The first women to serve the U.S. Navy were nurses who, nearly a century before the service established its own professional corps of nurses, served as wartime volunteers or civilian contractors. In 1811, when the Naval hospital system was established, a young surgeon named William P.C. Barton unsuccessfully lobbied the Navy to staff its new medical establishment with female nurses. Some 50 years later, at the start of the Civil War, the Navy created the designation of “nurse” – a position filled by junior enlisted men, whose duties more closely resembled those of hospital corpsmen.
Nevertheless, many patriotic American women volunteered their services to the Navy in wartime. During the Civil War, for example, more than a dozen Sisters of the Holy Cross and five African-American women served as nurses aboard the USS Red Rover, a former Confederate steamer that had been captured by the Union Navy and transformed into the first Navy hospital ship.
After its victory in the 1898 Spanish-American War, the United States emerged as an imperial power, in possession of island territories as far away as the Philippines, the Marianas Islands, Hawaii, and what’s now known as American Samoa. The war led to significant reforms in military medicine. In their remote tropical encampments, thousands of soldiers contracted diseases such as malaria, typhus, yellow fever, and dysentery. During the war, 5,438 soldiers died from disease, compared to 968 battle deaths.
To help care for these soldiers, the military hired 1,563 contract nurses who served in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines, and on three ships, including the hospital ship Relief, where six nurses – including Esther V. Hasson, who would become the first superintendent of the Navy Nurse Corps – tended to hundreds of sick and wounded men.
With its growing network of naval hospitals and service members now stationed in far-flung tropical territories, the Navy needed skilled nurses – women who had graduated from two- or three-year courses in hospital training schools – to assist its medical staff. After years of debate, the Navy Nurse Corps was established on May 13, 1908. The first women to serve in the Corps – the first women to serve formally as members of the United States Navy – became known as “The Sacred Twenty.” By the time the United States entered World War I in 1917, the Nurse Corps included 160 women stationed as far away as the Philippines, Guam, and Samoa.
As the nation mobilized for war, the Navy encountered another problem that led Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels to seek the service of women: The service’s growing number of overseas commitments demanded a significant expansion of its fleet and personnel. Many Navy “yeomen” – an enlisted rating for sailors who performed administrative and clerical work – were called to service afloat or overseas. The Navy needed immediate help in handling the paperwork and administrative tasks demanded by this mobilization.
Fortunately, the 1916 law establishing the United States Naval Reserve Force (USNRF) did not specify that these reservists had to be men. On March 19, 1917, Daniels ordered that women be enrolled into the reserve.
As soon as Daniels’ announcement was made public, young women across the country flocked to recruiting stations. The first to enlist was Loretta Perfectus Walsh, who became a chief yeoman at the naval home for disabled veterans in Philadelphia. When the United States declared war on April 6, there were 201 women reservists, a number that would grow to more than 11,000 by November 1918. These included Navy nurses who cared for patients in U.S. hospitals, overseas, and on transport ships. Women reservists served mostly as office staff, and were popularly referred to as “yeomanettes,” but women reservists, while all holding the same clerical rating of Yeoman (F), also served in a variety of roles that included radio operators, fingerprint experts, electricians, photographers, draftsmen, chemists, and torpedo assemblers. The Navy’s Women’s Reserve included the first African-American women to serve as enlisted members of the U.S. armed forces, 16 yeomen (F) who worked in the offices of the Washington Navy Yard.
The Navy had a few requirements for its new women reservists: They had to be between the ages of 18 and 35, and be of good health and good character. Most women joined out of a strong sense of patriotism – but also for opportunities, pay, and benefits that were relatively scant in the peacetime job market. Unlike their private-sector counterparts, yeomen (F) were paid the same as male sailors of the same rating and class.
In World War I, the Navy’s women reservists received no formal indoctrination, as their counterparts in the Nurse Corps had, and there was no administrative apparatus to manage them or address women-specific issues. Women simply reported to their posts and followed the orders of their commanding officers.
As rapidly as the Navy’s Women’s Reserve was called into service, it was dissolved after war’s end. The Naval Appropriations Act of 1919 stipulated that all female reservists, except nurses, be placed on inactive duty within 30 days.
Only a small crop of Navy nurses remained on duty at war’s end. Many honorably discharged yeomen (F) later filled civil service positions in the same facilities where they’d served during the war – including Joy Bright Hancock, who rejoined the Bureau of Aeronautics and edited the newsletter that would evolve into the magazine Naval Aviation News. It would be another 23 years before Navy women returned to general service.
A small corps of Navy nurses continued to serve in naval hospitals at home and overseas in the interwar years, and aboard hospital ships and transports. In addition to their regular duties, they delivered instruction to hospital corpsmen and, at overseas training schools in Guam, Samoa, and the Virgin Islands, encouraged women to assist in the care of the local populations.
Navy nurses were among the first Americans to experience the perils of World War II. Thirty-one nurses served at the Pearl Harbor Naval Hospital, and a dozen more on the hospital ship Solace, which lay at anchor in the harbor when a Japanese carrier group launched its fateful attack on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. Throughout the day, even as the Japanese continued to drop bombs and torpedoes, Navy nurses rushed to care for the injured.
Over the next few days, the Japanese attacked and overran the island of Guam, taking five Navy Nurse Corps women prisoner. In the Philippines, after Japanese forces invaded Manila, 11 of the 12 Navy nurses at Cañacao Naval Hospital were taken prisoner. The 12th, Ann Bernatitus, escaped to embark on an ordeal that saw her setting up hospitals on the Bataan Peninsula and the island of Corregidor before fleeing the Japanese aboard a Navy submarine on May 3, 1942. Bernatitus became the first person to receive the Navy’s new Legion of Merit medal.
At home in the United States, meanwhile, the Navy embarked on an unprecedented commitment to global warfare, and it became immediately clear that the sea service would need to accept not only a large number of enlisted women, as it had in World War I, but also commissioned female naval officers.
Secretary of the Navy William Franklin “Frank” Knox set a plan in motion to form this Women’s Reserve, and as Congress and the Navy negotiated the details, an eight-person Women’s Advisory Council selected Mildred Helen McAfee, president of Wellesley College, to be the Women’s Reserve’s first director, and determined that the reserve would be known by the acronym WAVES – Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.
On July 30, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Public Law 689, creating the Women’s Reserve, a branch of the Naval Reserve, to “expedite the war effort by releasing officers and men for duty at sea and their replacement by women in the shore establishment.” On Aug. 3, McAfee was sworn in as “an officer and gentleman of the United States Navy,” and received her commission as lieutenant commander – the first woman officer of the Naval Reserve.
The Navy’s standards for recruits and officer candidates were strict: a minimum age of 20 (a maximum of 35 for recruits; 49 for officers); a high school diploma or equivalent (college degree or equivalent for officers); and U.S. citizenship. Women accepted to the Women’s Reserve couldn’t be married to a military man, and could not marry at all during indoctrination or training periods. A standing no-marriage policy for Navy nurses – who could be immediately discharged if they married or became pregnant – remained in place until nearly the end of the war.
Thousands of women volunteered to become a part of the Navy. Officer candidates for the WAVES were trained at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, and, after receiving commissions as either ensigns or lieutenants junior grade, went on to receive specialized officer training alongside men – a practice initiated by the progressive Bureau of Aeronautics that rapidly spread to other bureaus. Enlisted women were trained at several college and university campuses around the country.
The Navy’s goal at the outset was to recruit 1,000 officers and 10,000 enlisted women to the WAVES, but the recruiting campaign far exceeded expectations. The WAVES reached peak strength in 1945 with 86,291 women in service: 8,475 officers and 73,816 enlisted.
WAVES served at around 900 shore stations in the continental United States. While most filled secretarial or clerical jobs, wartime labor demands compelled thousands of women reservists to perform specialized duties as draftsmen, translators, air traffic controllers, radiomen, parachute riggers, statisticians, and aviation machinists and metalsmiths. One of the most influential wartime leaders in the WAVES was Cmdr. Joy Bright Hancock, who had lobbied hard for the re-establishment of the Women’s Reserve. Hancock was instrumental in shaping Navy women’s training and service, advocating for gender-integrated specialist training and the opening of aviation jobs to women.
Among the most famous of the WAVES was mathematics professor Grace Hopper, who requested a leave of absence from her position at Vassar College to join the reserve. After completing her officer training, then-Lt. j.g. Hopper joined the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard University to work with computer scientist Howard Aiken on programming the Mark I computer. Hopper would remain under Navy contract at Harvard until 1949. Among the many highlights of her 42-year Navy career, Hopper is remembered today as the person who recorded, in a 1947 logbook, the first computer “bug” – a moth that had become stuck between the computer’s relay contacts.
While many WAVES thrived in the Navy, some women chafed at the reserve’s gender-specific restrictions. Naval regulations prohibited pregnant women, or those with children under 18, from serving. The Women’s Reserve had a fixed limit on rank, and prohibited any command authority for female officers except within the WAVES. Women were also barred from duty afloat or overseas. Though the ban was lifted late in the war – due in large part to the advocacy of Hancock – the only WAVES to serve outside the continental United States arrived in Hawaii in January 1945.
Navy nurses, meanwhile, served with “relative rank,” which meant they wore insignia and had authority over assistants in their line of work – but no authority over anyone else. Throughout the war, Navy nurses served at 263 locations in the United States; aboard hospital ships; at forward operating locations throughout the Pacific and in Europe, and in South America, the Caribbean, and Africa. In 1945, the Nurse Corps trained its first 24 flight nurses for service in three newly formed Naval Air Evacuation service squadrons, and these women were instrumental in the evacuation of wounded servicemen from the amphibious assaults on Iwo Jima and Okinawa – the first Navy nurses to fly to and from active battlefields.
After Nurse Corps officers were finally granted full military rank, the Corps’ fifth superintendent, Sue Dauser, became the first woman commissioned as a captain in the U.S. Navy in February 1944.
Stagnation and Reform
In 1946, with the Navy in the midst of its massive postwar demobilization, Hancock took over as director of the Women’s Reserve and joined the chorus of voices calling for women to remain in the regular armed services. When the Armed Services Integration Act of 1948 granted women permanent status in the regular and reserve components of all the armed services, the WAVES formally ceased to exist – though the nickname would stick to Navy women for years afterward. Hancock was promoted to captain and took on a new title: Assistant Chief of Naval Personnel for Women, or ACNP(W).
The new law established limits on how many women could be in the Navy (no more than 2 percent); how high they could rank in the service (there could be only one captain, and the percentages of commanders and lieutenant commanders were capped); and where they could serve (they were strictly forbidden from duty in combat aircraft or in any ships other than hospital ships and transports). The Secretary of the Navy would determine the extent of women’s command authority.
During the Korean War, at Hancock’s urging, the Navy loosened some restrictions on women’s service in order to meet its recruitment goals. The ban on married women’s service was dropped, and the age of enlistment was lowered to 18. The number of women reservists reached 9,466 in November 1952. Though overseas service was opened to women in 1949, no women in the regular Navy went to Korea.
Navy nurses, whose wartime service strength peaked at 3,405 in 1951, served continuously on hospital ships and transports in Korean waters; at 15 civilian nursing schools; and at 180 duty stations in the United States and abroad – 200 of them at the U.S. Naval Hospital, Yokosuka, Japan, where more than 5,800 casualties were treated.
Overall, professional gains for Navy women were few during the 1950s and 1960s. It wasn’t until 1962, when Cmdr. Etta-Belle Kitchen took command of U.S. Naval Training Center Bainbridge, Maryland, that the Navy appointed its first female commanding officer. About 90 percent of regular and reserve Navy women served in administrative or healthcare ratings. A few hospital corpsmen became the first Navy women other than nurses to serve afloat, aboard transport service ships in the mid-1950s, but generally this narrowing of opportunities continued well into the 1960s. In 1966, only 20 of the Navy’s enlisted ratings were open to women. The number of regular and reserve Navy women actually decreased during the Vietnam War, and their assignments remained primarily clerical, administrative, and health care related. Only nine female naval officers, and no enlisted women, served in Vietnam.
The Navy Nurse Corps, on the other hand, played an active and important role in the Vietnam conflict, expanding to a peak of 2,338 serving in 1968. Navy nurses began arriving in Saigon in 1963, and by far the largest number of them served at the Naval Support Activity Hospital, Danang. The 600-bed hospital became the largest combat casualty treatment facility in the world, admitting 63,000 patients. In 1964, when the Viet Cong bombed the Brink Bachelor Officers’ Quarters in Saigon, four Navy Nurse Corps officers, wounded themselves in the blast, cared for multiple victims. These four officers were the first Navy nurses to be injured in combat support.
For both nurses and regular Navy women, a period of professional stagnation came to an end in 1967, when Public Law 90-130 eliminated caps on women’s ranks – and authorized but didn’t mandate flag rank for Navy women. The law ushered in an era of broadening horizons for Navy women, which gathered steam in the 1970s with congressional passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and the end of the military draft. On June 1, 1972, Alene B. Duerk, chief, Navy Nurse Corps, became the first Navy woman to be promoted to the rank of rear admiral (lower half).
The most significant factor in these expanding opportunities was the 1970-1974 tenure of Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt as Chief of Naval Operations (CNO). The visionary Zumwalt immediately grasped that an all-volunteer Navy, without providing opportunities for women and other disadvantaged groups, wouldn’t be able to recruit enough personnel to meet its basic needs. Zumwalt’s Programs for People, designed to break down barriers to service, was made public in a series of policy directives informally known as “Z-grams.”
In Z-gram number 116 (Z-116), issued in August 1972 and titled “Equal Rights and Opportunities for Women in the Navy,” Zumwalt authorized preliminary actions that would lead to women serving at sea. He proposed assigning a pilot group of women to serve afloat; allowing women officers to exercise command ashore; opening Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC) college programs to women; considering women for joint services colleges; and assigning them to more challenging billets. In these proposals, Zumwalt proved more radical than the ACNP(W), Capt. Robin Quigley, who didn’t support women at sea or in aviation billets. Quigley left her post in March 1973 to make way for Capt. Fran McKee, who served briefly before leaving headquarters to become the first woman to head an activity of the Naval Security Group Command. In February 1976, McKee became the first woman line officer to be selected for flag rank when she was promoted to rear admiral (lower half).
With the backing of the CNO, obstacles for women began to fall. In the early 1970s, the Navy began sending women to more overseas duty stations. In 1973 alone, male and female recruit training was combined; the first mixed class graduated from Officer Candidate School; and the first female flight surgeons graduated from the training program of the Naval Aerospace Medical Institute. Navy women received limited admission to the NROTC, and now also were eligible to attend naval postgraduate schools such as the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, and the General Line School (now the Naval Postgraduate School) in Monterey, California. In July 1976, 81 women entered the U.S. Naval Academy, 55 of whom received their commissions with the class of 1980.
Beginning in 1972, the Navy began to implement Zumwalt’s pilot program of women’s sea service: By the end of 1973, 53 enlisted women had come aboard the hospital ship Sanctuary, accompanied by two female line officers and 12 Nurse Corps officers. After a year of service that took them on humanitarian assistance missions in Colombia and Haiti, their commanding officer concluded that the women had performed their shipboard duties as well as men, and that as far as he was concerned, they could serve “in perpetuity.” Meanwhile, the first female officers began their aviation training in a test program at the Naval Aviation Training Command at Pensacola in March 1973. Six women eventually completed the 18-month program and earned their naval aviators’ wings of gold. By 1978, there were 19 women aviators, and the next year, Lt. Lynn Spruill became the first female pilot to become carrier qualified.
One of the most stubborn obstacles remaining for Navy women was Title 10, Section 6015 of the 1948 Armed Services Integration Act, which barred women from duty aboard combatant ships and aircraft. This provision, after a discrimination lawsuit, congressional amendment of Section 6025, and much debate among Navy leadership about the definition of a “combatant” ship, was amended to allow women’s service on noncombatant ships other than transports and hospital ships.
In 1978, the Navy introduced its Women in Ships Program, which deployed female officers and enlisted women on a number of auxiliary and noncombatant ships. As 55 officers and 375 enlisted women became integrated into the crews of these ships, the 204-year-old tradition of male-only U.S. Navy ships came to an end.
21st Century Leaders
When Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm concluded in 1991, women comprised 10 percent of Navy personnel. Media coverage of the war in Iraq brought images of women serving capably in combat support units, and with the public increasingly comfortable with women’s military service, Congress and the Pentagon made further changes. Laws banning Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps women from air and sea combat units were repealed in 1991 and 1992 – though certain restrictions, such as service aboard submarines or in special operations forces units, remained.
As women were authorized to move into these roles, a scandal revealed long-simmering resentments among some of the male naval aviators. At the 1991 Tailhook Association Symposium, an annual gathering of naval aviators, several women were subjected to sexual harassment and assault by groups of drunken aviators – behaviors that had become something of an annual tradition at the convention, but which were at last formally reported to Navy leaders. The Tailhook scandal eventually led to the resignation of the Secretary of the Navy and the retirement of the commander of its investigative service.
Capt. Lory Manning (Ret.) was a telecommunications subspecialist in the Navy over a 26-year career that ended with her retirement in 1995. Today she’s director of government relations at the nonprofit Service Women’s Action Network. Both male and female aviators, Manning said, suffered in the rancorous aftermath of Tailhook, while top Navy leaders – many of whom attended the convention and knew what was going on – seemed to be letting lower-ranking aviators take the fall. “Any male who had been at Tailhook had to prove that he had not molested somebody before he could get his promotion,” she said. “But I think the people who got the worst of Tailhook were the women aviators who, afterward, went to aviation training and went … to those squadrons as the first women.” To this day, the 1994 death of Lt. Kara Hultgreen, an F-14 pilot who crashed on approach to the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) off the coast of San Diego, is an event that seems hopelessly tangled in the indignations lingering after Tailhook.
But as Manning pointed out, subsequent classes of female aviators progressed rapidly in the ranks. By 1998, several women were flying combat missions in the Persian Gulf from the carrier USS Enterprise (CVN 65), monitoring the “no-fly” zone in southern Iraq, and in December of that year they became the first female fighter pilots to see combat, dropping missiles and laser-guided bombs over targets in Iraq.
Women aboard surface ships, Manning said, had an easier time integrating into their units. The first female commander of a naval ship, Lt. Cmdr. Darlene Iskra, took command of the USS Opportune (ARS 41), a rescue and salvage ship, in 1990. The Navy’s first gender-integrated warship was the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69), whose crew of 4,967 included 425 women. In 1997, the Navy commissioned the USS The Sullivans (DDG 68), the first ship designed and built to accommodate both male and female crewmembers. By 2003, when then-Cmdr. Anne Claire Phillips took command of the Navy’s new destroyer, USS Mustin (DDG 89), female skippers had become commonplace.
Concerns about tight quarters and the costs of modifications, however, continued to keep women from service aboard submarines – until it became clear that the benefits of women’s submarine service would outweigh these drawbacks. In the early 2000s, submarine duty was considered among the most prestigious in the Navy. “The submarines got the cream of the crop of the graduates of Annapolis and ROTC, the very best men,” Manning said. But interestingly, high admission standards for women tended to push them toward the top of the Academy’s graduating class. “And what the submarines need more than anything,” continued Manning, “are people with brains.”
The first group of female submarine officers completed nuclear power school and officially reported for duty aboard two ballistic and two guided-missile submarines in November 2011. Enlisted women began receiving their first assignments for submarine duty in 2015. Today, about 80 female officers and 50 enlisted women serve aboard submarines, and the first Navy submarines expressly built to accommodate female crewmembers are in the design phase, with the first scheduled to enter service in 2021.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have also served as an equalizer for Navy women. Along with service in air squadrons and aboard ships in the Persian Gulf, many Navy women served alongside combat support troops, as corpsmen attached to Marine units, or as “augmentees” drawn from the Navy to serve combat support units. Many Navy personnel, despite serving in support roles, saw ground combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Petty Officer 1st Class Regina Clark, for example, was one of six service members – three of them women – killed in a convoy attack in Fallujah, Iraq, in June 2005.
Women’s encounters with direct combat in Iraq and Afghanistan – still strictly forbidden under Pentagon rules dating to 1994 – led to an explicit change in these rules. All remaining prohibitions on military combat were lifted, beginning in 2013. In 2014, the Navy admitted the first women aboard the assault boats of its Coastal Riverine Force, and in 2016, the last off-limits Navy job – the service’s elite special operations forces unit, the SEALs – was opened to women applicants.
So far no woman has completed the SEAL training course. But it’s early. About 94 percent of male applicants don’t meet the basic requirements for SEAL training, and 75 percent of qualified SEAL candidates don’t make it through the first month of basic training.
Long before these last barriers to women’s service had fallen, women had become an integral part of the all-volunteer Navy. The service’s top leaders include those who began long careers of service in the 1980s and 1990s. “What we’re seeing now are women captains and women admirals commanding Navy ships, commanding air wings,” Manning said. It’s a trend certain to continue into the future, given current percentages: Women make up nearly 20 percent of the Navy’s total force end-strength, and about 27 percent of the midshipmen in the Naval Academy’s class of 2021 are women. They now have plenty of role models to look to – such as Michelle Howard, who became the Naval Academy’s first African-American graduate in 1982 and went on to command a destroyer, an amphibious squadron, an expeditionary strike group, and the combined task force that rescued Richard Phillips, captain of the Maersk Alabama, from Somali pirates in 2009.
In July 2014, when Howard became the first female four-star admiral in the U.S. Navy, she was also named the 38th Vice Chief of Naval Operations. “That’s the No. 2 job in the whole Navy,” said Manning. “You’re really starting to see these women who began their careers aboard ships and aircraft, 20 to 25 years later, coming into real honest-to-God leadership roles. And sooner or later, one of them will be on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”
This story was originally published in Women in the Armed Forces: A Century of Service.