I’m going to call out an admiral and a general in this post, with all due respect and only the kindest of intent.
But first, I’d like to start with a story that I’ve told elsewhere.
As a lieutenant on USS Mount Whitney, I preferred standing in port quarterdeck watches with boatswain’s mates. They were rude, profane, and funny; they had the neatest uniforms, sharpest salutes and biggest hearts of any sailor afloat. I spent a four-hour watch one hot summer afternoon in Norfolk listening to the Messenger of the Watch and Petty Officer of the Watch, two of my favorite boatswain’s mates, evaluate the physical attributes and personalities of every female sailor who walked by on the pier below. Each was deemed ugly enough to scare the white off rice, and they all eventually fell into one of two categories: sluts (who would sleep with everyone) and bitches (who would sleep with everyone but them).
Finally the Petty Officer of the Watch shook his head sadly. “Women in the Navy,” he said with a sigh of regret. “They ain’t nothin’ but a bunch of lyin, cheatin, smokin, drinkin, cussin whores.”
“Excuse me?” I said. “I beg to differ.”
They’d either forgotten either my presence, or that their Officer of the Deck just happened to be a woman in the Navy. They spun around to face me with the look of men who know that a woman holds them securely by the balls and hasn’t yet decided what to do about it. I could easily have written them up for disrespect to a commissioned officer and made the charges stick at captain’s mast.
They stammered and sweated and repeated the phrase “present company excepted, ma’am” a few times.
I smiled, and I hope it was not a particularly nice smile. “Gentlemen,” I said, “I have never in my life smoked a cigarette.”
Aboard Mount Whitney from 1995 to 1997, among the first small cohort of female sailors assigned to naval combatants, the first priority was to prove that we could do the jobs. Women had to get in the door before we could try to change the culture of gender relations in the military. Some harassment and extra work seemed, to many women in my generation, a small price to pay for that opportunity.
So I wasn’t surprised at the answers that Vice Admiral Jan Tighe and Major General Lori Reynolds, USMC, gave to an earnest young midshipman at the US Naval Institute’s annual history conference last Thursday during the question-and-answer period after the first panel discussion (“Blazing the Trail: How Did Military Women Clear the Path?”)
The midshipman noted that many people at the Naval Academy still referred to the women midshipmen as “girls,” and asked the panelists for their advice about how to handle it.
You could see the admiral and the general, two women who have spent decades kicking down the doors that kept women out and taking heat for doing it, looking at each other for a few seconds. Compared to some of the things that our generation of women have been called, “girl” might seem pretty harmless. Certainly it was among the least vulgar of the epithets many of our male shipmates tossed at us.
And the women sitting across from me, members of USNA Class of 1980 – the first to be integrated into the former bastion of nautical masculinity – sort of tittered behind their hands. “We were almost all GURLs back then,” I heard one say.
The General Unrestricted Line designator was the Navy’s early attempt to create separate-but-equal career paths for men and women. Until the mid-1990’s, the few female officers who trained in surface and air warfare were restricted to service on supply ships and in aviation transport and aggressor squadrons. The rest were designated General Unrestricted Line Officers – GURLs, correctly pronounced “gee-yoo-arr-ells” but mispronounced, when the intent was to belittle or demean, “girls.” GURLs served ashore in support positions: undersea surveillance, space and electronic warfare, and shore station management. The community’s flag billets could be filled by men who opted out of warfare communities. Despite PR to the contrary, General Unrestricted Line Officers simply did not have the same opportunities or respect as unrestricted line officers who commanded ships and squadrons.
So when, for the first fourteen weeks of Naval Officer Candidate School, where I was the only female officer candidate in my company, our drill instructor – a boatswain’s mate, and the first sailor to successfully complete the Marine Corps drill instructor school – called me nothing but “Girl” I was doubly offended. First, I started OCS as a prospective supply officer and finished as an intelligence officer – both designators staffed equally by men. I was never in the mostly-female General Unrestricted Line officer pipeline, and I resented being grouped with the GURLs just because of my gender. Second, and worse: while the drill instructors rendered to my male colleagues the small courtesy of using the surnames that would soon be preceded by “Ensign,” I remained a nameless, faceless representative of my gender, inferior and ineligible for even the tiniest scrap of respect accorded us in basic training.
So I understood immediately what the midshipman knew, and what she wanted to know when she asked her question. Being called a “girl” when all the Y-chromosome people around you are being called “men” or “midshipmen” is sexist, and it’s unacceptable in the modern Navy. At Everyday Feminism, Carmen Rios offers four reasons that it’s sexist to call grown women “girls”:
- It infantilizes them. For example, here’s something I heard several times a day at OCS: “Whitsett! Gillette! Dean! Girl! Drop and give me fifty!” If the DIs had called male officer candidates “Boy!” it would have been infantilizing and demeaning, like calling a dog: “Here, boy!”
- It perpetuates rape culture, which continues to permeate many areas of the armed forces and which is prejudicial to good order and discipline.
- It’s disrespectful. It diminishes women and contributes to the failure of many to take women seriously. In the armed forces, we’re expected to respect seniors, subordinates, and peers. Women in uniform deserve respect.
- It indicates that the speaker is not taking women seriously. The midshipman who asked that question, like her predecessors in the Class of 1980, intends to be taken seriously and wanted to know how to make it happen.
I don’t think that Admiral Tighe and General Reynolds intended not to take her seriously. I suspect that they were just thinking that other alligators are closer to the boat. But I’d bet that the midshipman found their answers unsatisfactory. I certainly did. Admiral Tighe made some remarks about how you just have to ignore some things; General Reynolds’ advice – a mantra that I particularly hated to hear when I was on active duty – was that you have to “pick your battles.”
On the whole, both things are true. The military is a rough environment and any junior officer needs to develop a thick skin. It’s how one learns to stay calm under intense pressure. Let the small stuff go, focus on the mission. It’s also true that you have to prioritize the problems you want to correct (though in my experience, far too many senior officers used the phrase “Pick your battles” as shorthand for “You don’t and won’t have my support on this issue”). Indeed, the women midshipmen of Classes 2017-2020 are still going to have to develop a thick skin about gender-related insults: from everything I hear, the environment has improved – but sexism is still rampant in the military.
But that doesn’t mean that in picking their battles, future military women have to condition themselves to overlook sexist language. This new generation is much more savvy, much better educated about toxic sexism, and much less patient with that bullshit than we were. They know it’s wrong, and they don’t want to let it slide. What I heard underlying the midshipman’s question was, “With all due respect to the women who came before us, we have already picked this battle. We want to know how to fight it and win.”
And they’re right, according to General Ann Dunwoody, USA, the morning’s keynote speaker. She said several times in her address to the conference that a good leader never walks by a mistake; if you walk by a mistake, you’ve just set a new low standard. Overlooking sexist language is walking by a mistake, and it telegraphs to the speaker that you’ve accepted a low standard. When I made a joke out of the boatswain’s mate’s assessment of Navy women, I accepted his low standard – and worse, because I was an officer and he was a petty officer, I abdicated my responsibility as an officer and accepted that he had a right to set that standard because he was a man. He was real Navy, and despite my rank, I was just an impostor.
To that midshipman: You have my sincerest apology. I was doing the best that I could at the time – but it was not good enough. Don’t ignore the insults. Don’t repeat my mistake.
When we answer the questions of the up and coming generation of military women with advice that allows problems to perpetuate, we’re walking by mistakes. We’re admitting that our standards aren’t high enough, and that we don’t expect the next generation to set higher ones. That dooms our generation of leaders to the same irrelevance in the modern military as a brontosaurus. Makes us mere historical artifacts. I’m retired now; I can afford to be an artifact. Senior women who are still in uniform: those young women need you, your highest standards, and your best advice – advice that comes not just from who we were and what we had to do, but that recognizes who the new generation is and what they should do differently.
A few hours later, after the evening panel of younger women, I wandered over to listen to Lieutenant Kayla Barron, USNA 2010, advising a couple of lieutenants junior grade – one wore a SWO pin, and I think that the other was working on earning her dolphins on either an SSBN or SSGN. I wished the midshipman who had asked the “girls” question had been there to listen, because Lieutenant Barron had the right answers. She said that she didn’t encounter sexism from peers and younger people at the Academy, but that in her capacity as aide to the academy superintendent she does have to field a lot of rude and disrespectful comments about her gender and her submarine warfare pin from older alumni, especially those who graduated in the 1960s and early 1970s. She said that you can’t change those guys; those are the ones you just have to ignore. But they’re irrelevant. They aren’t the ones who matter.
She then told the two younger officers that in dealing with sexist language in the Fleet, she found that what worked for her was to take an offender aside and point out that sexist language (the example she used was of a good and thoughtful petty officer who referred to subordinates as “pussies”) was demeaning to both men and women, and that it was not acceptable in their division or duty section. Not because it offended her, but because it wasn’t sufficiently professional. Watching her, I’d have to say that she delivered the chastisement in a firm and professional – but friendly and educational – way. She added that the proof of success came some time later: she overheard the petty officer tell a subordinate that it was not acceptable to use sexist and demeaning language, period. Not because it would offend the woman or offend the junior officer, not because it was “politically correct.” Just because it was the professional way to go on. That was the standard.
Two male midshipmen, in leadership positions judging by the rows of thin stripes on their shoulderboards, cornered her next to ask how they could better support their women classmates and the women they would serve with in the Fleet. They wanted to be better allies.
I’d love to see Lieutenant Barron with some stars on her collar one of these days. She offered younger officers the kind of advice and leadership that the next generation of military personnel – women and men – need.
A former colleague who served in the 1980s reminded me that the USNI conference was held in a rarefied atmosphere. Almost everyone attending was an active or former commissioned officer (the Marines, bless them, had sent about a half-dozen lance corporals). The service academies give future leaders four years to contemplate leadership deeply. They’re elites. And the attitudes and goals of women officers, my colleague said, aren’t always shared by young enlisted women. In her experience, junior enlisted women resented women officers’ efforts to open up new occupational specialties, seeing those efforts as attempts to further their own careers by being trailblazers at the expense of enlisted women, who had to work harder and under more adverse conditions than officers every time a new occupational specialty opened up.
I told her that in my experience – admittedly dated now, too – junior enlisted women were a lot like junior enlisted men: not all found military service a professional calling. The ones who did were willing to work hard under adverse conditions. And senior enlisted women who had made the commitment to a military career understood the necessity and advantages of opening all career paths and demanding equity in the military workplace.
Overall, I left the conference feeling heartened about the future of women in the Navy and in the armed forces. It will take time for a new attitude toward sexism to trickle down from the hallowed halls of the service academies to the engine rooms and the field. But I’m confident that it will happen. The new generation of naval leaders appears to be an improved generation, at least when it comes to sexist language.