Hidden Figures of Women's History: Cathay Williams

Cathay Williams was the first African-American woman to serve in the U.S. Army.
Valerie Haeder
Grade Level

Formerly enslaved Cathay Williams, in an Army uniform, carrying a rifle.
Formerly enslaved Cathay Williams, in an Army uniform, carrying a rifle.

Nearly 80 years before women officially were allowed to serve in the U.S. Army, former slave Cathay Williams did so, patrolling the western United States as a member of the all-black Buffalo Soldiers.

Cathay was not unfamiliar with military life. She was a slave in Jefferson City, Mo., until the Union Army liberated her, at which point she traveled with the troops, working as a cook and laundress. But when the Civil War ended, so did Williams’ job.

Needing work, she enlisted in the Army—as a man, William Cathay. But being illiterate, she couldn’t spell her “last” name, and her service was recorded under the name William Cathey. Standing 5 feet 9 inches, Cathay was taller than her fellow privates and garnered no undue curiosity or suspicion.

Historians make much of Williams’ trailblazing service. But, she didn’t do it for fanfare or to pave the way for women in the military. She didn’t have the luxury to consider her legacy. Her benign deceit was practical: A male soldier would earn more than a female cook.

“I wanted to make my own living and not be dependent on relations or friends,” she declared.

The most distinguishing characteristic of her Army career was her repeated hospitalizations (posthumous analysis determined that she suffered from diabetes, as evidenced by the amputation of all 10 toes prior to her death). Incredibly, five hospital visits during her soldier days didn’t yield her secret. In fact, her discharge, after nearly two years of service, never mentioned Williams’ womanhood. Her commanding officer cited Cathey “unable to do military duty” due to disability.

Still, the history is up for debate: Some sources claim she was discovered as a woman, while others say she was discharged with no one the wiser to her female identity.

After her discharge, Williams returned to life as Cathay Williams, working in the very jobs she tried to avoid by enlisting as a Buffalo Soldier. She was a cook and a laundry woman before being hospitalized again, this time in Colorado, her final home. After over a year in the hospital she was bereft of money. What could she do? She harkened back to her days in the Army and applied for a military pension. Her application was denied—but not because, as a woman, she had served in the Army illegally. Instead, authorities declared she had no physical disability, even though she had been discharged because of a pre-existing disability.

Still today, it is unknown whether the Army knew that William Cathey ever was Cathay Williams, a lone female making her way in the world.

This story appears in the March/April edition of Library of Congress Magazine. Valerie Haeder is a reference librarian in the Serial and Government Publications Division.
Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    Summarize the text in two to three sentences.
    Responses will vary, but may include these: Cathay Williams, who'd formerly been enslaved, pretended to be a man so she could enlist in the army in order to make more money than she would have as a female cook. She was discharged from the army after repeated hospitalizations (for diabetes), but it is still unclear whether the army ever knew she was a woman.
  2. Question
    Reread the paragraph that begins, "Historians make much."
    a. What does it mean to be a trailblazer?
    b. What does it mean that Cathay "didn't have the luxury to consider her legacy"? Why not?
    c. How was her "deceit" or "deception" practical?
    a. A trailblazer is someone who paves the way for others to be able to do something not previously done before; a pioneer.
    b. She needed money to support herself, which was her main concern. Because she had so little money and needed to make a living, she didn't have time to consider what it would mean that she was the first woman to serve in the army.
    c. She lied in order to survive-not so people would remember her.
Reveal Answers
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