America’s military women have long forged new paths and opened opportunities for American women to contribute to the betterment of our nation. One such group of trailblazing women, known as the “Sacred 20,” became the first women to serve in the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps, established in 1908. Three superintendents of the Navy Nurse Corps, and at least four other members of the Sacred 20, are buried at Arlington National Cemetery (ANC).
The Sacred 20 at the Naval Hospital in Washington, D.C., ca. 1908.
The creation of the Navy Nurse Corps culminated a years-long struggle to allow women to serve as Navy nurses. After the U.S. Army’s successful use of contract nurses during the Spanish-American War in 1898, Congress passed a bill in 1901 to create the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. Surgeon General of the Navy Presley Marion Rixey (buried in Section 2) strongly believed that the Navy should also have a dedicated nursing corps staffed by highly-trained female nurses, and he campaigned for one to be created.
At the time, nursing was one of just a handful of professional occupations open to women—who could become nurses by attending a training school, often located at hospitals, where they learned specialized skills in a formal setting. Nursing offered women the opportunity to professionalize what, previously, had often been an informal, voluntary activity. Now, with training schools, examinations and licenses, female nurses formed a new community of professional women whose abilities far surpassed those of men doing nursing tasks in the Navy. Through nursing, women propelled themselves out of the domestic sphere and into the workforce. At the same time that women were fighting for the right to vote, nurses—and other women—tried to expand women’s roles in society.
Rixey’s plan for a Navy Nurse Corps finally became a reality in 1908. To be accepted for service, female nurses needed to have graduated from a hospital training school with professional qualifications and be deemed physically and morally fit for service. They received the same pay and benefits as women in the Army Nurse Corps, but they also struggled with the same challenges as the Army nurses. The military denied both groups of nurses actual rank and authority over the men in their care. This confusing status meant that nurses were neither officers nor enlisted service members, and they did not receive equal status to their male counterparts. The Navy Nurse Corps was not designated full military rank until February of 1944.
Members of the Sacred 20 outside of their quarters in Washington, D.C.
Similarly, due to racial discrimination, the Navy prohibited Black women from serving in the Navy Nurse Corps, even though Black women had opportunities to receive nursing training. The National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses had been organized the same year as the Navy Nurse Corps’ creation, yet Black women could not be admitted into the Navy Nurse Corps until early 1945, during World War II.
The Sacred 20—those pioneering first women to join the Navy Nurse Corps—proved to be an exceptional group of female leaders who shaped the Corps’ development in its first several decades. Three went on to become superintendents of the Navy Nurse Corps: Esther Voorhees Hasson, Lenah Sutcliffe Higbee and Josephine Beatrice Bowman, all of whom are buried at ANC. Their leadership contributed to the successful early evolution of the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps.
Esther Voorhees Hasson (pictured, right), buried in Section 3, served as the first superintendent. An experienced nurse, she had worked as an Army contract nurse during the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection prior to joining the Navy. After her naval service ended in 1911 with her resignation as superintendent, she became a reserve member of the Army Nurse Corps. At the onset of the World War I, the Army activated Hasson and sent her to Europe. She left active service in 1919 after making a major impact on both Army and Navy nursing.
Lenah Higbee, also buried in Section 3, served as the second superintendent from 1911 to 1922. For her leadership during World War I and the influenza pandemic, Higbee became one of the first women to receive the Navy Cross. In 1944, the USS Higbee was named for her, the first time that an American combatant vessel honored a female member of the Navy. The Navy christened a new ship in honor of Higbee in 2021.
The USS Higbee in the Pacific Ocean, May 2, 1970.
Josephine Beatrice Bowman, buried in Section 21, became the Corps’ third superintendent in 1922, and remained in that position until 1935. During World War I, Bowman had served as chief nurse at the Naval Hospital in Great Lakes, Illinois, leading its nurses through the influenza pandemic. She also led the first group of Navy nurses who served at sea on board the hospital ship USS Relief. Under Bowman’s leadership, the Navy Nurse Corps expanded and further professionalized while she tirelessly lobbied for better pay, benefits and equal military status for the women of the Corps.
Josephine Beatrice Bowman (center, 4th from right) with nursing staff on board the USS Relief, March 1921.
At least four other members of the Sacred 20 are buried at Arlington National Cemetery: Sara Cox (whose headstone is pictured at left), Elizabeth M. Hewitt, Martha Pringle and Sara B. Myer. They rest in Section 21, often called the Nurses Section. There, the Nurses Memorial (pictured, below) honors them and all military nurses. Unveiled in 1938, this art deco statue features a figure of a uniformed nurse, cape flowing, glancing down on the graves of her sisters who rest under her watch. Josephine Beatrice Bowman presided at the unveiling ceremony, connecting this event to that first cohort of women who inaugurated the Navy Nurse Corps.
The women of the Sacred 20 played a crucial role in developing military medicine and expanding women’s opportunities to officially serve in the armed forces. Through their pioneering leadership and achievements, they advanced both the profession of nursing and women’s status in American society. Here at Arlington National Cemetery, we are proud to highlight these women during Women’s History Month, and we honor their military service every day.
Image Credits (top to bottom):
1. Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC)
2. U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery
3. Official U.S. Navy photograph now in the collection of the National Archives
6. U.S. Army photo by Allison S. Finkelstein
7. U.S. Army photo/ANC
• Video: Remembering the Sacred 20 at Arlington National Cemetery
• Commemorating the Nurses of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic
• The Nurses Memorial
• Spanish-American War Nurses ANC Education Program materials
• Nurses in the Spanish-American War
• Notable Graves: Women
• Notable Graves: Medicine
• Spanish-American War Nurses Memorial
• Education Program: Navy Walking Tour