Updated: May 14, 2010 14:26 IST

Resistance to women on submarines

Janie Lorber
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Midshipman Jessica Wilcox at a press conference in Annapolis on Thursday. Photo: AP
Midshipman Jessica Wilcox at a press conference in Annapolis on Thursday. Photo: AP

Midshipman Jessica Wilcox, who graduates from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis this month, said she first pictured herself aboard a submarine when she was a “dreamy young person,'' long before women were allowed to join the nation's nuclear submarine service.

Now, she is among the first group of women to be tapped for the elite force, one of the military's last all-male bastions.

She is ready to break into the fraternity, though it means being submerged for three months at a time in a space no wider than a motor home, outnumbered 70 to 1 by men, many of whom will not want her there.

“I just feel blessed,'' Ms. Wilcox (21) said recently in a phone interview. “Each individual branch of the service has its ups and downs.''

The Navy announced last month that it would place women on submarine crews. By January 2012, after 15 months of training, 19 women will be assigned to four ballistic missile submarines.

The women will share a bedroom so small that only one person can stand up at a time.

When they want to use the bathroom — just two showers and two toilets for 15 officers — they will hang a sign on the door that says “women only.'' To move from bedroom to bathroom, they will walk corridors so narrow that two sailors cannot pass without pressing against each other.

But while the decision opens a prestigious career path to women and increases the Navy's recruiting pool for submarine postings, it has been met with quiet resistance within what has long been proudly called “the Silent Service,'' according to active-duty and retired submariners. The development comes amid other changes that threaten 110 years of tradition in the brotherhood, including a ban on smoking on submarines, effective December 31, and the anticipated unwinding of the “don't ask, don't tell,'' policy that bars openly gay men and lesbians from serving in the military.

John Mason, a retired senior chief petty officer who served aboard four submarines and two surface ships from 1977 to 1994, began preparing an online petition opposing the integration of women this spring.

So far, Mr. Mason has collected the signatures and comments of nearly 550 retired and active-duty military personnel, as well as their spouses — all of whom argue that submarines are no place for women.

Privately, many active-duty sailors said they believed that the decision was made for political reasons, not operational ones.

A sailor who has served on a fast-attack submarine based in Pearl Harbor since 2005 said that pregnancy would undoubtedly end up disrupting missions and that the cramped ships could not accommodate women.

“The chief of the boat calls it a brotherhood of master mariners — not a brother and sisterhood,'' said the sailor, who withheld his name because he was disagreeing with official Navy policy. “If all of a sudden they put females on my submarine, things would change so drastically, I don't think we would be able to flow as well.'' Mr. Mason said the presence of women on submarines would put an end to the kind of camaraderie “that involves close physical contact, like man hugs and bottom pats'' that sailors use to cope with the pressure of extended deployments.

The issue of allowing women on submarines has been considered and rejected several times since 1994 .

— New York Times News Service

Keywords: submarineswomen

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