Women have played a critical role in the history of the Navy since the mid-19th century. The Navy Nurse Corps was established by Congress on 13 May 1908, officially allowing women to be in the Navy. Clerical shortages during World War I resulted in the first large-scale enlistment of women into the Navy, the second large-scale enlistment came just before WWII when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Public Law 689 which created the Navy’s women reserve program on 30 July 1942. Public Law 689 opened the door for women enlistees and officers. Women today serve in every rank from seaman to admiral and in virtually every naval job.
Prior to the Navy Nurse Corps being established, in 1862 the Sisters of the Holy Cross served aboard the USS Red Rover which was the Navy’s first hospital ship. During WWI, 11,000 women enlisted in the Navy on 17 March 1917, with most working in the Washington DC as draftsmen, interpreters, couriers, and translators. Later in the war, 24 African-American women were enlisted to work in the Navy Department building.
During WWII 11,000 Navy nurses served at naval bases, on hospital ships, in field hospitals, on airplanes, and on hospital ships. Between 1941 and 1945 eleven Navy nurses were prisoners of war in the Philippines and they received the Bronze Star. Lieutenant Ann Bernatitus was lucky enough to escape the Philippines just before the Japanese invaded and she later became the first recipient of the Legion of Merit award. The first African-American WAVES officers were commissioned during WWII also; Lieutenant (j.g.) Harriet Ida Pickens and Ensign Frances Willis were commissioned in December 1944. Also in 1944 the Navy Nurse Corps Sue Dauser, the director, received a full commission at the rank of Captain, becoming the first female to receive the rank.
Women were not allowed to serve during peacetime until the passage of the Women’s Armed Forces Integration Act of 30 July 1948. This act gave women the ability to serve, but with some restrictions. Edna Young became the first African-American female to serve in the regular Navy and later retired as a Chief. The first WAVES officer to receive orders for shipboard duty was Lieutenant Charlene T. Suneson, USNR, who reported for duty on board USS General W.A. Mann in 1961.
The 1970s were a busy time for Navy women, as their roles and responsibilities expanded. Captain Arlene Duerk (a veteran of both WWII and the Korean War) was promoted to Director, Navy Nurse Corps in 1970, and in 1972 she became the Navy’s first female admiral. In 1972 the Fire Fighting School, Naval Station, Treasure Island, San Francisco, CA trained the first team of Navy women. Hospitalman Elena J. Peckenpaugh was part of that first Fire Fighting School team and was assigned to USS Sanctuary, the first ship to have a male-female crew. In 1974 the first Navy female aviator, Lt. (j.g.) Barbara Allen Rainey earned her wings on 22 February. Women were admitted to the Naval Academy in 1976, giving them the same opportunities as their male counterparts. In the fall of 1976 81 women entered the academy, and four years later 55 of them graduated. Navy Nurse Joan C. Bynum became the first African-American female to be promoted to the rank of captain in 1978. Also in 1978 women were able to be assigned to other ships besides hospital ships, including tenders, oilers, and other auxiliary ships.
The 1980s and 90s saw women in the Navy continue to break down barriers. In the early 1980s female helicopter pilots were able to land their aircraft on aircraft carriers, which has been said to be one of the most challenging maneuvers for a pilot. In 1990 Captain Marsha J. Evans assumed command of Naval Station, Treasure Island, San Francisco, CA making her the first female to command a naval station. Also in 1990, Lieutenant Commander Darlene Iskra became the first woman to command a ship. Women were first allowed to serve on combatant ships in 1993, when Congress repealed the Combat Exclusion Law. Rear Admiral Louise C. Wilmot assumed command of Naval Base Philadelphia on 7 July 1993, making her responsible for all naval stations and facilities in the Philadelphia area. The Navy was lucky to have two three-star female officers in the 1990s as well, Carol Mutter became the first and Patricia Tracey the second, just months after Mutter. Lillian Fishburne was the first African-American female promoted to flag rank in 1998 and on 10 June 1998 Commander Maureen A. Farren was the first woman to command a Combatant ship, the USS Mount Vernon.
With the dawn of the new century, women in the Navy are still paving the way for equality. In 2008 Captain Barbara A. Sisson retired after a 28-year career in the Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps. She was the first female instructor at the Civil Engineer Corps Officer School and the first female regimental commodore of a CD regiment. Zenaida Colon, the Navy’s only female master chief aviation support equipment technician joined the USS Bataan. In 2010 women were first assigned to Ohio-class submarines and the first woman to head a Carrier Air Wing was Commander Sara Joyner. Joyner was also promoted to Captain that year. In 2012 Vice Admiral Nanette DeRenzi became the 42nd Judge Advocate General of the Navy. Michelle Howard became the first woman to be promoted to the rank of four-star admiral in 2014 and that same year Rear Admiral Margaret Kibben became the first female chief of Navy Chaplains.
To learn more about women in the Navy you can visit https://www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/diversity/women-in-the-navy.html.