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Succeeding to Command

Captain Joan Rhodes Hankey


White woman wearing glasses in naval uniform

Lieutenant Commander Joan Rhodes Hankey, U.S. Navy, c. 1970 (Wilson College, Hankey Center for the History of Women's Education).

Joan Rhodes Hankey was born on 3 June 1937 in New Kensington, Pennsylvania. A graduate of New Kensington High School, she enrolled at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. After meeting military recruiters during her junior year, she made the decision to join the Navy after graduation. In June 1959, Hankey received her bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in mathematics. Three days later, she was swore in and sent to Newport, Rhode Island. [1]

After three months in Newport, Hankey received her commission as an ensign in the Naval Reserve.[2] The Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948 had put an end to the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) as an auxiliary service, but the term “WAVE” continued to be used to identify female officers until the 1970s. In 1959, all women graduating from Women Officer School (WOS) received a commission in the Naval Reserve. They could apply for the regular Navy after six months of active duty. At this time, a female line officer could not be promoted above the rank of lieutenant commander.

In the early 1960s, female general unrestricted line officers remained concentrated in administrative and clerical billets.[3] After graduation, Hankey headed to Western Sea Frontier (COMWESTSEAFRON), Treasure Island, San Francisco. Her first billet was as an assistant communications watch officer (ACWO) with an additional duty as a crypto-analysis officer (supervising cryptographic processing of messages). Within a year, she was designated communications watch officer (CWO). After her required six months, Hankey applied for a conversion to a commission in the regular Navy, which she received that October.[4] Hankey stayed in the regular Navy for another 23 years.

During the Vietnam War, all of those on active duty were authorized to wear the National Defense Service Medal. This was the first ribbon that Hankey wore on her uniform. Only nine female unrestricted line officers were sent to Vietnam during the war. No enlisted women served overseas in Vietnam. Nonetheless, the war did force changes that advanced the position of women serving in the Navy. The war necessitated an increase in the size of the armed forces. In November 1967, President Lyndon Johnson signed Public Law 90-130 into law, which removed the 2 percent ceiling on the number of women on active duty. This new law retained restrictions on women serving in combat while allowing women to be promoted to senior grades. Thus, the war forced a change in the law that improved the career opportunities for women like Hankey serving as unrestricted line officers in the Navy.

The following year, Lieutenant Hankey was selected for admission to the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS). This school had been formally integrated in 1956, but the number of women in these types of programs continued to be disproportionate. Women were allowed to attend to increase their professional knowledge, but they were excluded from “courses designed primarily for seagoing officers.”[5] Hankey’s female superiors had advised her to apply for training in computer sciences given the increasing demand for this expertise. Hankey subsequently pursued a degree in computer systems management. This program was designed to develop an officer’s ability “to distinguish the capabilities and limitation of digital computers in various applications and to effectively manage computer-based activities or data processing centers.”[6] Hankey graduated from NPS with a master’s degree in computer systems management in December 1969.[7] She was the only woman to graduate from this program in 1969.

After graduation, Lieutenant Commander Hankey was assigned to the Personnel Accounting Machine Installation, U.S. Pacific Fleet (PAMIPAC), in San Diego. PAMIPAC was one of three PAMIs that provided computer support for the Enlisted Personnel Distribution Office (EPDOPAC) for the fleet to submit enlisted billet requirements to the Bureau of Naval Personnel (BUPERS). She was originally assigned as department head for data conversion. Within a year, the transfer of the commanding officer triggered her succession to executive commander. This transition presented a problem.  According to Navy Regulations, Article 1383, women were not permitted to “succeed to command” except in the administration of female personnel.

The loophole became apparent when Commander Dorothy V. Holliday received orders to take command of a Naval Reserve surface division in Gulfport, Mississippi.[8] With the full support of her commanding officer, Hankey used this event to pose the question of “succession in command” to Captain Marie Kelleher at BUPERS.  With Kelleher’s guidance,  Hankey was ordered to assume command in the absence of a commanding officer. This workaround allowed Hankey to become the first female executive officer of a Navy command that did not involve the administration of women.

Beginning in July 1970, the status of women in the Navy began to improve with the succession of a new Chief of Naval Operations. Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr., conducted a series of study groups aimed at improving the quality of life in the Navy through personnel policy reform.[9] In March 1971, he convened the first retention studies group for women in the Navy. These studies confirmed that women serving in the Navy were currently underutilized.[10] The status of women as line officers was uneven. Personnel policies limited their recruitment, their training, and their detailing. In 1971, there were 2,790 female officers on active duty out of 74,992 officers serving in the Navy.[11] The success of the movement toward an all-volunteer force after the end of the military draft in 1973 depended on an increase in these numbers.

The year 1972 marked the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the WAVES. In honor of this anniversary, Captain Robin Quigley of the Bureau of Naval Personnel ordered a stop to the use of acronym WAVE and a suspension of the support system for the separate administration of the women in February. This change was a shock to the women in service. Hankey was one of those who felt a strong affiliation to the acronym and continued to use it unofficially. Aside from sentimental feelings, Quigley’s decision was symbolic of a separation from the history of WAVES as ladies’ auxiliary service and the desire to fully integrate women into the Navy.[12] In March, the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment solidified Zumwalt’s goals for women’s equality in the Navy. In August 1972, Admiral Zumwalt disseminated Z-gram 116 that stated his goal of ensuring equal opportunities for women in the Navy, and acknowledged his intention to put women on ships.[13] Women were finally allowed leadership roles in units that included men.

While Zumwalt’s reforms were putting on the pressure, Lieutenant Commander Hankey felt stuck. After the transfer of PAMIPAC’s commanding officer in June 1972, she did not succeed to command.  Another man was assigned to take his place. It took another year before Hankey finally became the commanding officer of PAMIPAC. From September 1974 to February 1975, she oversaw the development of a new computerized personnel system for all of the personnel accounting machine installations. This process was part of the merging of these installations into Personnel Management Information Center (PERMIC) in New Orleans.  In June, the newly promoted Commander Hankey was awarded the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal for meritorious service.[14] The award recognized her technical expertise in automatic data processing (ADP) systems and her management skills during the transfer of resources from PAMI-Atlantic (PAMIPLANT) to PAMIPAC. For her next assignment, Hankey received orders to detach from San Diego for PERMIC in New Orleans. Before her report date, she received news that PERMIC would be subsumed by the Enlisted Personnel Management Center (EPMAC), also in New Orleans. The goal was to consolidate into one command all the computer functions and management support necessary to support all enlisted personnel.[15] Consolidation of command in New Orleans did not hold promise for her career. Consolidation meant less leadership positions and less opportunities for both men and women for command.

The boat ride across the Mississippi River to New Orleans every day also reminded her of the status of women in the Navy. The crew of the shuttle boat were enlisted men. Every passage required an officer-in-charge; however, female officers were not allowed to take temporary or permanent command of the vessel in 1975 (women were not assigned to non-combatant ships until 1978). Neither Hankey nor the one other female officer in her command were ever called upon to take command of the boat launch. The inability of women to serve at sea continued to put female line officers at a disadvantage in their careers compared to their male counterparts.

The disestablishment of PERMIC and the transition to EPMAC coincided with the end of Hankey’s tour in New Orleans. In 1976, Hankey became executive officer of PERMIC. This position was not the leadership role that she had experienced at PAMIPAC. She had the title, but she lacked authority. After the transfer of the commanding officer of PERMIC in May 1976, Hankey briefly assumed command until the end of June, when the disestablishment of PERMIC was completed. In July, PERMIC was subsumed by EPMAC. Hankey became the head of the computer operations department during the reorganization. Due to the long-standing pattern of giving command positions to those with sea experience, it took time for women to get promoted to the point at which they could compete for command positions. Hankey’s command of PAMIPAC, and later, of PERMIC, stemmed from her specialization in automated data processing and personnel management.

After PERMIC, the detailer for men and women in the general line designator did not seem to know where to put Commander Hankey.  Another female alumnus of the Naval Postgraduate School assisted her in getting a by-name request for orders to the Naval Data Automation Command (NAVDAC), located at Washington Navy Yard, in 1978. While at NAVDAC, Hankey became the project officer for the PERSPAY Project, which aimed to consolidate all the Navy’s financial records at Navy Finance Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

After missing out on an opportunity for command at Naval Regional Data Automation Command (NARDAC) in San Francisco, Hankey began to feel that her career in the Navy was nearing its end. The command at NARDAC had been granted to a male officer with no expertise in computer systems management. In August 1980, Commander Hankey was assigned as staff to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) at the Pentagon. She replaced Captain Robert J. Coontz as the assistant for automation. She was the first and the last woman in this position. After her three years as the assistant for automation, the position would be eliminated.

White woman wearing glasses in naval uniform and bucket hat

Captain Joan Rhodes Hankey, U.S. Navy, c. 1980 (Wilson College, Hankey Center for the History of Women's Education).

In 1981, the selection list for captain remained split by gender. This selection was the fifth and the last promotion for Captain Joan Hankey, who retired two years later, on 1 September 1983, at the age of 46. After her retirement, changes to detailing for general unrestricted line officers improved and allowed more women to occupy a wider range of billets.

In 2000, Wilson College honored her with an honorary doctorate of humane letters, given to those who distinguish themselves through their contributions to society. She died on 7 June 2020.

In her memoirs, Hankey advocated for removal of the artificial barriers created to prevent women like herself from going to sea and hinder women rising through the ranks as line officers. 

—Kati Engel, NHHC Communication and Outreach Division


NHHC Resources

Naval Personnel Since 1945: Women in the Navy

Navy Women in Ships

Ladies Wear the Blue, 1974 (YouTube)


Other Resources

About the Hankey Center, Wilson College

Boldly Proud: Second 50 Years, 1920–1969, Wilson College [PDF]



[1] The personal details of this profile of Captain Joan Rhodes Hankey, U.S. Navy, were obtained from her unpublished memoir written in 2008. This manuscript is currently held in C. Elizabeth Boyd ’33 Archives at Hankey Center for the History of Women’s Education at Wilson College.

[2] WAVE Officer Candidate Program,” 1963, Women Veterans Historical Project (WVHP), University of North Carolina-Greensboro (UNCG).

[3] Department of the Navy, “Chart Your Future as a Woman Officer,” 10 May 1961, NHHC, accessed 11 March 2022.

[4Navy Register: Officers of the U.S. Navy and Marine (1962), vol. 1, Navy Department Library, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, DC.

[5] Naval Postgraduate School, Catalogue for the Academic Year 1956–1957 (Monterey, CA: Naval Postgraduate School, 1956), 154.

[6]Naval Postgraduate School, Catalogue for 1970–1972 (Monterey, CA: Naval Postgraduate School, 1970), 41.

[7Catalogue for 1970–1972, 143.

[8] “The Lady Commands,” letter to the editor, All Hands, December 1970, 62.

[9] Z-Gram #2, dated 14 July 1970, Retention Study Groups,” Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC), 11 March 2022.

[10] Jean Ebbert and Marie-Beth Hall, Crossed Currents: Navy Women from WWII to Tailhook (Washington, DC: Brassey’s Inc, 1993), 163–164.

[11] NAVPERS 156758, Navy and Marine Corps Military Personnel Statistics, 31 July 1971, in Beth F. Coye,“The Restricted Unrestricted Line Officer: The Status of the Navy’s Woman Line Officer,” Naval War College Review 24, no. 7 (1972): 53.

[12] Ebbert and Hall, Crossed Currents, 164–166.

[13] Z-Gram #116; dated 7 August 1972, Equal Rights and Opportunities for Women,” accessed 3 March 2022.

[14Register of Commissioned and Warrant Officers of the United States Navy and Reserve Officers on Active Duty (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1977), 228; Joan Rhodes Hankey [Electronic Record], Awards Information Management System (AIMS) Files, Department of the Navy, 1947–, Record Group 428; National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD. 

[15] General Accounting Office, Military Personnel: Navy Enlisted Personnel Management, Fact Sheet for Congressional Requesters (Washington, DC: General Accounting Office, 1990), 10.

Published: Thu Mar 17 11:17:29 EDT 2022