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In the Navy: Gender, Class and Sexual Harassment

In the fall of my junior year at Stanford, I walked past a Navy recruiting table at a career fair. I went several steps further. Then I stopped, turned around, and went back.
Maia Beth Goodell

Issue #42, March 1999

In the fall of my junior year at Stanford, I walked past a Navy recruiting table at a career fair. I went several steps further. Then I stopped, turned around, and went back.

I had been intrigued for some time by this organization--so mysterious to my liberal, middle-class world--one of the last holdouts of overt male dominance. There was, in even the most resolute of feminist discourses, a hint that the military was properly the realm of testosterone, of male aggression. Women in the military were unequal because they could not measure up physically, mentally, to the standards of the warlike society they had voluntarily chosen. It was their fault: what were they doing there anyway?

I was fascinated by the clean-cut man in dress uniform standing behind the recruiting table, by the glossy brochures carefully depicting men and women, black and white, engaged in technical-looking tasks on ships. The enlistment process egged me on, showing me a conflicted organization: the brochures depicted women driving ships, but when I called they transferred me to nursing. When I finally reached the right program, though, they cheerfully recruited me as a Surface Warfare Officer.

I did not join lightly; I had examined my beliefs deeply, and I realized the practical and ethical consequences of my decision--substantially more so, I think, than most college graduates choosing a job. I enlisted on June 9, 1992.

The backdrop to this decision was the Tailhook scandal.

In 1991, Lieutenant Paula Coughlin, a Naval aviator, attended the Tailhook convention at the Las Vegas Hilton. She was sexually assaulted in a corridor by a group of men forming the now-infamous "gauntlet." Her initial complaint was dismissed by her superiors, and only received attention when she made her story public. The general conclusion was that Navy men made a routine practice of assaulting women. This may have been exaggerated, but there are many who remember the "Old Navy," in which enlisted women held secretarial positions and were available for sex on demand, while officer women were nurses or perhaps shore-based support staff, virginal and aloof, inevitably marrying and quitting the service. Eventually, a few women managed to occupy positions of (some) power, largely through an unending cycle of proving themselves to be men's equals, and often earning the label of lesbian for their trouble. They became, professionally, one of the guys.

I imagined that LT Coughlin attended the Tailhook convention in the spirit of being one of the guys. But there, it became even harder to fit in; she could not, in that sexually charged atmosphere, escape the fact that she was a woman. She found herself unable to engage in the convention's social activities on the male side, and unwilling to engage on the female side. She was undoubtedly not the first woman in this position, but, for whatever reason, her case was brought to national attention. Suddenly the military was no longer sheltered from the outside world. The behavior of the Tailhook aviators had become unacceptable by outside society's standards--in the non-military world, culture was evolving towards (at least a veneer of) equality for women. A shocked public discovered the inequity sheltered in the military, and demanded change.

Overpowered by the immense strength of public opinion, top military officials were forced to effect the change. An exhaustive investigation of Tailhook was conducted, and wrongs redressed, but this was not enough. Officials realized that the only way to keep their jobs was to concede to large-scale equality. This would mean eradicating the old culture that had been preserved in the military.

New rules were put into place. The military has a unique structure that allowed cultural change to be ordered upon thousands of people, instantaneously. Dozens of new billets were open to women. Entire days were devoted to training in sexual harassment. The famous "red light/yellow light/green light" pamphlet was developed to explain unacceptable behavior. Red light behavior was never acceptable: quid pro quo, sexual touching; yellow light behavior was sometimes acceptable but required sensitivity to possible objections: non-sexual touching, off-color jokes; green light behavior was always acceptable: complimenting someone on her professional appearance. Suddenly, a charge of sexual harassment would end a career. The bottom line was clear: the Navy would no longer tolerate overt discrimination.

This was the situation when I entered Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island. There, I encountered the new rules, side by side with the culture they were intended to supersede.

"Someone double time her!" A man in uniform strode towards me. "Hurry up! Double time! Follow my finger!" I picked up my bag and ran beside him, hurrying to keep up.

After being lined up, checked off, and made to read a sign detailing "training time out" safety procedures, I was taken to get "greens"--hot, itchy, polyester uniforms that we were to wear during this first week of the 16 week training. The people in uniform issuing the greens asked me my size, and seemed quite baffled when I didn't know what trouser or sleeve length I took. I tried to be helpful: "I take a women's size 12."

We were constantly being lined up, standing in single file and waiting in the passageway. Drill instructors would go down the line, saying, "move up," "closer," and "no personal space," forcing the men to stand practically on top of each other, then "eighteen inches," for women. This was the rule: eighteen inches of space between male and female. And yet one instructor made a special point of coming over to me and shouting "no special treatment," and "equal opportunity Navy." Ironically, the very rules made to protect women from sexual harassment singled them out as different and maybe a little delicate.

My first assignment was on the aircraft carrier USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN. I was the electrical division officer, assigned with one or two other officers to lead a division of about 100 people, about 90% men. This was during the first wave of integration of women on combatant ships, and ABRAHAM LINCOLN was the first Pacific Fleet aircraft carrier to integrate. The mixed nature of the rules--designed to protect women and thus by definition disempowering--was even more evident in a setting where women were new. Fear of sex lead the military planners to require that women be segregated in special areas. This applied even to officers, who have private staterooms shared only by a small group. Women enlisted sailors were separated from their divisions; women aviation officers were separated from their squadrons.

I was relatively successful, but gradually I became aware that the situation was not so rosy for all the women on board. One day, my Senior Chief, the senior enlisted supervisor who worked for me, told me that one of the junior enlisted women in the division, Fireman Mancuso, had complained about sexual harassment on the ship. I was a little surprised, and concerned. I called her into my office and asked her what she had experienced.

She really couldn't single out anything overt or blatant. Men looked at her on the mess decks and in the passageways. She had changed her mannerisms, even wore baggier uniforms, trying to avoid their looks. Strangers called her by her first name, a name she rarely used. She could recall a couple of specific incidents: in one case a first class petty officer in charge of the mess decks had made a comment about how she adorned the place. She had addressed the incident to his chief, who spoke to him. It never happened again.

She also recalled a time the Engineering Department's yeoman (administrative assistant) had asked her out on a date. When she had stated--correctly--that this would be inappropriate, he had made a comment about how her chest would make a nice pillow. Unfortunately at the time she was telling me this, he had been gone from the command almost six months. I was frustrated because it was now too late for me to pursue this, but I could see that the disempowerment of the general culture, the little incidents too trivial to prosecute, had directly resulted in her being unable to report this clear violation for so long.

As a manager, I was torn. I told her that she had the right to a non-hostile working environment, and that she should continue to report inappropriate behavior. But there wasn't much I could do with such vague accusations. She said that the men in the department had never been anything other than supportive, so there was not, apparently, a problem to be addressed in the people who worked for me. And I did feel that she was on the sensitive end of the spectrum. I couldn't help wondering whether, if she were a little bit tougher, it wouldn't bother her as much. Was that blaming the victim?

Senior Chief talked to other women in the division. They had experienced the phenomenon, but "just got used to it," "ignored it," etc. I asked if anyone else would come and talk to me about the issue, male or female, but no one did. The mess decks, an off-duty realm on the military-controlled ship, blurred the lines between legal and cultural change. I couldn't enforce a cultural change, and the clear violations would continue to go unreported in a culture that made them seem normal.

But beyond the enforcement dilemma, the new rules had a more central problem: they were drafted not with a view to true equality and equal power for women, but with a view to removing symptoms which were publicly objectionable. Simply put, the drafters did not have a vision of women working along with men on an equal basis. As a telltale illustration, all of the ships that were opened to women were outfitted with berthing for ten percent of the crew to be women. This was their vision of equal opportunity: after all, only ten percent of the Navy is female. It never occurred to them to ask why--or to outfit their ships for a future in which women in the Navy might be more numerous.

Nor does it occur to most feminists to ask why women only constitute ten percent of the military. It seems "normal" that women wouldn't want to participate in this warlike activity. What feminists miss, perhaps understandably, is that the military recruits from middle America, drawing on a vague patriotism and a clear financial self-interest--in other words, it recruits from a culture that lacks the equality rhetoric of the urban, upper-middle classes. Women and men alike fiercely support the military in this culture; women don't join in equal numbers simply because they have been told all their lives that they shouldn't be working at men's jobs.

The military grows out of this conservative upbringing, building a hierarchical power structure that doesn't allow the few women who do join to break out of the mantle of protectionism created by the anti-discrimination rules. Since women are new in the previously all-male jobs, they start out low-ranking--disempowered by definition. Since their job is to protect, not to be protected, the rules like the "eighteen inches" requirement at OCS are counter-productive. Overt harassment is exchanged for subtle subordination--all the more insidious for being unconscious in the minds of the rule drafters and enforcers--that leaves women unable to attain the power needed to succeed in the military.

It is, perhaps, important to address an issue that invariably comes up in the discourse of liberals and conservatives alike when speaking of women in the military: the infamous Upper Body Strength. Conservatives argue that women weaken the military. Liberals argue that women should be allowed to pass the same physical tests as men--they could not then be weaker. Both miss the point.

The military is only about Upper Body Strength because it was developed by men, to emphasize male abilities. For example, the Navy requires all members to pass a general physical fitness test once a year, running a mile and a half and doing push ups and sit ups for two minutes each. On average, men can run faster and do more push ups than women so the standards have been "lowered" because a physically fit woman can do less in this test than a physically fit man. But these abilities are not needed for job performance. Women are capable of meeting any physical standard required to do their jobs. Lowering the standard creates the illusion that they cannot. Maintaining the male standard and admitting those women who choose to pass, as the liberals suggest, would result in extraordinary low numbers. The physical standards, like everything else, must be reexamined in the context of true gender equality.

Would replacing the physical test with one that women and men were equally likely to pass be "lowering" the standard, resulting in a less effective military? I doubt it. In my experience, women's abilities are just as valuable as Upper Body Strength. Indeed, the stereotype of the typical male onboard a Navy ship involves little physical ability: a Chief Petty Officer with a coffee cup resting on his enormous belly and a doughnut in the other hand. This is not unique to ships. Superior military power has, throughout history, depended on many factors other than physical strength: technology, tactics, strategy, and training. In today's military, the confined spaces of a fighter jet might make a female aircraft mechanic's smaller stature a substantial asset, while the male radar operator has little need of biceps development. In maintaining the same physical fitness tests, but "lowering" the standards for women, the military succeeded in further distancing them from their male colleagues and providing another obstacle to their moving up in the power structure.

My solution to the dilemma of being caught within a structure that said women should be equal but precluded true equality was one that has been used by women pioneers in many fields. I worked on displaying superior skill, and I asserted my power and sexual unavailability with every word and gesture. At OCS a blatantly prejudiced instructor suggested that my roommate and I were having trouble in a technical class because we were women. Out of resentment, I passed the class with a perfect score. In ABRAHAM LINCOLN I was given the job of driving the ship into port early, with much fanfare about being the first woman on a Pacific Fleet carrier to do so. I did it, and went on to beat many of my male colleagues in crucial qualifications and to leave the ship as the top ranked officer in my category.

My next ship, PORT ROYAL, was a cruiser, the sports car of the fleet and the most desirable type of assignment for a Surface Warfare Officer. It also afforded me a glimpse at the beginnings of a better solution. The crew on PORT ROYAL considered themselves the best, and they approached integration with a more sincere commitment to equality, a belief that the incorporation of women should not require lowering any standards. For example, the Executive Officer refused to assign a Women At Sea Coordinator--such a thing was not needed, he said; sailors were sailors.

The transition was smoother, but it wasn't perfect. Problems cropped up: unplanned pregnancies, inappropriate relationships. These issues stemmed from the larger social problem of sexual exploitation. Women, who had been taught all their lives that their identities revolved around being linked to powerful men, brought their history with them. The culture they had already encountered in the Navy, in previous assignments or in basic training, still viewed enlisted women as present for men's sexual gratification, not as professional colleagues. Thus, PORT ROYAL faced the double task of establishing women as professionals and dismantling the presumption of sexual availability of enlisted women. The ship did much toward changing attitudes, but there still existed a deep-rooted cultural disempowerment that affected both women's and men's behavior. Back to Tailhook: women could not simply step into men's shoes because they were hit with the social reality of inequality.

If empowering women by making them into men does not work, what does? This question extends far beyond the military. Finally, the issues faced in PORT ROYAL were simply reflections of the larger society. In fact, this is the central question of feminism, viewed more starkly but still recognizable. Perhaps the solution lies in allowing women truly equal access to positions of power, refusing to tolerate explicit discrimination, subtle harassment, or structures that perpetuate male standards of achievement.

This would require a real commitment on the part of the policy makers. Ironically, the military, with its unique ability to indoctrinate ideas, is in a strong position to spearhead the movement--by removing the mixed messages and making basic training unequivocally instill values of equal treatment. I suspect women would then constitute half of a military that was more skilled and better able to do its job for their contribution.

I left the Navy at the end of my PORT ROYAL tour to study feminist legal theory, but the Navy has had a profound influence on who I am and how I think. In a culture where officials can apply rigid legal rules, I learned the power, and limitations, of regulation. I also learned a lot about myself.

Maia Goodell is currently a law student at the University of Michigan. She was honorably discharged from the Navy as a Lieutenant in April 1998, having served almost five years. Prior to her Naval service, she graduated from Stanford University with a degree in Chemistry in June 1993.

Copyright © 1999 by Maia Beth Goodell. All rights reserved.