Editor’s note: Women have been serving in the U.S. military as far back as the Revolutionary War. They served in the Army Nurse Corps in World War I and II, and in clerical, mechanical and other positions, with some even serving as test pilots. However, women were prohibited from serving in combat positions. In December 1987, Proceedings published an article by Lieutenant Niel Golightly, which argued against women serving in military combat positions. While many agreed with him at the time, his position was controversial and opinions were changing; a rebuttal was published a few months later. The Department of Defense’s 1994 ban on women serving in combat was lifted in 2013.
A 2 July 2020 article in the New York Times reported that Boeing’s Communication Chief, Niel Golightly, resigned over an article he had written in Proceedings 33 years ago, when he was 29 years old. The news of his resignation begs for explanation, or at least the benefit of societal context.
In his December 1987 Proceedings article “No Right to Fight,” Golightly argued against women serving in combat, not because of capability but because of concerns around unit cohesion and logistical requirements. As one of the first women to integrate into the Army's all-male Apache helicopter ranks, I take issue with a number of Golightly’s facts and perspectives, while respecting a considered difference of opinion. In keeping with Stephen Hawking’s observation that “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change,” it seems the older Golightly would concur with my objections. The issues themselves had and continued to have much consideration immediately after the publication of his article and in the years that followed.
Golightly served in the Navy for nearly 14 years, including time as a fighter pilot and, toward the end of his service, as a speechwriter for then–Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell. He then worked in senior executive positions in the corporate world for more than a decade before his seven months at Boeing, where it was noted that he had planned sweeping changes. He has an impressive CV, including an undergraduate degree from Cornell University, graduating Phi Beta Kappa, where he both rowed and participated in Navy ROTC, and degrees from Saïd Business School, the University of Oxford, the Naval War College (where he completed work as an Olmsted Scholar), and Rice University. While there is little to be found about his conduct in those assignments, the contribution from his recent employment at Shell is supportive of exceptional work: The former head of communications at Royal Dutch Shell told The New York Times that Golightly had been an exemplary employee and had “promoted female talent within the team.”
Of his 1987 musings as a young naval officer, much has already been said, and if one feels it to be misguided and misinformed, it is at least an exceptionally well-articulated argument against women serving in combat. Proceedings published a follow-on piece in 1988 with several responses to his piece, introducing the excerpts with the explanation that “few articles have promoted so many readers to take a stand as Lieutenant Golightly’s.”
“The article I wrote—with arguments I disowned soon after—makes for painful reading,” Golightly, now 62, wrote in an email that he shared with The New York Times on 8 July 2020. “Painful because it is wrong. Painful because it is offensive to women. Painful because it reminds me of the sharp and embarrassing education the uninformed and unformed ‘me’ of that time received as soon as the piece appeared.”
Interviewed by the Times, Golightly said the views he expressed as a young pilot in no way represent what he believes today. He said people should have room to mature and change their ideas as their careers progress without being judged on opinions they had decades ago.
Reasonable people must surely agree. Elizabeth Warren was a Republican into her 40s before changing parties. In the current climate, life-long Republicans Max Boot and Steve Schmidt have publicly revoked their party affiliations. Thoughtful people change their minds.
What qualifies as the mainstream center of public opinion moves, too. No matter what era of history is queried, societies change with shifts in public understanding and opinions of people and policy. Much work surely remains, yet there is no doubt that the country has moved forward from the time of women’s suffrage 100 years ago and civil rights in the 1960s in the areas of both gender and race. When I served in the military, homosexuality was explicitly forbidden. Today service members of all sexual orientations serve proudly.
So why would Golightly resign? Assuming nothing untoward to which the public is not privy, the argument has less to do with his long-ago position on women serving in combat, and more to do with the intersection of the politically charged and highly sensitive times in which we are living, combined with a corporate culture walking on eggshells after massive setbacks of the past 15 months.
In June, Reuters reported that Boeing deliveries were at a 60-year low. Just more than a month later, on 14 July 2020, Reuters reported that after deliveries declined 71 percent in the first half of the year, Boeing customers cancelled orders for 355 of its 737MAX airplanes. The combined impact of the failures of the 737MAX and cratering of air travel as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic have combined to put Boeing in a challenging position. The added intensity of societal pressures relating to social and racial equality must, it seemed, have made normal operations impossible, so that when an employee anonymously complained about Golightly’s three-decades-old article, Boeing’s CEO did not have enough imagination to save his employee from his long ago past.
Still, short of unknown circumstances, requiring the resignation of an executive for an article written 33 years ago that offered a viewpoint that was then considered in the mainstream seems impossible to excuse. Any military officer worth the metal her bars are made of understands that taking care of people is the most important role of a leader. The CEO of Boeing has either succeeded in this charter, gracefully permitting an exit for something unknown to the rest of us, or failed and succumbed to the pressures of a tumultuous time, where Golightly was shown to be expendable, a sacrifice to the zeitgeist.
Golightly will weather the storm. The loss is Boeing’s, it seems, but it is also a shot across the bow, as Golightly would know from the Navy, for a culture that has become so sensitive to taking offense that it has become impermissible to express a contrary opinion, even one recanted from decades past. As someone who has lived in a world where few supporters were to be found, I know there is no better ally than someone who has done the deep work to come to a conclusion evolved from earlier perspectives. From what might be gleaned from Golightly’s resignation, I hope he will find another position where he can use the strength of his carefully considered change of perspective for good.