It's been nearly 110 years since the U.S. Navy officially welcomed women to its ranks, and the past century has brought many welcome changes to naval jobs available to women.
In the beginning, women played the all-important role of nurses to the Sailors. On May 13, 1908, the Nurse Corps was established. These 20 nurses — also known as "The Sacred Twenty" — are recognized as the first women to serve in the Navy.
While the Sacred Twenty hold the distinction of being the first women to be officially employed by the Navy, women did make their mark on the high seas prior to the 20th century, starting with a vessel called Lady Washington.
As America’s War of Independence from Great Britain raged on, Lady Washington was built in New York to defend the Hudson River in 1776, according to Naval History and Heritage Command. Named for Martha Washington, esteemed wife of George — a Founding Father of the United States and Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army who would go on to become the first president of the United States — the vessel was a small wooden river gunboat and the first American armed ship named for a woman.
Over the past three centuries, the Navy has carried on the tradition of honoring women by naming vessels after them. R/V Sally Ride (AGOR 28), named for Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, was delivered to the Navy in 2016, and in 2017, the USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS 10), named for Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, was commissioned. An Arleigh Burke-class destroyer named for one of the Sacred Twenty and first female recipient of the Navy Cross, Lenah H. Sutcliffe Higbee, is currently being built.
Seeking Opportunities at Sea
As the United States embraced its newfound independence, the involvement of women in the Navy slowly began to increase. In 1811, the first female nurses were included among personnel at Navy hospitals, according to NHHC. More than 50 years later, in 1862, four sisters of the Holy Cross along with five African American women served aboard the Navy's first hospital ship, USS Red Rover, to provide medical care to Union soldiers during the Civil War.
After the war, another five decades would pass before the Sacred Twenty were called to duty in 1908. They reported to Washington, D.C., to begin their careers as nurses in the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps, the first established Navy program to formally employ women. In 1913, the role of the Navy nurse continued to evolve as nurses served aboard the transport ships USS Mayflower and USS Dolphin.
As World War I loomed on the horizon, women became more valuable to the Navy than ever. The Naval Reserve Act of 1916 allowed for enlistment of qualified "persons" for service, according to NHHC. The term “persons” certainly left room for interpretation, and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels must have thought so, too, when he famously posed the question: "Is there any law that says a Yeoman must be a man?"
Change is Coming
On March 19, 1917, the Navy welcomed women to its enlisted ranks for the first time. Their designation was Yeoman(F), but unofficially, they were called “Yeomanettes.” Two days after the Yeomanettes were officially designated as enlisted personnel, YNC Loretta Perfectus Walsh became the first female Chief Petty Officer in the United States Navy.
Also among the Navy's enlisted women was a young Agnes Driscoll, who would go on to enjoy a long career as a brilliant codebreaker. In 1918, Driscoll was recruited as a Chief Yeoman(F), then considered the highest rank possible for women. Today, she is recognized as a National Security Agency (NSA) Hall of Famer, according to the NSA.
During World War I, the Navy nurses’ numbers swelled to 1,386; they worked transport duty overseas in England, Ireland and Scotland.
Between the nurses and the Yeomanettes, it seemed that women were finally making headway in the Navy, but the end of World War I saw them dismissed from service. When the World War I Armistice was signed on Nov. 11, 1918, there were 11,275 Yeomanettes serving in the Navy along with around 300 female Marines in the Marine Corps, according to NHHC. These women were asked to resign because they were “no longer needed.”
The right to vote was at last granted to women in 1920 — a victory that signifies the important role of women in a democracy. The Navy, while still not accepting women as part of its enlisted ranks, continued to call upon women to serve as nurses. That same year, some of these nurses had the opportunity to serve aboard the first ship built as a floating hospital, USS Relief (AH 1).
As the United States moved forward through the lively decade of the Roaring Twenties into the bleak Depression of the 1930s, women were still serving as Navy nurses, but not recognized as part of the enlisted ranks. This changed in 1938, when the Naval Reserve Act was updated to allow qualified women to actually enlist, according to NHHC.
World War II and Beyond
Another Great War was about to unfold, and the United States would yet again be plunged into its darkness. As with its predecessor, World War II would show that women were key to winning the war — not only in keeping the country’s factories and farms running, but also as part of the armed services. On July 30, 1942, Congress established the Navy's Women's Reserve Program as an integral part of the Navy, and the Naval Reserve Act of 1938, which included the Women's Reserve — unofficially known as "WAVES" (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) — was amended and signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Mildred McAfee, Wellesley College president, was selected to lead the new Women's Reserve. She was sworn in as a Lieutenant Commander on Aug. 3, 1942. According to NHHC, when authorization was passed for women to hold the rank of Captain in November 1943, McAfee was promoted.
Then in 1944, history was made as Harriet Ida Pickens and Frances Elizabeth Wills became the first African American female officers in the Navy.
By the end of the war, women in the Navy again found themselves at a loose end. More than 86,000 women had courageously served the United States as WAVES. Within 18 months after V-J Day (Victory over Japan Day), most women were demobilized from service, according to NHHC.
Although the WAVES were disbanded, nursing remained a vital part of the armed forces. In 1947, the Army-Navy Nurses Act established the Nurse Corps as a permanent Staff Corps of the Navy and the Army and authorized the permanent commissioned rank for nurses.
After World War II, women gained more recognition for their valuable contributions to the armed services. The year 1948 brought a historic change when President Harry Truman signed Public Law 625, the Women's Armed Services Integration Act. The Act disestablished the Women’s Reserve, the WAVES, and its director, and made it possible for women to enter the U.S. Navy in regular or reserve status, according to NHHC.
In the decades following, women began to rapidly gain equality in the Navy. A series of firsts sprang from the new opportunities that the Navy presented to women, and women would quickly begin to rise through the ranks, shattering the glass ceiling.
- In 1948, Edna Young became the first African American woman to enlist in the regular Navy as well as the first African American woman to achieve the rank of Chief.
- In 1959, Anna Der-Vartanian, a yeoman, became the first female Master Chief. She was also the first female E-9 in the armed services.
- Cmdr. Elizabeth Barrett was the highest-ranking woman naval line officer to serve in the Vietnam War and the first woman to hold command in a combat zone.
- Lt. Elizabeth G. Wylie became the first women to serve in the Vietnam War on the staff of Commander, Naval Forces, Saigon.
In 1967, the two percent ceiling on enlisted women was eliminated, and finally, Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment of 1972, ensuring that women had the right to serve alongside men as equals.
The passage of the Equal Rights Amendment threw the doors wide open for women, doors which had before only been opened a crack. The amendment included the following:
- Equal rights and opportunities to Navy women.
- No separate management of men and women.
- Command opportunity allowed.
- Authorized entry of enlisted women into all ratings.
- Suspended restrictions regarding women succeeding to command ashore.
- Completed the opening of all staff corps to women.
- Opened the restricted line to women.
- Integrated male/female detailing.
- Opened ROTC to women.
The Sacred Twenty ushered in the beginning of a long and successful relationship between women and the U.S. Navy; today, women serve as both officers and enlisted. They are aviators, divers, IT specialists, engineers. They serve on ships, submarines, ashore, in combat — wherever they are needed, women go.
Editor's note: While the Equal Rights Amendment of 1972 was considered a victory for women, the amendment has yet to be ratified by the required 38 states to take its rightful place within the Constitution. Initially, the amendment was sent to the states for ratification with a seven year deadline, which was later extended to June 30, 1982. As of that date, 35 states had ratified the amendment; since then, two more states have joined in. As of today, the Equal Rights Amendment remains one state short of becoming part of the U.S. Constitution.
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