Life to Change on Submarines

One of the last all-male enclaves in the military will now be letting in women, according to an announcement by the Navy on Thursday.  I have mixed initial reactions to this.

Certainly, women make valuable contributions to the military, and I’d like women to have the same opportunities in the work force as men do (though I’ll save the topic of anti-discrimination law for another day).  Furthermore, there are definite benefits from moving to gender-mixed work forces.  There may be increased sexual tension, but my experience is that men tend to behave better in mixed company than when they are by themselves.

Maybe this really is a non-story.  The Navy would like us to think so.  One sub commander says,

We’re going to look back on this four or five years from now, shrug our shoulders and say, ‘What was everybody worrying about?'” said Bruner, the top sub commander at Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in coastal Georgia, where the announcement was made.

On the other hand,

There were some protests, particularly from wives of sub sailors, after the military began formulating a plan last fall.

Supposedly, the protesting wives were concerned more about women taking jobs and advancement opportunities from their husbands, but one has to wonder if that was the real reason (since women are serving all over the military without organized protests by military wives).

One also has to wonder that if this is really no big deal, why the Navy has no immediate plans to put female enlisted personnel on subs.  Officers have considerably more privacy on subs than enlisted crew members do.  Mixing the sexes amongst enlisted sailors seems fairly problematic.

Maybe this is just the march of progress, but I have a couple of points I worry about:

  1. I think there are a whole host of gender-related issues that the military prefers not to talk about because they get a lot of pressure to be politically correct.  Certainly there is an ugly history (Tailhook, etc.) of sexual harassment in the military and in the Academies.  And in conversations with military people, I have heard reports that, in many cases, the physical performance standards for certain tasks are altered for women.  I doubt that these are significant  (and probably not relevant to being an officer in a sub), but I don’t think we know the full story.
  2. The worries of wives who have husbands on submarines shouldn’t be ignored.  And the families of the women put on subs also might have some legitimate concerns.   Military service can be very hard on families.  This move might make things even harder.

Lastly, this is odd:

The Navy declined several requests by The Associated Press to interview female sailors and cadets at U.S. bases about the policy change.

Hmmmmm.  Probably nothing to worry about.

5 thoughts on “Life to Change on Submarines

  1. I am a spouse of an active duty submariner. Many of the wives have legitimate concerns and speak for ourselves and most importantly our husbands…many do not realize that these sailors have been told what their opinion will be on this subject.
    Physical performance standards, pregnancy(whether it happens in port or underway), sexual harassment(there have been false allegations in the past)…etc.
    My main concern is for the safety of my husband while on a deployment. Navy wives and families, especially those of a submariner, are being scapegoated as the bad seeds of this right now…it is insulting.
    I do not doubt that a woman can handle the job…but I do not believe the environment on a submarine is appropriate for a co-ed crew.

    Thank you for not bashing the concerns of the wives/family members as the Navy is doing at this very moment.

  2. There is so much cognitive dissonance in all branches of the military when it comes to gender issues that they almost seem schizophrenic. I have only my own experience in the army (7 years) and discussions with other soldiers on this issue so none of my observations are “scientific” but they do seem valid.

    Physical performance standards: Easy, in the army there were two sets of standards, but the policies are set up so as to deny this reality. At the army parachute school (in the early 90s anyway) for instance, they actually broke down the physical training sections into a male group and a female group. We ran on a track so you could really tell how different the expectations were; the men’s group would lap the women’s group, sometimes more than once depending on the length of the run. The instructors would harp on the need for upper body strength, and make you do pull-ups to reinforce this, except women weren’t required to do them. At the end of the training and to cap off the farce, men and women were back to being “equal” as a woman was presented with the Distinguished Graduate Award which was based, in part, on how well the student met physical fitness standards.

    I attended language school in Monterey, CA in the late eighties. The non-married students were housed in (remember we’re trying to deny gender differences) co-ed dorms. Disaster. The company, made up of four platoons of approx. fifty personnel, and with administrative staff included, consisted of around 230-250. In one month we had five single, enlisted females come up pregnant, a couple from having dallied with married NCOs. Most of the young women decided to exit the army at that point. Tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars were in effect wasted per person as each had been through basic training, some advanced training and the period they had spent in language school. In addition, the military ended up paying for all the hospital care that accompanied the pregnancies. This same sad story was repeated in every unit I ever served in where females and males were put together for extended periods of time.

    For the army there also were logistical issues surrounding females deployed in the field. As an infantryman during my first few years of service we could go weeks without a real shower even during training missions. Upon changing my MOS (job-type) into a field that was co-ed, I was quickly made aware of the special provisions required when placing women into forward areas. It was no small thing either.

    Finally, I would like to point out the inherent difficulties of comparing military service to a civilian “work force;” different rules, different goals, different attitudes required. I know that was not your intent, but I just wanted to mention it.

  3. As a Submarine Spouse, I am also flabbergasted in the way this transition is being handled. Any concerns voiced by the spouses are immediately put down as them being “insecure” or jealous that their husbands are going underway with women. I always find the insecure argument interesting…. My husband is currently stationed aboard his 4th Submarine and when he is deployed we go weeks, if not months, without ANY communication… When they finally do allow email, it must be kept to 250 words or less per day and is read by approximately 4 people before being transmitted to the sailor (to verify there is no upsetting information, security information, etc). This is the only communication for up to 6 months at a time. Any “insecure” individual would have a difficult time surviving just this one aspect of sub life. This is just one small example of the many challenges that we face as submarine spouses. We are a tough crowd and make incredible sacrifices to support our husband’s careers so when we do voice concerns, they deserve consideration rather than immediately being dismissed and our entire group being degraded. I find it interesting that in all the coverage of this matter, I still have yet to see an interview with a Sub spouse….I can tell you there are plenty that would love to give their view but for some reason, we have been excluded from coverage. To reiterate Chrissie’s point, the sailors were told not to answer any questions so that the military can show a united front on the integration…interesting!

    As far as logistics, I agree with the concerns over different Physical readiness standards and the Navy is similar to the Army with having standards that are seperate (and less difficult) for women. Another aspect that I find interesting, since Admiral Bruner keeps speaking about the women being held to the EXACT standard as the male submariners- is the issue of pregnancy. For a male sailor, when his spouse gives birth, he is given 10 days paternity leave – AS LONG AS THE BOAT IS NOT DEPLOYED. For female sailors, the Admiral has stated that they will be removed from the submarine as soon as a pregnancy is discovered and Navy regulation allows for a female sailor to be removed from sea duty for a year AFTER SHE GIVES BIRTH. So if a female sailor does get pregnant, she will be unavailable to fulfill her responsibilities for approximately 19-20months (counting pregnancy/sea maternity leave). During this time it will be up to the male sailors to pick up the slack and fulfill the responsibilities of her job…which doesn’t seem very equal to me since that seems to be the main argument of everyone who supports this transition.
    I do appreciate your fair evaluation of this situation!

  4. Sven, the point you and the other commenters bring out that is worth making is this: one question is how well female submariners can carry out their tasks, and to what extent the tasks of the submarines and crews are advanced or retarded by having co-ed crews. But that’s not the real problem. The real problem is that, given the politicization of the issue, we may never know the facts which would allow for a realistic assessment of the potential benefits and drawbacks. Here, as elsewhere, the first casualty of politics is truth.

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