Firsts, and Nexts

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Queen Boudicea

As the first woman to command a commissioned Navy vessel in 1990, I have been asked to comment on many other firsts. I recently was asked by CBS News to comment on the assignment of Brigadier General Loretta Reynolds as the first female commanding general of the Marine Recruiting Depot at Parris Island, N.C. Simultaneously, I also was interviewed regarding Rear Admiral Nora Tyson as the first woman to command a carrier strike group by Stars and Stripes.

I am reminded about my recent post about Vice Admiral Ann Rondeau’s ideas about how women are progressing in the Navy. She seemed to adhere to a philosophy that gender doesn’t matter. Well, I argue it does. And this firsts scenario is a prime example of why it does.

In the Stars and Stripes article, I wonder if my expertise derived from the fact that I was the first woman to command a ship (it shouldn’t), or if it is because in my next life, I became an expert in military sociology and gender issues in the military (it should). I have to admit that my command tour was anything but brilliant. I was a junior lieutenant commander. I commanded a ship less than 200 feet long, and less than 1,800 tons displacement, with 100 sailors on board.

Yes, I was the only woman. It was commissioned in 1944, though never saw combat in World War II. And in a post in which I commented on the spate of commanding officer firings in the past year or so (more on that in a later post), I was (respectfully — ha-ha) chastised for not knowing what I was talking about since I “only” commanded a “service craft that never deployed.”

Of course, this got my goat up. After all, my ship deployed to Desert Storm in the eastern Mediterranean in 1991. So — for what it’s worth — I was also the first U.S. Navy woman to command a ship in a combat zone (I qualify this because in ancient history Queen Boudicea, a first century Briton, commanded a ship against the Romans). My ship also participated in Hurricane Andrew relief operations in 1992, for which we received the Humanitarian Service Medal.

There would have been other awards, but my bosses thought, wrongfully as I now understand, that because of my “visibility as the first woman to command a navy ship”, I received undue kudos and accolades. After all, I was also awarded the “Woman of the Year” for Hampton Roads Business Association in 1991 (which, I thought, was a coup for the Navy, since later that year the Tailhook scandal broke).

So I guess what I am saying is…yes, firsts matter. A person does not become a first without some extremely hard work and excellent work habits and successes. I never thought I would be the first woman to command a naval vessel. But I did plan my career around one day becoming a ship captain. That I was the first was just coincidence. I believe all the other women firsts feel the same way…they were monitoring their careers, as men do, with the intent of doing the “hard” jobs that would put them in line for both promotion and command.

The fact that they were firsts was only because the culture of the military was such that women were not even considered for those commands until they fulfilled all the requirements of the billet. After 35 or more years — since women were first allowed to serve on surface ships in the Navy and as pilots in all the services — women have been putting along, doing their jobs, and finally reaping the rewards of command. That some happen to be the first ones to do so, is simply icing on the cake.