We finally have a Navy with no more ‘firsts’ for women
It was a proud day for the U.S. Navy and all women who serve and have served when the last place women were not assigned was cracked open: A sailor qualified for duty on a special warfare (SEAL) boat unit for the first time.
Women have served in supporting roles in Navy special warfare units before, even dying during service — like Information Warfare Senior Chief Petty Officer and Cryptologist Shannon Kent — who was killed in combat in 2019 in Syria, but never as part of a Navy SEALS special warfare combatant-craft crew. With the last glass ceiling shattered, so fell the last gender barrier in the Navy. We never have to see another Navy headline of “first woman to” — and that is welcome news.
The Navy has enjoyed a long history of integrating women into its force, from the “sacred twenty” first female nurses to serve, appointed after Congress established the Navy Nurse Corps on May 13, 1908, followed by a number of women who served in the Chaplain corps and other clerical positions during World War I. Then President Franklin D. Roosevelt started the women’s reserve program in July 1942 which allowed thousands of women to serve during WWII.
Most importantly, restrictions that prohibited women from serving on combat platforms and in combat units were lifted in March 1994. With each win in overcoming gender barriers, the Navy became stronger and more capable.
I spent more than 30 years in the Navy. I saw drastic change from when I came in to when I retired. Gone are the days when combat restriction laws prohibited women from serving on platforms like destroyers, submarines, aircraft carriers, fighter jets and special warfare teams. Also gone are the more subtle forms of discrimination, like when I was in training and they didn’t have female uniforms, so they issued male uniforms to women. (I would love to have seen the reaction if the guys had been issued a woman’s uniform to wear.)
When I first joined the Navy, sexual harassment and discrimination was everywhere, both subtle and overt, and often tolerated as part of a male-dominated culture. There were men who had never worked with or for a woman before. Most adapted quickly and realized there was no issue — their female shipmates had the intellect, character, integrity, tenacity and professionalism to contribute to the mission as a team and often brought different perspectives that made the team stronger. This diversity of thought and action made the Navy a more lethal, effective force for the nation.
Where there was continued resistance and discrimination, they were overcome by the high quality of dedicated women who served seamlessly alongside their male shipmates. Those resisting were thankfully called out on their bad behavior, rooted out or retired. Over the years, changes came gradually but steadily. We had our first women to serve on combatant ships, first women commanding officers of ships, aircraft squadrons, carrier strike groups, numbered fleets and broke down rank barriers by having female fleet master chiefs and three and four-star admirals.
With each “win” for women in the Navy for those “firsts,” there was both relief and frustration that we still had to call it out. I, like most women I know in the Navy, never want to be identified as a “female” anything — not a female officer, just an officer, not a female chief, just a chief, not the “first female to … ” just “the best.” We want to be treated equally, with no special circumstances or considerations due to gender when it comes to job selection, promotion, or opportunity to contribute to the mission. We want there to be no barrier to any job in the Navy: If a woman had the skills and ability, and could do the job physically without lowering a standard, then let her do it.
Finally, we are there.
Is the Navy perfect? No. Does it improve daily? Absolutely. Gender discrimination, whether male, female or non-binary, has no place in the Navy. The barriers for any patriot who wants to serve to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, the solemn oath we all swear, have been left in our wake. Unconscious biases that still exist are being recognized and overcome with education and by observing and respecting the exceptional performance of all our sailors, chiefs and officers regardless of gender.
I am proud of our Navy and all the men and women who serve it. I am even more proud that now that the accomplishments of my shipmates will be noted for their excellence, irrespective of gender. We won’t ever again have to hear the words “the first woman in the U.S. Navy to…”
Rear Admiral (Retired) Danelle Barrett served for 30 years in the U.S. Navy, specializing in communications and cyber operations. Her tours included numerous assignments afloat, in Iraq and performing relief operations on the ground in Haiti. She is the author of the leadership book, “Rock the Boat: Embrace Change, Encourage Innovation, and Be Successful Leader.”
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to reflect that Shannon Kent was killed in combat in Syria.