Why the Navy Should Make Room for Women Submariners
The development of legal and social equality in the US has never been easy or cheap. When schools were desegregated, time and money had to be spent on busing students. When women were admitted to universities, separate (and eventually coed) dorms were built. When the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, it cost both the government and businesses money to comply with accessibility requirements. And these are just a few examples. So why should women be prohibited from serving on submarine crews because it will take extra funds and effort to accommodate them?
On Tuesday, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates informed Congress of the Navy’s decision to move forward with plans to lift its ban on women serving in submarines. Subs are currently the only naval vessels on which women cannot serve alongside men. Those in favor of the ban say it is justified for two main reasons: the high cost of modifying subs to create female quarters plus the resulting loss of space that could otherwise be used for equipment, and the potential for sexual relationships or harassment to develop between men and women cohabiting in an extremely small space.
Like many people on the blogosphere, I have some thoughts on this that I believe are worth sharing despite my complete lack of firsthand knowledge of military life or submarines. I’ve read differing opinions from naval officers and crewmen both in news articles and blogs, and I’ll share some of those here. I know that coed submarine crews will not be totally free of problems, and I can’t speak to the realities of naval life. My outsider’s perspective here is focused on how our cultural attitudes about gender shape the arguments around this issue.
Let’s start with the accommodation issue. The discussion of how to physically make space for women submariners started at least a decade ago, when a Pentagon civilian advisory panel recommended lifting the prohibition on women serving on subs. In a 2000 opinion piece about the recommendation, Tracy Moran reported that the panel proposed commissioning redesigned Virginia-class attack submarines to the tune of $4 million or $5 million each. Moran wrote that even to her, someone who supports women’s advancement in all areas, that cost seemed prohibitive.
Today however, because of certain changes in our culture (not to mention the changes that could happen if women achieve further equality in the military) there are good reasons to spend that money. According to the Washington Post, the Navy plans to integrate subs in part because of the brainpower it’s losing by excluding women.
One reason the Navy seeks to integrate women on submarines is that they make up a growing percentage of college graduates, including engineers. “There is a vast pool of talent that we are neglecting in our recruiting efforts,” a senior official said.
Of course it will be a big sacrifice for subs to be reconfigured. But rather than only focusing on what the subs stand to lose if women join, it’s just as important to ask what they stand to lose if women don’t join. At this point, I think it’s inevitable that subs will be adapted for women, it’s just a matter of whether the Navy will do it now or later.
Next there is the fraternization issue. To summarize it I will turn to the words of a former Navy captain who sent an op-ed in favor of the ban to the Arizona Republic:
Putting men and women together in very confined quarters for long periods of time submerged (up to two-plus months) is simply asking for trouble, both aboard the submarine and potentially on the home front.
There you have it, the home-wrecker issue. Not only could single men and women develop relationships aboard subs, married men would be tempted to cheat on their landlocked spouses! All sarcasm aside, I acknowledge that it is unreasonable to expect that absolutely no consensual relationships or unwanted harassment, or even assault, will occur on coed subs. These things happen in other military branches, after all.
However, I’m wary of arguments such as this which imply that men and women are incapable of working together on a platonic platform of mutual respect and courtesy. Such a view doesn’t credit humanity with much decency. And after all, as a feminist one of my hopes for the future is the development of a world where women and men not only work side by side as equals, they do so within a culture that treats people of all genders and sexual orientations (and ethnicities, and abilities…) as comrades in life, not adversaries. And if the current cult of masculinity that exists in some parts of the military makes it difficult for men and women to work together, well, that’s a good reason to allow them to learn how to get along, not a reason to keep them segregated.
Additionally, when reading those arguments one of my first reactions was to wonder what level of amorous feelings would actually develop among people who spend every moment together and witness each other’s less pleasant habits along with the good. I’ve heard through anecdotal evidence that coed living quarters often engender feelings of familial closeness more than attraction. Joe Buff, a writer who covers naval issues, has similar thoughts:
Perhaps a culture needs to be engendered that a U.S. Navy co-ed sub crew is very analogous to a close-knit and overcrowded family trapped indoors for the winter by record snowfalls. Crewpersons have to see each other as united by figurative blood ties, making all be brothers and sisters or parents and kids.
So what do women in the service think about the lifting of the ban? According to one formal naval officer, plenty of them are excited about the plan. Rebecca Sigmon told AOL News that she and her female classmates at nuclear propulsion school wanted to serve on a sub. And as for the arguments against it:
“All the hearsay, all the excuses you’d hear,” she says, rattling them off as if by rote. “‘Well, there’s no space,’ as if we were building these new classes of submarines specifically with berthing that couldn’t accommodate women….’Women can’t handle it emotionally.’… ‘Submariners’ wives don’t want women serving on board with their husbands.’
“Every excuse that I’d heard sort of seemed lame.”
The Washington Post reports that only five out of 42 nations with submarines allow women to serve on them. I hope the US will soon become the sixth.
For a humorous account of the issue of women on subs, read US Navy Mans Two Nuclear Subs With Women. Don’t let the title fool you—the supposed New York Times article was posted two years ago as a hoax, but it’s a very accurate reflection of the debate going on today.