by Tricia Menke, Curator of Education at the National Museum of the American Sailor
When President Harry S. Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act into effect on June 12, 1948, it did not automatically translate into ‘smooth sailing’ for women in the United States Navy. Despite the act’s signing, the Navy continued to segregate men and women, both during training and while in service. For many female sailors in the post-World War II era, the fight for equal opportunity remained. In perhaps the most obvious instance of inequality, it would be an additional two decades before women were allowed to serve at sea, side-by-side with their male shipmates.
Admiral Zumwalt and the Z-Grams
When Admiral Elmo Zumwalt took command in 1970 as the youngest Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) in naval history, he faced a Navy in turmoil. The pressures of the Vietnam War combined with an American public tense over equal opportunity made Admiral Zumwalt’s new position a tricky one. Among Zumwalt’s chief concerns was fleet retention. Zumwalt worked with his team to address the multitude of reasons why sailors may choose not to remain in the Navy and he addressed those concerns in his now famous “Z-Grams.” Over the next four years, Zumwalt released 121 Z-Grams, covering everything from grooming standards and alcohol use to discrimination and opportunities for women.
This August 2022, the Navy is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Z-Gram 116, which came to be known as the Navy’s “Equal Rights Amendment.” Building on Truman’s 1948 Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, Z-Gram 116 promised equal rights and opportunities for women in the Navy. The radical proposal included command opportunities for women, opened the Naval Reserve Training Corps to women, and eliminated the segregated service of male and female sailors. For the first time in history, women could serve side-by-side with men at sea (in non-medical capacities).
USS Sanctuary (AH 17)
Nearly a year later, USS Sanctuary put Z-Gram 116 into full effect, when she set sail on a three-month goodwill mission to South America. Between September and December, “Project Handclasp” traveled to Buena Ventura, Colombia and Port-at-Prince, Haiti to deliver medical aid, material aid, and civil engineering projects to the people of these communities. Amongst the 500 enlisted sailors and sixty officers of the Sanctuary were fifty-three female enlisted sailors and two female officers. They were the first female personnel to serve at sea in a non-medical role. Aboard Sanctuary, women served as machinist’s mates, radiomen, yeomen, dental technicians, boatswain’s mates, hospital corpsmen, and much more. They stood watch and performed naval duties just as their male counterparts did.
As a humanitarian medical mission, Sanctuary’s non-combatant mission was an ideal testing ground for a gender-integrated crew. Because women were already serving aboard Sanctuary with the Navy Nurse Corps, the ship already boasted separate berthing compartments. The Navy converted additional berthing and “sanitary spaces” (heads) for the additional complement of women. The Navy also added mirrors, outlets for hair dryers, and separate washer-dryers for the women’s “delicate” fabrics. While the Navy permitted female sailors to mix with their male shipmates on the mess decks, it installed a separate female lounge on the vessel for “watching TV, ironing, drying hair, polishing shoes, conversation, and playing games such as Monopoly and cards.”[i]
Upon the ship’s return to its homeport of Mayport, Florida in December 1973, Captain Thomas Rodgers, Commanding Officer of USS Sanctuary, wrote the following:
Sanctuary has passed many milestones and has surmounted many difficulties since [commissioning in] November 1972. She is successfully carrying out her mission, because she is manned by professionals who know how to do their jobs, whether in surgery, the boilers, the ship’s boats, the maternity ward, the bakery, the storerooms, the retail store. The fact that the people doing these jobs are men or women is not the important thing. The important thing is that the job is being done, and being done efficiently and professionally. This is the essence of our experiment, and its success is due to the competence and sincerity of each and every member of our crew, regardless of sex, race, national origin, or religion.[ii]
Sixteen months after Admiral Zumwalt released Z-Gram 116 and announced his pilot program of USS Sanctuary, the men and women of Sanctuary returned home as pioneers of an integrated Navy. They had proven what the CNO, and others, had long suspected. It was not gender that ensured success, but rather the competency and professionalism of the sailor.
[i] Naval Ship Engineering Center. Travel Report. 20 March 1973. Accessed via James L. Leuci. “Navy Women in Ships: A Deployment To Equality, 1942-1982.” https://www.history.navy.mil/content/dam/museums/hrnm/Education/Women%20in%20Ships%201978%2020160207.pdf
[ii] U.S. Navy. The Sanctuary Experience, 15 December 1971 14 December 1973. Accessed https://archive.org/details/SanctuaryExperience19711973/mode/2up