In 1993, Congress repealed the law banning women from service in combat ships. Since then, the Navy has worked toward a seamless integration of men and women into ships, squadrons, and now,
submarines. While significant strides have been made, it would be a mistake to presume that a gender-blind Navy has been achieved or for that matter that such a Navy might ever exist, though many of us hope it will.
In the interim, women joining the combat forces will continue to face challenges, both those endemically associated with entry into traditionally male-dominated cultures, and those naturally resulting from the “frictions” that come with the normal interaction between men and women. Accordingly, it seems appropriate that women should be afforded the most frank and experience-based advice at “problem start” (even if that advice is relayed by a man).
The following question was posed to six enlisted women,* most of whom were there at the genesis of combat ship integration, and all of whom served well into this decade: “If your little sister were getting ready to report to a ship, what would you want her to know before she got there?”
This is some of what they said.
Not everyone will welcome you with open arms. In fact, many won’t. Remember this, though: You deserve to be there as much as any of the guys. You’re good enough, and you can be great at this. Ignore the nay-sayers, because if you don’t—if you dance to their tune—you only give them power. They are wrong about you. Prove it through your actions. As for what they think, that’s their problem, not yours.
Your actions will be noticed in great detail, from day one. Whether sitting silently on watch or drunkenly carousing with your division, what you do (and don’t do) will be remembered and remarked upon by both men and by other women in a way that simply won’t happen with your male peers. More than that, both will judge you more harshly than they will judge men for the same thing. Is it fair? No. Will it happen? Yes.
You’re old enough to make your own (hopefully informed) decisions. Still, you may want to consider steering at least a bit clear of alcohol and the potentially shady situations that are historically associated with drunken sailors (including you). Yes, you have every right to spend the night drinking with a bunch of engineers, thinking that you’re one of the guys. But you’re not one of the guys; you may never be one of the guys, and like it or not, the consequences of your decisions can be surprising, significant, and painful.
Live drama free. Whether you do anything or not, rumors about you will arise. Gossip is a favorite sailor pursuit, and even if something has to be made up about you in order to keep it flowing, it will be. You may not be able to stop this, but for God’s sake, don’t hand out ammunition and then wonder why people are talking about you. Better to not discuss much of your personal life, and better to not feed the fires by talking about the personal lives of others.
Don’t be a victim. This place isn’t particularly gentle and if you allow yourself to be steamrolled, there are plenty of people who will be happy to do so. You may meet bullies. You may meet people who want to harass you. You may meet wolves masquerading as sheep, who aim to prey on the disoriented and confused. Stand up! This isn’t a battle you can choose to pass on. Don’t allow yourself to be harassed or bullied and never take the easy road because of your gender—even if you can.
You can do it. Work hard. Learn as much as you can about your job. Get all your qualifications ahead of time. Hard work will always pay off in the end. A sailor is a sailor, no matter if they are male or female. Do your job, keep your head, and trust your instincts.
You had the heart to be here in the first place, so believe in yourself, because we do.
*CTTCM Suzanne Wittman, FCCS Janine Armstrong, ENCS Shannon Gunkel, GSM2 Kersti Hensley, FC2 Christy Marr, and STG2 Lena Parent.