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December 2003

Navy celebrates 25 years of women at sea
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By Sheree Callahan

Lt. j.g. Karen Sankes
Lt. j.g. Karen Sankes, USN, stands watch aboard amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge as officer of the deck. Sankes, like many other women, now serves the Navy at sea in positions that were once only open to men. PH2 Alicia Tasz, USN, photo

Women have bravely served the U.S. Navy for nearly a century, but they have only been allowed in positions aboard non-hospital ships for the last 25 years. In October 1978, in the wake of a court ruling that overturned statutes that forbade women from serving at sea, the Navy launched their Women in Navy Ships program and announced that they would assign 55 women officers and 375 female enlisted personnel to 21 ships during the next year. Women were finally allowed to serve as surface warfare officers and in numerous enlisted ratings on such auxiliary vessels as submarine and destroyer tenders and oceanographic research ships.

On Nov. 20, more than 100 retired and active-duty Navy service members from around the country marked the significant milestone in U.S. naval history at a symposium held at the U.S. Navy Memorial Foundation's Navy Heritage Center in Washington, D.C. The symposium was sponsored by the Surface Navy Association, Naval Historical Foundation and the Naval Historical Center.

The daylong event, known as "Women at Sea: 25 Years and Counting," focused on the changing roles of women in the Navy over the last 25 years and featured many key players in the fight to integrate the sexes aboard Navy ships. Many Navy service members just beginning their careers also attended the event.

WWII-era recruitment poster
Contrary to this WWII-era Navy recruiting poster, women no longer need to wish to be men to serve their country.

One pioneer who forged new paths for women in the Navy, Rear Adm. Deborah A. Loewer, USN, Vice Commander, Military Sealift Command, kicked off the conference.

"It's been 25 years now, and whenever people tell the story of women at sea they add a chapter to the history of the Navy itself," said Rear Adm. Loewer, who has had a long career of firsts for women to add to the history books.

In 1979, she was among the first women selected for the Navy's Surface Warfare Officer School in Newport, R.I., where she graduated at the top of her class. During the same year, she was one of the first female officers to serve shipboard duty on an auxiliary vessel when she was assigned to destroyer tender USS Yosemite. Rear Adm. Loewer served tours as commanding officer on ammunition ship USS Mount Baker and fast combat support ship USS Camden. In October 2003, Rear Adm. Loewer achieved another milestone, becoming the first female warfare officer to be promoted to flag rank.

She recalled at the conference that the path to her accomplishments has not always been an easy one. When Rear Adm. Loewer and three other women reported aboard Yosemite in 1979, the executive officer took the women to see the captain. She said she still remembers the captain's exact words: "I did not ask for women on my ship. . .find them something to do."

Rear Adm. Deborah A. Loewer
Rear Adm. Deborah A. Loewer, USN, Vice Commander, MSC, addresses a group of junior officers at a symposium officially recognizing the 25th anniversary of women serving at sea in the U.S. Navy. Charles T. Creekman photo

During the symposium lunch break, Rear Adm. Loewer answered questions and gave encouragement to the officers and enlisted women just beginning or in the middle of their careers. The act of kindness is nothing new for Rear Adm. Loewer, who is an active participant in the female surface warfare officer mentoring program.

Twenty other male and female Navy service members spoke or participated in discussions at the symposium.

Retired Navy Capt. Susan Canfield, was among those participants. She was one of the first women to serve in a non-medical position on a hospital ship as part of a pilot program for assigning women aboard ships that began in 1972. Capt. Canfield was assigned to USS Sanctuary, where she worked as a navigator and operations officer in 1974. While on Sanctuary, she was the first woman to become a deck-qualified officer. Navy regulations had to be amended for her to qualify.

Capt. Canfield recalled that during her time on Sanctuary, there were no working or dress khaki uniforms for women.

"For two years, I bought men's khakis and cut them down to fit. Later, at the Naval Academy (where she taught navigation and ship handling), I bought women's khakis through the Merchant Marine Academy at King's Point, N.Y.," she said during a roundtable discussion.

Capt. Michelle Despot
Capt. Michelle Despot, current master aboard USNS Fisher, is an example of how the Women at Sea program has changed people's perceptions of the role of women in the Navy and the maritime industry. Jim Gunter photo

At another roundtable on leadership at sea, Cmdr. Kirk Lippold, USN, spoke about crew members' reactions during the attack on destroyer USS Cole in October 2000. Lippold was commanding officer of the ship when it was targeted in the port of Aden, Yemen. The blast killed 17 crew members, including two women.

Lippold said he often gets asked about how the women did during the attack.

"It was a non-question," he said. "I did not have men and women, I had sailors. They all did their jobs."

Through the speeches and roundtable discussions on the past, present and future of women at sea, attendees discovered that the Navy has come a long way in a short time through the efforts of many ambitious and hard-working women. With the repeal of the combat exclusion law in 1993, women have had even more doors open to them. The repeal of the law gave women the opportunity to serve on combatant ships for the first time.

In 1994, six officers and one enlisted woman were the first females to receive orders on a combatant ship when they were assigned to aircraft carrier USS Dwight. Eisenhower. Since then, thousands of women have reported for duty on most of the Navy's carriers, cruisers, destroyers and frigates.

Like their active-duty counterparts, merchant mariners have also become an integral part of the workforce aboard ships. Female mariners working for MSC began serving aboard MSC ships in non-medical positions well before uniformed women in the Navy. In the 1950s, when women in the Navy Hospital Corps began serving aboard hospital ships and transports carrying dependents, female mariners began serving in limited capacities aboard ships for MSC when it was known as Military Sea Transportation Service.

During the 1960s, even more women began serving aboard MSTS ships, while Navy nurses served aboard USS Sanctuary.

In the early 1970s, when the Navy began testing the idea of women aboard ships, MSTS became MSC, and female mariners began earning licenses for senior positions.