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Naval Institute: Women at Sea: 'It's All about Leadership'

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    Women at Sea: 'It's All about Leadership'

    By Lori Lyn Bogle
    Proceedings, March 2004


    In honor of Women's History Month, we review a recent symposium spanning 25 sometimes turbulent years of integrating women into the fleet. In jobs as diverse as training in an F/A-18F (left) on board the John C. Stennis (CVN-74) to moving ordnance with electric forklifts in the hangar bays of the Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72), "Navy women are just people, working hard and doing what all Sailors and Marines do," said one panelist.

    On 20 November 2003 more than 100 men and women gathered at the Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C., for a symposium titled, "Women at Sea: 25 Years and Counting." Cosponsored by the Surface Navy Association, the Naval Historical Foundation, and the Naval Historical Center and followed by a reception hosted by the Alliance for National Defense, the event celebrated the 25th anniversary of integrating Navy women into the fleet, which began with implementation of the "Women in Ships" program in November 1978.

    Retired Navy Vice Admiral Lee F. Gunn, president of the Surface Navy Association, opened the proceedings by challenging participants to listen and learn from the pioneer women present, including Rear Admiral Deborah A. Loewer, Vice Commander, Military Sealift Command, one of the first women in the Navy selected for shipboard duty and the first female surface warfare officer (SWO) to attain flag rank. Her stellar career at sea began in 1979 on board the USS Yosemite (AD-19) with her skipper's less-than-encouraging welcome: "I didn't ask for women on my ship. I don't want women on my ship. Find them something to do."

    Admiral Loewer told symposium participants that the Women in Ships program had its triumphs and at times faltered, but in the end historians would credit women in the surface warfare community with taking the lead in gender integration. "Since 1994 four women have successfully completed major commands at sea with three more on the way. We now," Loewer concluded, "embrace women at every level."

    Naval Reserve Commander Randy C. Balano, a civilian historian in the Office of Naval Intelligence currently completing a dissertation at Temple University titled, "At the Tip of the Trident: Integrating Women into the Fleet," offered a brief history of women in the fleet. The late Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt had provided the initial impetus in 1972 by issuing Z-gram 116, which aimed to open more enlisted ratings, career fields, and command opportunities to enlisted and officer women. Admiral Zumwalt also approved a pilot program to assign women as crewmembers in the hospital ship USS Sanctuary (AH-1). While the Navy pronounced successful the ship's 31 months under way with a mixed-gender crew, the service did not assign more women to crew ships until 1978. By that time, women were commanding ashore, and the service academies had begun admitting them.

    Commander Balano claimed "[t]hese sweeping changes were not welcomed by many traditionalists within Congress and the Navy," who protested the integration of women into the Naval Academy on the grounds that female midshipmen, barred from combat by law, "were depriving deserving men of admission and degrading the military readiness of the service." The Navy launched the Women in Ships program in 1978 with 54 female officers and 367 enlisted women on a variety of support ships after Federal District Judge John J. Sirica declared unconstitutional laws prohibiting women from serving at sea (on other noncombatants besides transport and hospital ships).

    The Navy commended the program for "good morale among male and female crewmembers," but further progress was hampered, according to Commander Balano, by a lack of female leadership "to serve as role models" and an inadequate number of billets for women SWOs. In 1983, the service expanded the program considerably, according to Commander Balano, when it "made an attempt to redress the shortcomings in women's career progression . . . by expanding opportunities for SWO women to be assigned temporary additional duty to the Sixth and Seventh Fleets and Mobile Logistics Support Force detachments for women helicopter pilots and explosive ordnance disposal officers."

    Commander Balano described the Women in Ships program as "a qualified success." Significant progress in gender integration did not occur, however, until negative publicity and heightened congressional scrutiny engendered by the USS Safeguard (ARS-50) scandal in 1987 and the infamous 1991 Tailhook convention prompted the service incrementally to eliminate remaining policies that excluded women from serving at sea. She claimed both scandals exposed endemic sexual harassment of women throughout the Navy. By 1992 Navy officials, who were "poised and determined to distance themselves from the [Tailhook] scandal by becoming champions of the integration of women," urged Congress to repeal the combat exclusion laws. The Defense Authorization Act of 1994 did just that and included "the establishment of specific gender-neutral physical requirements for any job specialty requiring strength, endurance, or cardiovascular capacity." Commander Balano concluded, "Although battered by tempests generated by colliding fronts of social change and ingrained traditions the Navy weathered the storms and charted a new course, with women at the helm."

    Bureaucratic Warfare

    The first of two panels consisted of three retired captains who all served at one time as director of the Office for Women's Policy (OP-01W)—Kathleen Mae Bruyere, Georgia Clark Sadler, and Sarah S. McCullom. They discussed the bureaucratic warfare surrounding the integration of women at sea and the importance of effective leadership in the success of the program. Captain Bruyere, one of the five women who participated in the original class-action lawsuit overturning the law that forbade women from serving in the fleet, claimed the Navy never appealed the Sirica decision because the service's top echelon secretly supported the integration of women.

    A panel of three retired Navy captains, each a former director of the Office for Women's Policy—here, from left to right, with master of ceremonies retired Vice Admiral Lee F. Gunn, Surface Navy Association president, and Naval Reserve Commander Randy Balano, are Kathleen Mae Bruyere, Georgia Clark Sadler, and Sarah S. McCullom—agreed the bureaucratic warfare that accompanied incorporating women into the fleet was formidable. Effective leadership, they also agreed, was key to integration's success.

    Captain Sadler, whose tenure encompassed the beginning of the Women in Ships program, credited the successes and failures of the program to three levels of leadership. Commanding officers, who established the command climate and handed out discipline, were largely responsible for crew perceptions and reactions to women on board. COs who assigned women in jobs throughout the ship and ensured discipline was meted out fairly, regardless of the sailor's sex, had successful tours and efficient and effective crews. The chiefs, according to Sadler, "turned out to be more positive than any other group about the impact of women on the ship." Because the women were well educated and posed few disciplinary problems, the chiefs saw them as an asset that helped them accomplish their mission. Sadler claimed that junior petty officers, weighed down by their new responsibilities, had the most negative views regarding gender integration. "I found," Sadler claimed, "that a lot of them were just intimidated by the women. . . . The women were smart. They were getting promoted. They just felt very uncomfortable in trying to cope."

    Captain McCullom discussed early difficulties with pregnancy while on active duty. "We worked very hard to try to educate women and to assist in reducing the pregnancy rate." The ships with the lowest rates, according to McCullom, were those with "good leadership starting at the very top. You'll see if you look at them," she continued, "that those ships are the same ones with the low rates of UCMJ [Universal Code of Military Justice], high rates of retention, low rates of alcohol incidents—it all goes back to leadership."

    From the Deck Plates

    I detested the "Gee look at them aren't they cute" coverage of women at sea, and still do. Navy women are just people, working hard and doing what all sailors and Marines do. I thought the publicity exacerbated the resentment of the men who were working just as hard but getting little or no attention. The best experience of my seagoing life was many years later, when I boarded the USS John C. Stennis. . . . Other than the normal courtesy afforded to any other 06 on a senior embarked staff, no one even noticed me. There were women on the quarterdeck, the CDO was a woman, women were driving forklifts with ordnance in the bomb bay, there were women on the bridge at sea and in the engine room. They were just Stennis sailors, that's how the CO, the command master chief, and their peers treated them, and the whole crew was a great team as a result. It took 20 years to get there, but I was so pleased to see it finally happen.

    Captain Donna L. Hopkins,
    U.S. Naval Reserve
    Two researchers on "Women on Ships" seek your help. If you are willing to be interviewed please contact the following Ph.D. candidates. Historian Randy Balano at rbalano@nmic.navy.mil and Sociologist Judith Vendrzyk at Judith_vendrzyk@insightbb.com

    The second panel provided a view from the deck plates with three pioneer women who served at sea, retired Navy Captain Susan Canfield, Retired Navy Commander Catherine A. Leahey, and Naval Reserve Captain Donna Hopkins, along with the program director for the Naval Historical Foundation, Dr. David F. Winkler. "Oral history is why we are here today," Winkler charged, and asked the panel a series of questions based on a questionnaire each woman had submitted regarding her personal experiences at sea. Captain Canfield claimed she only encountered subtle hostility. "Reporting aboard Sanctuary, and later Puget Sound (AD-38)," she wrote in her questionnaire, "was little different from reporting to any other command; I didn't attend a formal ship's indoctrination program in either instance. I don't recall any unusual trepidations or surprises." Her earlier experience as operations officer at an all male command had prepared her well. "In my experience, problems that did arise as women were assigned to ships were due to misconceptions (by both men and women) or no conception at all." Commander Leahey and Captain Hopkins, who served together on board the USS Point Loma (AGDS-2), remember considerably more hostility when they arrived. "There was harassment, physical and verbal assault, lack of support from the leadership, little or no help from most peers, and a distinctly unpleasant atmosphere during the first months on my first ship," Captain Hopkins wrote. "It was frankly awful." Commander Leahey claimed that her first commanding officer, "apparently thought women at sea were a joke and actually offered a cruiser to swap us for 10 new movies. Most of the warrant officers studiously ignored me or tried to shock me with their graphic—and grossly over-embellished—tales of sexual conquests on liberty." Captain Hopkins claimed conditions improved considerably with the arrival of better leadership: "The new CO made a huge difference. He wanted the ship and every member of the crew to succeed, and he held people accountable for what they did, not what gender they happened to be. To this day, Captain Donald J. O'Shea is my hero for the way he healed that wounded crew. It was my first personal experience with what real leadership can accomplish." When asked how the program helped her as an individual, Captain Hopkins continued:

    I learned to make up my own mind about what leadership was, and when I felt I was hopelessly out of tune with my leaders, I resigned my regular commission with never a single regret. I have strong positive feelings of respect and regard for only a handful of the male officers with and for whom I served during that eight years; the others I have elected to forget. The latter let the whole Navy down by failing to rise to a revolutionary opportunity because of their personal prejudices, and many people were hurt as a result.

    Leadership at Sea

    Following lunch and a presentation on historical sources by Dr. Regina Akers of the Naval Historical Center, a roundtable titled "Leadership at Sea" featured senior officers, both male and female, and enlisted women. Navy Captain Michelle Janine Howard, among the second generation of women to serve at sea and the first African American woman to command a ship, found life as a midshipman at the Naval Academy difficult, leading her and her three roommates to make a pact not to quit before graduation. When she first went to sea in 1982, Captain Howard faced rude comments regarding both her race and sex. By the time she was a commanding officer, however, she had come to appreciate and transcend a crew's discomfort with leaders who did not resemble the majority on the ship.

    Navy Captain Linda M. Lewandowski claimed that one of her guiding principles was that "gender shouldn't be used to get ahead. It should be performance." Navy Commander Kirk S. Lippold, who commanded the USS Cole (DDG-67) when she was attacked by terrorists in Yemen, said his formula for commanding mixed-gender ships was to never separate women from men in discussions. "Every subject you address should be handled head-on with no differentiation between the sexes," he said. Navy Captain Donna Looney was a seamen apprentice when she first went to sea and found few female mentors to show her the way. Force Master Chief Jacqueline L. K. DiRosa, the first female senior enlisted detailed to the Officer Indoctrination School, agreed and looked to men for her early role models.

    Following the roundtable discussion, Vice Admiral Gerald L. Hoewing, Chief of Naval Personnel, energized the audience with his address on "Where We are Heading." The remaining issues regarding the integration of women at sea are "minimal," according to him, "because our policies are sound." Claiming this year as the best year for the Navy in history, with high enlistment rates and the lowest attrition in a decade, Admiral Hoewing charged that the Navy still needed improvement in increasing the number of female officers in the unrestricted line. The Navy was currently delaying any increase in the number of enlisted women assigned to sea billets, he explained, until more racks could be designated for their use. In the future, however, conditions would improve as the service focused toward getting more women into technical fields and designed weapon systems with gender integration in mind.

    Thomas G. Gooding, a design manager for cruiser modernization on the Ticonderoga (CG-47)-class cruisers, next gave a brief presentation on berthing availability. "Shipboard real estate is very expensive," he explained, but the Navy was committed to improve habitability in order to increase retention. In response to a number of questions from the audience, Gooding claimed he had not received a single request from the Navy to build more female berthing. He said that in some cases increasing space for women would entail only changing a urinal to a water closet. "This stuff is not rocket science," he explained.

    The last panel consisted of five junior officers who discussed current conditions for women in the fleet. In 1993, the crew on Lieutenant Commander Nicholie T. Bufkin's first ship, the USS Platte (AO-186), was one-third female. With the male/female ratio at such high levels, she perceived few significant difficulties with gender integration. Her biggest leadership challenge was routinely being assigned to deal with shipboard counseling duties based on her gender. While Lieutenant Nichol Marie Schine discovered it was relatively easy to excel as a woman in the nontraditional field of electronics, her choices have been limited by her gender. Chief Information Systems Technician (Surface Warfare) Cynthia Chambliss stressed the importance of first-term enlisted women going to sea as soon as possible if they hoped to compete evenly with men. Lieutenant Sarah T. Self-Kyler, deputy for Women's Policy and Women at Sea co-coordinator, sees a number of the issues women face at sea as the same as those faced by men. When a member of the audience asked if the average female SWO believed she could have both a naval career and a family, Lieutenant (junior grade) Melody A. Dotson agreed with the rest of the panelists that to do so and remain competitive would be exceedingly difficult. "I never could figure out," she said, "how to do motherhood well and do the Navy well."

    Admiral Loewer added from the audience that a SWO leave of absence or sabbatical is currently under consideration by the White House Office of Management and Budget to be followed by congressional hearings. If signed into law, male and female SWO junior officers, who are "outstanding performers," could apply for a year leave of absence to pursue a variety of outside activities such as graduate school without interfering with their career progression. Although not written into the language of the proposal, this year also could provide women with an additional opportunity to have a baby while not at sea. The admiral later reminded the participants that many of the concerns expressed regarding pregnancy and work/life balance were serious problems faced by women outside the Navy as well.

    Admiral Loewer closed the conference by echoing the mantra of the day: "The CO and master chiefs set the tone for the ship. It's all about leadership." Finally, she stressed the importance of emotional fortitude. Navy women, she urged in closing, needed "the courage to make tough decisions in tough circumstances."

    Associate Professor Bogle teaches social and cultural military history at the U.S. Naval Academy. Her book, Strategy for Survival: American Civil Religion, the National Will and the Military in the Early Cold War, is being published in 2004 by Texan A&M Press.

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