Navy Prepares to Welcome Women Aboard Its Warships


“A Captain of the Navy ought to be a man of Strong and well-connected Sense with a tolerable education--a Gentleman as well as a Seaman both in Theory and Practice.”

--John Paul Jones, 1776


With apologies to the father of the American Navy, the sea service may need to reword portions of the heady standard for shipboard commanding officers that its most famous captain prescribed at the nation’s birth.

Starting next year, women will begin serving aboard combat vessels in the Navy, and a warship’s captain may well be “a woman of Strong and well-connected Sense” and “a Lady as well as a Sailor both in Theory and Practice.”

The change stems from a provision in the 1993 Defense Authorization Act that repeals the longstanding prohibition against women serving on combat vessels, and opens the way for them to become skippers of ships that can be sent into harm’s way. President Clinton signed the legislation this month.


Navy Secretary John H. Dalton says he hopes to assign between 400 and 600 women to the aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower in June, and will send similar numbers to the carriers Abraham Lincoln and John C. Stennis later in the year.

Eventually, women will be assigned to serve on destroyers and dock landing ships as well. The Navy is also opening up a wider array of specialties to enlisted women--including such once-forbidden fields as sonar technicians and gunners’ mates.

The move will not be completely revolutionary. Women have been serving aboard noncombat vessels, such as oilers and supply ships, for 15 years. Eight thousand women are now assigned to auxiliary and training vessels, and four are commanding officers.

The move is part of a trend, begun in the 1980s, to widen opportunities for women in the armed services. The Navy has already begun allowing women to become combat pilots, and more are beginning to move up into admirals’ ranks.

Even so, the shift represents a dramatic change from historical patterns, particularly for the Navy. Until 1978, women were barred from all Navy vessels except hospital ships. Some early mariners were convinced that their mere presence on a warship would bring bad luck.

Not surprisingly, the Navy will have to do some remodeling to accommodate women on its warships. Changing the composition of a ship’s complement will require separate berthing spaces, showers and heads--not an easy task on a combat vessel, where space is tight.


The service is also changing its regulations to make slacks standard attire for female sailors and officers serving aboard ships--relegating the use of skirts to ceremonial occasions. They aren’t practical because of the steep ladders aboard ships, the Navy says.

More important, to some defense experts, will be the social effects of the change. Sexual tensions may be added to the growing list of social issues--from race relations to the role of homosexuals--with which modern-day ship captains must contend.

And there is the question of cost. Permitting women to serve aboard ship will require extra money to reconfigure existing vessels. A 1992 commission on women in the military expressed hope that the move would not drain funds needed to maintain military readiness.

Despite the shifting winds, Navy officials say it still is not likely that all combat vessels in the service will be open to women, even in coming years. Some ships, such as minesweepers, simply are too small to accommodate separate facilities.

In some other cases, such as with submarines, officials remain undecided about whether to permit service by women. “We’re not ruling that out, but it’s still under study,” one Navy official said.

Meanwhile, the Navy is moving to carry out the new legislation with some deliberate speed. Said Dalton: “We will benefit from the experience that we’ve already had . . . and learning from the lessons of the past in terms of what we’ve already done.”