When a coworker told me that skirts had been banned from the U.S. Naval Academy’s commissioning ceremony, I laughed. I replied that there was no way the Academy would force its graduating women to wear pants.
Later that day, I was bombarded with articles, photos of women in skirts at past graduations, hashtag campaigns imploring Navy leadership to “save the skirt,” and general comments of displeasure by male and female officers. At our 2011 graduation, my female classmates and I were allowed to choose whether we wore a skirt or pants with our service dress whites (or dress blue bravos for Marines); 205 wore skirts and 1 wore pants.
I have been watching the gradual gender neutralization of the female naval officer’s uniform. Nearly all of the responses I‘ve seen to any of the planned uniform changes have been decisively negative.
Each announcement of uniform changes has prompted many heated complaint sessions among my classmates and coworkers. With the recent skirt ban, though, I began to research the issue and speak seriously with other junior officers, both men and women, about their concerns.
Apart from the unappealing style and cost of new uniform items, many young officers are concerned with the message behind this uniform change.
In a September 2015 interview with Navy Times, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus explained the reasoning behind the uniforms’ gender neutralization. He said, “It’s not to get women to wear men’s uniforms, but I do think uniforms used to segregate women, and they’re a historical accident, because women couldn’t join the Navy or Marine Corps. They joined the auxiliary, and they were given different uniforms to indicate that they weren’t full sailors or Marines.”
One month later, Secretary Mabus added, “We are ending the way we segregate by uniforms. . . . In the Navy and in the Marine Corps, we are moving toward uniforms that don’t divide us as male or female, but rather unite us as sailors or Marines.”
Contradictory to the nine years of mandatory Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) and Command Managed Equal Opportunity (CMEO) training I’ve received, these statements tell me that I am being judged by what I wear. Female Sailors and Marines are being told that looking like women is not okay. In fact, looking different hinders our prospects for success and integration in the military. This is a great disservice to both men and women of the Navy and Marine Corps, implying that women’s performance will never outweigh their appearance, and that men are too shallow to see beyond those appearances.
Junior officers are also skeptical of the claim that the gender neutralization of uniforms helps hold men and women to a single standard. In an October 2015 interview with Navy Times, a Chief of Naval Personnel spokesperson said, “We appreciate the concerns of sailors regarding uniform changes, but being in uniform, means being uniform in appearance.”
When did being in uniform equate to being uniform in appearance? Many subsets within the Navy have unique uniform options that distinguish them from others. For example, aviators may wear brown shoes with their khakis; submariners may wear sweaters with their coveralls; and surface warfare officers may choose to don what is colloquially known as the “SWOter.”
Even with changes to the combination cover, it will still be easy to identify female officers and chief petty officers by the awkward fit of the caps on their heads. Will women be required to cut their hair to certain specifications to fit more easily under a cover originally designed for men?
We ought to shift our focus from looking alike to embracing our diversity. Yes, being in uniform means being held to a certain set of standards. But those standards should ensure that every sailor and Marine looks neat and squared-away, which can be very difficult for a woman wearing clothes designed for men.
Finally, there has been much confusion among female junior officers over the rapid rollout of these new uniforms. In the Women’s Uniform Initiative 2013 Survey, female officers expressed overwhelming dissatisfaction with the comfort and fit of various uniform slacks. Women’s long-standing requests for uniform updates have been ignored, while the Navy instead focuses on quickly rolling out uncomfortable and awkward-fitting uniform items.
If these changes are meant to garner more respect for women in the service, why not respect our opinion by listening to survey results?
Instead of forcing all female officers and chiefs to purchase the alternate combination cover or men’s cover by October of this year, let women and men voice their opinions, publish those opinions, and modify uniforms in line with the requests of the fleet.
If the Navy is truly interested in retaining young female officers, can it afford to ignore our feedback?