From time immemorial, untold barriers such as race and gender discrimination have been placed against the womenfolk, trying to contain their essence, their power, in a world which should provide them with the necessary tools to thrive, make an impact, and live on their own terms.
“I wanted to make my own living and not be dependent on relations or friends.”
Born to an enslaved mother and a free father in Missouri in 1844 and standing 5 feet 9 inches, as a teenager, Cathay Williams worked as a house slave on the Johnson plantation on the outskirts of Jefferson City, Missouri. In 1861, Union forces captured slaves who were then forced to serve in military support roles such as cooks, laundresses, or nurses. At just 17, Williams served as an Army cook and a washerwoman, during this period she got first-hand experience accompanying the infantry all over the country. Prohibition against women enlisting in the army held strong.
November 15, 1866, aged 22, driven by the burning desire to be self-reliant and serve her country, she enlisted as a man for a three-year engagement in the U.S army under the pseudonym William Cathay derived through the reversal of her name. She was assigned to the 38th United States Infantry Regiment after passing the mandatory medical examination. Her secret save with her cousin and a friend, both male. She lived and posed as a male soldier but shortly after, due to bouts of sicknesses which started with smallpox and frequent hospitalization, she got outed by the post surgeon who then informed the commanding officer. On October 14, 1868, she was honorably discharged by her commanding officer, Captain Charles E. Clarke.
“The post surgeon found out I was a woman, and I got my discharge. The men all wanted to get rid of me after they found out I was a woman. Some of them acted real bad to me,” Williams recalling said.
Undeterred, disability discharge regardless, she further enlisted with the 38th U.S. Infantry – which later formed part of the hailed Buffalo Soldiers. The pioneering Cathay Williams rewrote history as the first Black woman to enlist, and the only documented woman to serve in the United States Army in the 19th century, serving during the Indian Wars. This was nearly a century before the ban was lifted against women in the U.S army.
Her post-army career saw her head to the Fort Union, New Mexico where she served as a cook as well as took on jobs as a seamstress and laundress, during this time her inspiring story of pure determination which saw her break gender barriers in hopes of making an impact became widespread, her story was published Jan. 2, 1876 edition of the St. Louis Daily Times.
But Williams was plagued with overwhelming health challenges which led to her toes being amputated from diabetes, as well as suffered neuralgia, deafness, and rheumatism which forced her to apply for a military disability pension but according to conclusions from a doctor concluded she didn’t qualify because she had posed illegally as a man. It is said Cathay Williams died in 1893, shortly after being denied disability compensation.
Her legacy as a prisoner in the U.S Army who paved way for other women still lives on. In 2016, a bronze bust of Cathay Williams was unveiled outside the Richard Allen Cultural Center in Leavenworth, Kansas, and two years later in 2018, the Private Cathay Williams monument bench was unveiled on the Walk of Honor at the National Infantry Museum.