On 1 June, Admiral Linda Fagan was sworn in as the 27th Commandant of the Coast Guard—becoming the first female chief of a military service. Admiral Fagan’s appointment is an important waypoint on a long line of women’s service in the Coast Guard. Allowing women to serve in all Coast Guard positions in 1978 was a crucial first step, but accepting and valuing their service has been a longer and steeper ascent. To have reached this point, the Coast Guard has had to change and adapt its culture. Given recent trends, these changes might finally be paying off.
Women have been “performing Coast Guard duties” since before the founding of the Revenue Marine, the Coast Guard’s progenitor, in 1790.1 They were officially afforded the opportunity to serve with the Coast Guard in 1917, during World War I, only to be dismissed from service at the end of the war, then welcomed back in 1942 following U.S. entry into World War II.2 Lieutenant Commander Dorothy Stratton was appointed as the first director of the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve, soon renamed the SPARs, shorthand for the Coast Guard’s motto of Semper Paratus, Always Ready.3 Under Stratton’s leadership, the SPARs ably served alongside Coast Guard men for the duration of the war.
Not long after the end of the war in 1945, the SPARs “officially ceased to exist.” But women managed to continue to serve—albeit in small numbers and largely overlooked—in the Women’s Reserve until the 1970s, when policy reforms formalized and cemented their place in the service.4 In 1973, Congress authorized the Coast Guard to allow women to serve on both active and reserve duty, thus standing down the separate Women’s Reserve.5 The first women were commissioned from Officer Candidate School in 1973; the Coast Guard Academy’s first coed class reported to New London in the summer of 1976, with 38 female cadets; the first 24 women were assigned to sea duty in 1977; and the Coast Guard opened all ratings and career fields to women in 1978.6
Despite achieving relative parity in terms of jobs and pay more than 40 years ago, however, women have remained underrepresented in the Coast Guard. The service has increased representation from 7.5 percent in 1990 to nearly 15 percent today, but that has not kept pace with the U.S. workforce, which is now 47 percent female.7 And it is not enough to simply get more women into the service; the Coast Guard also must retain them. Across all ranks, women continue in the Coast Guard at a lower rate than their male peers.8
To address this, the Coast Guard has worked steadily to become more inclusive and welcoming for women, striving to become a place where women want to work—where they can meet their career goals, contribute to the organization’s goals, and feel accepted and valued. Armed with recommendations from two RAND retention studies, the service recently updated practices and policies to mitigate the push and pull factors related to women’s retention. Notable changes include new grooming and tattoo standards; a formal mentoring program; extended maternity and primary caretaker leave; improved collocation policies; temporary duty postpartum deferral; and weight exemptions for pregnancy, postpartum, and fertility treatment.9
Many of these policies benefit both women and men, and they already have begun to move the needle on retention. In his State of the Coast Guard address this past February, Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Karl Schultz noted that retention of midgrade officers and enlisted women in the Coast Guard is up 28 percent over the past five years.10
Given that it takes more than 25 years of service to grow a flag or general officer in the military, let alone a service chief or the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard, the percentages of female flag officers and senior enlisted leaders are lagging but important indicators of the service’s diversity. The RAND studies note that the Coast Guard would derive an especially pronounced benefit from achieving increased representation of women in its senior ranks.11 These senior positions and the people who fill them are highly visible both inside and outside the service and have a significant impact on the policies that affect the Coast Guard and its workforce.
To get a general view of the current demographics of the Sea Services’ senior ranks, one need only flip to the back of Proceedings’ annual Naval Review issue and thumb through the photo spread of “Flag Officers and Senior Enlisted Leaders of the Naval Services.” Based on analysis of that issue, the Coast Guard’s flag corps is 17 percent female, and there are no female senior enlisted leaders.12
While the 28 percent increase in retention of midgrade Coast Guard women is notable, it will take years for the senior-most ranks to reflect a corresponding uptick. Progress from past retention efforts is slow to show, but it is there. In addition to having a female Commandant, this year the Coast Guard will gain two female admirals (but lose one to retirement), and one of the six incoming senior enlisted leaders is female.13
Some may wonder why it has taken so long for a woman to be appointed as Coast Guard Commandant. After all, since 2006, the Vice Commandant position has been filled by a woman three times. While there is no satisfactory answer to why it has taken 16 years to break this particular glass ceiling, perhaps it is best to instead take comfort in that it has finally been shattered. The shrinking gap in the retention of midgrade women will eventually trickle up, resulting in more women in senior ranks and making the gender of a service chief or senior enlisted leader less notable.
In the meantime, let’s celebrate the appointment of Admiral Fagan. She undoubtedly will lead the service with distinction, in line with the proud traditions and heritage of the Coast Guard. This moment is a testament to the hard and devoted work of so many women and men of the Long Blue Line.
1. John A. Tilley, “A History of Women in the Coast Guard."
2. Tilley, “A History of Women in the Coast Guard.”
3. John T. Mason Jr., The Atlantic War Remembered: An Oral History Collection (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1990).
4. Tilley, “A History of Women in the Coast Guard.”
6. Robert Taylor, “The Coast Guard Ends a 187-year Tradition: Women at Sea,” Transportation USA (Fall 1977); Kathy A. Hamblett, “The Long Blue Line: Class of 1980—40 Years of Women at the Coast Guard Academy,” 27 November 2020; U.S. Coast Guard, “Women in the U.S. Coast Guard: Moments in History;” and Tilley, “A History of Women in the Coast Guard.”
7. U.S. Coast Guard, Commandant Publication 5312.17, “Women in the Coast Guard Study,” 10 July 1990; and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey, 2021 Household Data Annual Averages.”
8. Nelson Lim et al., Improving the Representation of Women and Racial/Ethnic Minorities among U.S. Coast Guard Active-Duty Members (Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center operated by the RAND Corporation, 2021).
9. Christine St. Claire, “Women’s Retention Rates Increasing,” MyCG.com, 17 June 2021.
10. ADM Karl Schultz, USCG, “2022 State of the Coast Guard,” 22 February 2022.
11. Kimberly Curry Hall et al., Improving Gender Diversity in the U.S. Coast Guard: Identifying Barriers to Female Retention (Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center operated by the RAND Corporation, 2021); and Lim et al., Improving the Representation of Women and Racial/Ethnic Minorities.
12. Four percent of the Navy’s unrestricted line flag officers are women (8 of 187), and 3 percent of its senior enlisted leaders (1 of 35). The Marine Corps’ generals are 4 percent female (4 of 102), and it has no female senior enlisted leaders. See “Flag Officers and Senior Enlisted Leaders of the Naval Services,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 148, no. 3 (March 2022).
13. COMCOGARD PSC Washington DC, “AY22 Command Senior Enlisted Leader Assignments (Gold Badge) Update-1,” 7 April 2022; and COMCOGARD PSC Washington DC, “AY22 Command Senior Enlisted Leader Assignments (Gold/Silver Badge),” 29 March 2022.