shown rather powerfully the truth of that declaration.