USN First Enlisted Women: Epilogue

The yeomen (F.) enhanced the legacy of the women who had previously supported the nation during wars, conflicts, and crises, and set an example for those who followed them.

Naval personnel and society at large need to know about these outstanding patriotic volunteers to better appreciate the opportunities available to women in today’s Navy and the costs of the freedoms they enjoy.

Military women have reached many significant milestones since 1918.

Congress established women reserve programs in the Army, Navy, and Coast Guard in 1942, and in the Marine Corps in 1943 in support of the World War II war effort.

The services commissioned their first woman officers and the Navy Nurse Corps members transferred from relative to regular rank in 1944, making Sue S. Dauser, director of the Navy Nurse Corps, the service’s first female captain.

The contributions of the 300,000-plus World War II women veterans helped to persuade Congress to pass the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948, which allowed women to serve in the regular military.

There were, however, restrictions that would be removed over the next 70 years: women could not constitute more than 2 percent of the total personnel in each branch, only one woman could be in the 0-6 rank group (captain in the Navy and Coast Guard; colonel in the Marine Corps, Army, and Air Force), and women could not serve in ground combat. The Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) was opened to women in 1950.

Most of the changes in the status of military women since 1917 resulted from Congressional actions, women’s court cases against the Department of Defense, and the needs of the military, and often happened during election years.

The Department of Defense ended the draft and started the all-volunteer force in 1973. Within a year, the Navy began expanding opportunities for women by opening up the Chaplain Corps, aviation training, and diving school.

Congress passed legislation lifting the ban on regular promotion to senior rank in 1967, limited the parameters of the combat exclusion law several times between 1973 and 1993, and permitted women to serve on combatant ships in 1994.

Today’s navy women are benefitting from increasing opportunities introduced by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr. (1970–1974). Zumwalt’s Z-Gram 116 outlined his plan for expanding the roles of women.

The Navy established its first official equal opportunity policy in 1976 during CNO Admiral James Holloway’s tenure. Women filing cases against the Department of Defense led the services to permit pregnant women to remain in the service in 1975, and to admit women into the military and naval academies in 1976.

Communications Electrician Second Class Yona Owens was denied the opportunity to serve on USNS Michaelson, a survey ship, based on Title 10, Section 6015 of the 1948 Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, which prevented women from assignment to combatant ships.

Owens, with Yeoman Suzanne Holtman, Photographer’s Mate Natoka Peden, and Seaman Valarie Sites, made a class action suit against the Department of Defense (Owens v. Brown).

They argued that the federal statute was unconstitutional and prohibited women from serving on a wider variety of naval ships limiting their opportunities.

American Civil Liberties Union attorney Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a member of the team defending the women. Sometime later, Lieutenant Kathleen Byerly, Time magazine’s Woman of the Year in 1976, and three other officers joined the suit.

District Judge John J. Sirica ruled in their favor in 1978. Congress amended section 6015 and the Navy began the “women in ships” program in the same year.

Navy nurse Joan C. Bynum became the first black female officer promoted to the rank of captain in 1978. In June 1991, Ginger Lee Simpson distinguished herself as the first female director of the Senior Enlisted Academy.

Opportunities continued to multiply over the next four decades. Female officers commanded shore establishments, aviation units, and combatant ships.

The Navy promoted Lillian E. Fishburne as its first black female admiral in 1998 and assigned women to positions previously held only by men (i.e., chief of chaplains, judge advocate general, and leading the Civil Engineer Corps).

Their participation in major wars and conflicts rewrote the rules of engagement and combat exclusion policies long before Congress actually changed the law.

There were no clearly delineated lines of combat or combat zones. Military bases in theater endured regular enemy attacks. Women were among the fatalities suffered from terrorist attacks at home and abroad (i.e., bombing of USS Cole on 12 October 2000 and the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and on the Pentagon).

They served in and out of harm’s way during operations Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, New Dawn, and Inherent Resolve, and continue to do so in anti-piracy operations and current global hot spots.

They have also endured life-changing injuries such as dismemberment and traumatic brain injury from improvised explosion devices.

Women were among the prisoners of war taken by the Iraqis during Desert Shield/Desert Storm and Enduring/Iraqi Freedom. The Marine Corps’ successful “Lioness” program led the other services to establish female engagement teams that interact with and search Muslim civilian women and children for contraband and bombs, conduct civil affairs engagement, train women in various civic functions in Muslim regions, and gather intelligence.

These programs were partially in response to the cultural and religious norms in Muslim countries (i.e., women could not be touched by a man outside of her father, brother, or spouse).

At the time of publication, women make up 17 percent of the total naval force—19 percent of the officers and 20 percent of the enlisted personnel.

Their largest presence continues to be in Navy medicine: 28 percent in the spring of 2016. They constitute 27 percent of the civilian work force, 25 percent of the Senior Executive Service,131 and 27 percent of the Naval Academy Class of 2020.

Captain Amy Bauernschmidt, a 1994 Naval Academy graduate and pilot, is the Navy’s first female executive officer aboard a nuclear ship, USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72).

In 2016, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter removed the last limitations on military women serving in the Navy SEALS and other special operations forces, permitting them to serve in any job for which they qualify.

Michelle Howard, the first four-star female admiral, served in the highest assignment held by women to date when she began her duties as the Vice Chief of Naval Operations in 2014.

In April 2017, the Navy had 21 woman admirals representing many communities and specialties. Rear Admiral Sarah A. Joyner, the first woman to command a strike fighter squadron (VFA-105) and a carrier air wing (CVW-3), has led the Physiological Episodic Action Team since August 2017.

Rear Admiral Yvette M. Davids, the first Hispanic woman to command a ship, the USS Curts (FFG-38), is the senior military advisor to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Political-Military Affairs.

Five women have reached the rank of fleet or force master chief. April D. Beldo, the first African American fleet master chief, retired with 30 years of service in January 2017.

Dee Allen, an African American, is the highest-ranking enlisted woman and has been assigned as the command master chief of U.S. Fleet Forces Command/U.S. Tenth Fleet since March 2017.

Female Supply Corps officers and enlisted personnel were seamlessly integrated into the submarine force. As of 2018, up to 20 percent of submarine crews can be female.

Lieutenant Marquette Leveque, one of the first pioneering women in the submarine force, served as one of the women-in-submarines program coordinators.

When the Women in Military Service for America Memorial opened in 1992, Yeoman (F.) Frieda Hardin, escorted by her son, a retired Navy captain, urged the women to “[g]o for it!”

Today’s Navy women are doing that and much more as they excel across specialties and at all ranks. They continue to make significant contributions to the Navy mission and the defense of our nation.

Like the yeomen (F.) before them, the women of today are demonstrating that the Navy is better with women than without them, and that the value of the Navy is enhanced by having a diversified workforce representing varied backgrounds, skill sets, experiences, cultures, and levels of education.

As today’s Navy women pass the torch to the next generation, there is a real possibility that one of them will serve as the Secretary of the Navy, the Chief of Naval Operations, the surgeon general, the superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy, the commanding officer of an aircraft carrier, the master chief petty officer of the Navy, or in other senior leader positions.

The first enlisted women may not have imagined such possibilities, but we are confident that these patriotic pioneers would be very proud.

About the Author

Regina T. Akers is a historian in the Emergent Response Section in the Histories Branch in the History and Archives Division at the Naval History and Heritage Command.

She enjoys a national reputation as a subject matter expert on diversity and personnel issues in the United States military, with an emphasis on women and African Americans in the Navy.

As the command’s lead oral historian, she conducts career, special topic, and end-of-tour interviews with senior leaders and other notable civilian and military personnel.

Dr. Akers earned her doctorate in U.S. and Public History at Howard University, where she taught women’s and public history as an adjunct professor.

Her publications include book chapters, articles, book reviews, and blogs. Dr. Akers presents at a myriad of symposia ranging from the Naval Academy to the National Archives, and has given many subject matter expertise media interviews.

Her special assignments include the African American Civil War Sailors Project, the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Task Force, and the advisory committee to establish a women’s history museum on the National Mall.

As a member of the inter-service committee updating the Pentagon’s African American Corridor, Dr. Akers is writing the Navy content for the new exhibit.

Regina T. Akers, Ph.D., "Epilogue" in The Navy’s First Enlisted Women, Washington, DC: Naval History and Heritage Command, Department of the Navy, 2019.

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