By Kris Kieper
Chief Executive Officer, YWCA of Rockford
February and March are reflective months for me as both provide insight and inspiration for the work of the YWCA Rockford; February is Black History month, which leads into Women’s History month in March.
There are so many women in history we’ve never heard of, never celebrated their efforts and impact on our world today. As guilty as historians have been of neglecting women in history, they’ve been even more neglectful to women of color.
While we all learned of Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks, there are other notable African-American women whose names rarely come to light. Women like C.J. Walker, who after her husband’s lynching created a specialty hair line and became the first self-made female millionaire in the U.S.
Or Charlotte Hawkins Brown, who in 1902 founded the Palmer Institute for African-American students; the school ran for 60 years and now houses a museum that explores the history of African-American women and education.
Thinking through the neglectful history brought to mind a woman of a more recent time, a woman I had the pleasure of knowing but didn’t fully appreciate until later. We don’t necessarily think of legends living in our own time, so it wasn’t until recently that I began to think of her as such.
I would wager few know the name Sheridan Cadoria, and she probably doesn’t realize the long-term impact she has had on young women, especially young women of color. I had the absolute pleasure of working with her in Washington, D.C. I knew her then as Gen. Cadoria. She was one of the most elegant women I’d ever met, softly spoken, encouraging and always smiling. You’d have been a fool to allow the soft, southern accent and expertly coiffed hair fool you; she had a backbone of steel, commanded attention, and was a pioneer for women and African Americans in the armed forces.
Gen. Cadoria grew up in the South during a time of intense segregation and Jim Crow laws; she entered the Women’s Army Corps in 1961 as a first lieutenant but couldn’t serve as a platoon leader because she was black. From Fort McClellan, Ala., to Vietnam to the Pentagon to the White House and many posts in between, she navigated a highly decorated military career of “firsts” that is impressive: she was the first African-American woman selected to attend the U.S. Army Command & General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., the first African-American woman to attend the U.S. Army War College at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and the first African-American woman to achieve the rank of brigadier general in the U.S. Army.
Gen. Cadoria was one of the first women to serve as a military police officer, the first woman to command an all-male battalion, and was the first woman to lead a criminal investigation brigade. In 1985, she became the first African-American woman to serve as a director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
After 29 years of service, Gen. Cadoria retired in 1990. At the time, she was the highest ranking African-American woman in the United States armed forces and one of only four female generals in the U.S. Army.
There are so many people Gen. Cadoria influenced; so many that I’m sure today, she’d never remember most of us. I’m proud to recognize a pioneer of our lifetime, and I’m honored to have benefitted from her encouragement and mentorship.
Kris Kieper is chief executive officer of the YWCA of Rockford and a community member of the Rockford Register Star Editorial Board.
Article published in the Rockford Register Star