Are Women a Threat to National Security? Why Women Can Now Serve on SubmarinesMost little girls grow up hearing some version of the phrase "You can be anything you want to be." That's mostly true, as long as the little girl in question doesn't want to grow up to be the CEO of a major company, the president of the United States, or the director of an Oscar-winning film, in which cases the odds are pretty slim.
The military is another area in which certain career paths are simply off-limits to women. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women comprise about 15 percent of the military, yet it wasn't until 1993 that they were allowed to fly fighter jets or serve on naval surface ships. Even today, women are not permitted to become Navy SEALs or perform frontline duties in combat zones, despite the fact that a large number of them are willing and eager to serve their country. Women are also currently barred from serving on submarines, although the Navy is looking to make that particular restriction a thing of the past.
No Longer a Boys' Club
In February 2010, the Navy made a move to end the ban on women and integrate submarine service. With the support of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, Defense Secretary Robert Gates sent a letter to Congress detailing the plan to welcome female submariners. The letter said that the time had come to "broaden opportunities for women" and that the military would use a "phased approach" to integration.
The ban on women submariners had nothing to do with ability; it was a matter of logistics. Official Navy policy states that women do not serve onboard "because of the very limited habitability and privacy onboard a submarine." The quarters are extremely cramped, and privacy is limited, to say the least. It would take extraordinary resources to retrofit the existing seventy-one subs in the Navy's fleet to provide separate sleeping quarters and bathroom facilities to women. Not only would it be cost prohibitive, but there simply isn't space on the vessels, which often force hundreds of sailors to share just a handful of bathrooms, and sometimes even share bunks by sleeping in shifts. However, newer submarines tend to be larger, with multiple bathrooms and sleeping areas, some of which could be designated as women-only more easily.
Some military analysts suspect that the Navy is making the move to integrate not only as a step forward in women's rights, but also because the pool of potential submariners is low, and excluding women reduces the number of qualified applicants even further. Submarine service is entirely voluntary, and before sailors are accepted into the training program, they must undergo a battery of physical and psychological tests to make sure that they're prepared for the strain of being enclosed in a submarine for months on end. Not everyone is accepted to the program, and it takes at least a year of training before a sailor can be deployed on a sub.
Are Women a Threat to National Security?
Officially, high-ranking officers in the Navy endorse the policy and claim it has support in the Navy at large. Some people, however, continue to believe that a submarine is no place for a woman. Veteran sailors have privately (and not so privately) vented that women aren't physically strong enough to do the demanding manual labor submarine service requires, and they resent having to give up their own personal space and sense of male camaraderie to accommodate women. A common complaint is that allowing women on submarines is bound to lead to shipboard sexual liaisons, deteriorating morale. Many hostile blog commenters say that women's presence will distract the men onboard from doing their jobs. Some even go so far as to suggest that these women would increase the military's already disturbingly high rates of sexual assault. In 1996, a Defense Department survey reported that 6 percent of women in the Navy reported having experienced a rape or attempted rape, and the Pentagon estimates that its official numbers represent only about 10 percent of actual attacks. "Diversity or security … pick one, because we can't have both," says a commenter on one talk radio station's Web site.
Besides worrying about the consequences of shipboard sex, some are concerned that because women can get pregnant, they are inherently a threat to national security. Theoretically, a woman who gets pregnant aboard a submarine would have to be taken to port and discharged, possibly revealing the location of the sub or affecting the readiness of the crew while her replacement is found. The Eagle Forum's Phyllis Schlafly even wrote in a 2000 editorial that women were unfit for sub duty because the "recycled" air onboard would be toxic to unborn children. The Defense Department has stated that no woman will be permitted to serve on a submarine alone, and the restrictions on pregnant sailors will be the same as in other parts of the Navy-they will be transferred to shore until they deliver, and returned to the ship once their maternity leave is up.
Baby Steps to Equality
Despite the naysayers, the Navy is moving forth with its plans to integrate submarines, unless Congress opposes the policy enough to formulate legislation making it illegal. Barring that, the stated plan is to begin by placing female officers on the ships. Since officers already have their own living quarters, no immediate retrofits would need to be made.
Because naval officers must complete a year of training before they embark on a submarine deployment, it won't be until 2011 that the first female sub officers could be instated. The Department of Defense told ABC News that it hoped for twelve to eighteen ROTC or Naval Academy cadets to begin the training process this year. Sweden, Australia, Canada, Norway, and Spain already allow women to serve on their naval submarines.
Women still may not be able to be SEALs or to participate in certain commando missions, but if they are allowed to begin serving on submarines, it will be a big step for women in the military, and a big step toward equality. Following the traditional career trajectory, a woman who enters submarine training this year could, in seventeen to eighteen years, even end up in command of the whole ship.
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