A piece of history slipped by in the night a little while ago. To quote USNI News:
“Last night, two of our forward-deployed ships, the USS Porter (DDG-78) and the USS Ross (DDG-71), conducted strikes into Syria. . . . I just want to say that the commanding officers of both those ships, Russ Caldwell and Andria Slough, performed magnificently, along with their crews,” said Admiral Michelle Howard, Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe.
The historic part is not the missile attack, or even that two of the three commanders mentioned are women. What is historic is that the “two of the three are women” part was not news.
That is the Navy’s unofficial policy on gender: just the way we do business; nothing to see here. In many ways, it is an admirable approach. If you want something to be normal, treat it as normal. But the Navy does not operate in a vacuum. It’s the sister service of the U.S. Marine Corps. Well, they are sisters traditionally and operationally, but in this particular area, they are mortal enemies. The Marines have decided to fight gender integration, both officially and deviously. Eventually they will lose, and they will pay a big price, but in the meantime, the Marines have succeeded in postponing giving women full status. They also have managed to set the stage for a long retrograde action by diminishing their ability to recruit outstanding women.
Then there is the Army. Navy people don’t think about the Army much, but the Army is going through much the same thing the Navy did when it first started true gender integration. The Army will face many of the same problems as the Navy, especially with respect to changing the male culture that stands as the one true barrier. That means 20-plus years of mistakes and corrections before it, too, gets to the point that women serving in combat “is not news.”
It may come as a surprise to Navy personnel, but the vast majority of Army personnel have no idea what role women have come to play in the Navy or how they got there. Nor do many soldiers know what mistakes the Navy made along the way or how they were corrected. This is not a good thing.
Even more important, most citizens have no idea the role women play in the Navy. Young civilian men and women do not realize women command combat ships or crew them, much less that a woman admiral might command them. Most Americans have no idea that nearly a third of Naval Academy midshipmen are women or that that percentage will continue to grow.
Equal opportunity is coming; it’s inevitable. But there is nothing inevitable about how we get there or how long it will take. There is no way around it: the Navy has an enormous role to play.
And there is the Navy’s dilemma. On the one hand, the whole point of gender integration is to get to the place where women serving in combat roles is not news. One way to further that momentum is to not draw attention to the issue, to treat gender integration on board ships as unworthy of mention.
On the other hand, the Navy is a national institution. It has a responsibility, not just to itself but also to the country, to further the same process of gender integration it helped pioneer. Role models and imagery are incredibly important. They shape the minds of young people, and none more so than the images and stories that show the Navy’s success. It is not enough that women command combat ships; people have to see that women command those ships. In this time of vast social change and confusion, women and men need to understand that leadership and courage are no longer gender-defined, that there are plenty of female role models, and their ranks are growing.
The Navy has decisions to make. You can’t hide something and promote it at the same time. If you elect to say “we take care of our own” and that is the end of it, fine. But if you see a larger responsibility to the country—including validation of the strategies and hard work the Navy has put into this effort over the past 20 years—you must take action. It isn’t enough to say “we’re not hiding it”; the information and imagery have to be readily and widely available. The history of how it happened—warts and all—needs to be easily accessible to the public.
The issue isn’t publishing pictures of women on ships; it’s publishing pictures of women and men on ships. But it’s much more than pictures. The Navy has a responsibility to actively get out this powerful story. The public needs to know that the first names of the two commanding officers who fired those missiles were Russ and Andria, that their crews have both male and female names, and that is just the way things are in the Navy.
We are witnessing a moment in history. The Navy successfully navigated the integration of women into combat roles. Now it has the opportunity to demonstrate its success to the nation, and it needs to seize that opportunity.
Professor Purvis teaches at New York University and writes about gender issues in the military.