Uncharted Waters: Women in Submarines

by Kelly Duffy, NMAS Deputy Director

The United States Navy’s core values of honor, courage, and commitment serve as a driving force for all sailors. While women were not officially welcomed in the Navy until 1908 with the establishment of the Navy Nurse Corps, throughout the Navy’s history they embraced these core values by occupying unofficial roles since the Navy’s earliest beginnings. In 2010, the Navy lifted another barrier to women’s equality when then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates lifted the ban on females serving on submarines.[1] In the twelve years since that ban lifted, women in submarines faced many challenges but through it all their drive for honor, courage, and commitment pushed them into uncharted waters.

To launch the Women in Submarines (WIS) program, the WIS Task Force formed in 2009 to provide flag-level oversight to the program. When asked about the WIS Task Force in 2021, WIS Coordinator at Commander, Submarine Force Atlantic Lt. Sabrina Reyes-Dods said, “The WIS Task Force, a flag-led task force, first developed a comprehensive and deliberate plan for the integration of women officers onto submarines based on other lessons learned from other Navy communities.” The plan to start with the integration of women officers provided a top-down approach to integration while also preparing for mentorship to enlisted women sailors who wanted to become submariners.[2]

April 13, 2021- Electronics Technician (Navigation) 2nd Class Olivia Otto, assigned to the Blue Crew aboard the Ohio-class guided-missile submarine USS Ohio (SSGN 726), from Aurora, Missouri, poses for a photo in control. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kelsey J. Hockenberger)

To prepare, female officers first went through specialized training to be fully ready for life onboard a submarine. The first female officers reported to Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines in 2011,  just one year after the ban on females on submarines lifted.[3] Then in 2013, the Navy announced plans to start training female enlisted sailors for service onboard submarines. Unlike the Yeomans and Yeomanettes of World War I, there are no different terms to annotate between female and male submariners; the term is simply “submariner.” WIS Coordinator Lt. Reyes-Dod said, “We hope that future generations of women will take inspiration from our current female submarine Sailors and officers to pursue their own careers as submariners. From its inception, female submariners have always wanted to be treated as submariners, not ‘female submariners.”  As the first female sailors serving about submarines in the history of the United States Navy, they faced numerous challenges, including joining an existing an all-male crew and no gender specific accommodations aboard the vessel. This lack of separation created problems within the first few years of integration. In 2015, the Navy charged eleven sailors over secretly filming and distributing video of female officers on the USS Wyoming (SSBN-742) over a tenth month period. [4] A 2014 investigation found it to be a second-class petty officer who recorded the videos, and then distributed to others.[5] The Navy convicted six sailors and acquitted one at court-martial, and it found three guilty at Captain’s Mast.

These actions sparked a 2014 overhaul of the berthing area for current and future female officers and sailors on Virginia-class attack submarines.  “We are looking forward to mixed-gender officer, chief petty officers, and enlisted on our submarines going forward. It’s a must, it’s the right decision and we’re moving forward,” Said Rear Adm. David Johnson, the Program Executive Officer for Submarines in 2014 as the redesigns started. [6] The redesign was imperative for mixed gender crews as it allowed for adequate privacy. Beyond the separate sleeping and bathing areas, new features included lowering valves and knobs, adding steps in front of bunks and stacked washer and dryers, better seat adjustment so shorter submariners can comfortably reach joysticks, and connecting emergency air masks to passageway sides instead of overhead, all done with both male and female body sizes in mind. [7]

January 23, 2021- Chief Information Systems Technician (Submarine) Jessica Cooper, assigned to the Gold crew of the Ohio-class guided-missile submarine USS Ohio (SSGN 726), stands dive of the watch in control. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kelsey J. Hockenberger)

Two years after announcing their intent to train female enlisted sailors, the Navy began training female enlisted submariners in 2015.[8] On August 2, 2016, Chief Petty Officer Dominique Saavedra had the honor to be the first enlisted sailor to earn her submarine qualifications. She earned her dolphin pin in a ceremony at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington.[9] CPO Saavedra said, “I couldn’t be more proud to wear the ‘dolphins’. To have earned the respect of my fellow submariners is more rewarding than expected.”[10] CPO Saavedra was one of three dozen female enlisted sailors that trained to earn their dolphins in 2016, marking their places in naval history.

August 2, 2016- Chief Culinary Specialist Dominique Saavedra, assigned to USS Michigan (SSGN 727)(Blue), is pinned with her enlisted submarine qualification during a ceremony at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. Saavedra the first female enlisted Sailor to earn the “dolphins.” (U.S. Navy photo my Chief Mass Communication Specialist Kenneth G. Takada/RELEASED)

Unfortunately the transition to integrated crews hit another bump in June 2018 with the discovery of  a “Rape List” that sexually rated thirty-two enlisted female submariners onboard the USS Florida (SSGN 728), the second submarine to integrate enlisted female sailors. This list resulted in sailors being “administratively discharged”, an Inspector General investigation, the firing of the Florida’s Commanding Officer, and a review of the force by a then-top submarine operational commander.[11]

Despite these challenges, female submariners’ commitment to be part of the “silent service” and to the United States Navy proved stronger than their obstacles. By 2019, there were eighty-four female officers on nineteen submarine crews and 219 enlisted female sailors serving on eight crews, with an ever-growing demand for female submarine billets.[12] The Navy’s goal of fourteen integrated enlisted crews by 2030 is well within reach.[13] These female sailors’ commitment to service and to paving the way for future enlisted sailors is remarkable. Like their male counterparts, female enlisted sailors prove to be just as willing to serve in all capacities of the Navy and to uphold the core values of honor, courage, and commitment, which has bound all sailors together since the Navy’s beginnings, regardless of their gender.

Works Cited:

  1. Stoner, Cameron Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class. “Women in Submarines: 10 Years Later.” United States Navy, Navy Press Office, 25 June 2021, https://www.navy.mil/Press-Office/News-Stories/Article/2671640/women-in-submarines-10-years-later/.
  2. Stoner, “Women in Submarines”.
  3. Stoner, “Women in Submarines”.
  4. Myers, Meghann. “10th Sailor Disciplined in Submarine Shower Video Case” Navy Times. 27 October 2015. https://www.navytimes.com/news/your-navy/2015/10/27/10th-sailor-disciplined-in-submarine-shower-video-case/#:~:text=Nearly%20a%20year%20after%20documents,the%20original%20suspects%20awaiting%20proceedings.
  5. Myers, Meghann. “12 Sailors Implicated in Submarine Shower Scandal” Navy Times, 11 December 2014, https://www.navytimes.com/news/your-navy/2014/12/12/12-sailors-implicated-in-submarine-shower-scandal/.
  6. Larter, David B. “Virginia Subs to Get Berthing Changes for Female Crew” Navy Times, 23 October 2014, https://www.navytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2014/10/23/virginia-subs-to-get-berthing-changes-for-female-crew/.
  7.  McDermott, Jennifer The Associated Press. “Women in the Military: US Navy Redesigning its Submarines” Navy Times, 19 April 2017, https://www.navytimes.com/news/your-navy/2017/04/19/women-in-the-military-us-navy-redesigning-its-submarines/.
  8. Tribune News Services. “1st Enlisted Female Sailor Gets Submarine Qualification.” Chicago Tribune. 04 August, 2016, https://www.chicagotribune.com/nation-world/ct-first-female-sailor-submarine-qualification-20160804-story.html.
  9. Tribune, “1st Enlisted Female Sailor Gets Submarine Qualifications”.
  10. Tribune, “1st Enlisted Female Sailor Gets Submarine Qualifications”.
  11. Farman, Mark D. “Male Sailors Created ‘Rape List’ of Female Shipmates on Georgia-Base Submarine”. Navy Times, 19 May 2019. https://www.navytimes.com/news/your-navy/2019/05/19/male-sailors-created-rape-lists-of-female-shipmates-on-georgia-based-submarine/.
  12. Werner, Ben. “Submarine Community Can’t Meet Demand from Female Sailors.” USNI News, 11 November 2019, https://news.usni.org/2019/11/11/available-submarine-billets-outpaced-by-demand-from-female-sailors.
  13. Tribune, “1st Enlisted Female Sailor Gets Submarine Qualifications”.
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One thought on “Uncharted Waters: Women in Submarines

  1. Pingback: The D Brief: Nuclear inspectors in Ukraine; More aid coming; US foils Iran robot-boat theft; Navy’s first female COB; And a bit more... – The Insight Post

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