Paving the Way: Women in Naval Service
[By MC3 Julie Vujevich]
The beginning of the 20th century marked a period of new beginnings and historical achievement for women in the United States Navy. Policies were established in 1917 that allowed Loretta Walsh to become the first woman to enlist in the U.S. military, and thus paved the way for many more firsts for women who chose to serve their country over the last 102 years.
The United States Congress designated March as National Women’s History Month in 1987, creating an opportunity in schools, workplaces, and communities to recognize and celebrate the achievements of American women. The theme for 2019 is “Visionary Women: Champions of Peace and Nonviolence.” In the month of March, Sailors aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73) reflect on the milestones and achievements of great women in naval history and the importance of honoring their service.
“When I first came into the Navy around 1972, women were not aboard combatant ships; they were on support ships,” said Master Chief Electrician’s Mate Patrick Mullins, the morale, welfare, and recreation (MWR) team leading chief petty officer. “It wasn’t until about 1994 that they were allowed to serve on combatant ships alongside men. It was actually refreshing to watch history in the making because I got to see the forward progression and the betterment of the organization as a whole. I was never a part of any of the decision making processes for policies, but I got to be part of the teams that integrated and it was a very rewarding feeling to know that we were doing something right.”
The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) became the first Navy combatant ship and the first aircraft carrier to have women permanently assigned starting March 7, 1994.
Female Sailors continue to play an integral role in the success of today’s Navy. Women have served and continue to serve in every rank from seaman to admiral and hold nearly every job from naval aviator to deep-sea diver.
Although most rates are available to women in the Navy, many are still filled primarily by men. Some trailblazing women over the years have set out to challenge that precedent.
“I chose to be a gunner’s mate when I enlisted, which was a very male-dominated rate and is still a male-dominated rate today,” said Lieutenant Shineka Haskins, the ship’s gunner and the only female officer in George Washington’s weapons department. “The rate actually opened up to women in the 1996 to 1997 time frame, and I joined in around 2000, so it was still very new for women to be gunner’s mates. Every command I had been at in my enlisted career, I was the only female and sometimes the only African-American female in my division or department. It actually opened the doors for me to work in some pretty cool tours. With the experience I’ve had, it’s been great to mentor young females and show them that they can be successful, they can advance, they can do the job, and be great at it.”
Information Systems Technician 2nd class Alyssa Kean recently became the second of only two female second class petty officers currently in her division. Kean is channeling the achievements of Loretta Walsh and others before her.
“We, as women, should not feel discouraged when going against the odds,” said Kean. “We do have to work a little harder sometimes, but it makes it so much sweeter when we achieve our goals. As a leader, I aspire to care for my Sailors and ensure that they’re getting everything they need to succeed.”
The number of senior female leaders has increased throughout the years, and junior Sailors see them as positive role models for today's Navy. “I’ve worked with some great leadership over the years that were women and I’ve also had a lot of great women that work for me,” said Mullins.
Since 1917, women have made substantial progress in breaking the barriers to opportunities that were once not afforded to women in the Navy. Today, female Sailors serve alongside their male counterparts in thousands of billets previously closed to them.
“I think that this month, we should not only recognize the women who paved the way, but the women that are doing it now and for women in the future,” said Haskins.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.