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Why the Navy Should Make Room for Women Submariners

February 27, 2010
Submarine rising in Crete

Photo credit: flickr/DVIDSHUB

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.

Woman driving a sub

Woman on sub /

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.

  1. Medic5392 permalink
    February 27, 2010 11:26 am

    This question is asked just about every week, in the end, women do not belong in ground combat and unless they are stonger, not on ships or subs either, they are more of a liability than an asset, this is always ignored when it is discussed in the Media, in Congress or on here. Below is some good info for you that I have cut and pasted from my previous answers on the same topic.

    From the report of the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces dated November 15, 1992, it states in part:

    The average female Army recruit is 4.8 inches shorter, 31.7 pounds lighter, has 37.4 fewer pounds of muscle, and 5.7 more pounds of fat than the average male recruit. She has only 55 percent of the upper-body strength and 72 percent of the lower-body strength.

    An Army study done in 1988 found that women are more than twice as likely to suffer leg injuries and nearly five times as likely to suffer fractures as men.

    Further, the Commission heard an abundance of expert testimony including:
    – women’s aerobic capacity is significantly lower, meaning they cannot carry as much as far as fast as men, and they are more susceptible to fatigue.
    – in terms of physical capability, the upper five percent of women are at the level of the male median. The average 20-to-30 year-old woman has the same aerobic capacity as a 50 year-old man.

    After a study was conducted at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, one expert testified that:
    – using the standard Army Physical Fitness Test, the upper quintile (top 20%) of women at West point achieved scores on the test equivalent to the bottom quintile (bottom 20%) of men.
    – only 21 women out of the initial 623 (3.4%) achieved a score equal to the male mean score of 260.
    – on the push-up test, only 7% of women can meet a score of 60, while 78% of men exceed it.
    – adopting a male standard of fitness at West Point would mean 70% of the women he studied would be separated as failures at the end of their junior year, only 3% would be eligible for the Recondo badge, and not one would receive the Army Physical Fitness badge.

    Also, recent studies indicate women are more at risk to getting PTSD, as documented from Iraq and Afghanistan, women who were never in direct combat but whose camps were shelled were more likely to develop PTSD than there male counter-parts. You can also look up the US Navy SPARTAN study, women were asked to complete a lot of the Damage Control Tasks that are mandatory on a ship. They performed in a rather terrible manner at the start. The women were then put on a 6 month weight training program and asked to do the test again. A lot of the test are obsolete since the P-250 pump is no longer in use but the one that will never go out is the two man litter carry up and down the ladder on a ship. None of the women passed getting the wounded man up the ladder and <2% passed going down ( a lot easier I might add). What did the Navy do in regard to this result? They changed the standard to a four man litter carry. Ever been on a ship? Good luck with 4 people fitting on that ladder! lol!
    Don't ignore the truth because it does not fit your premise, I have no doubt that women can be just as brave as a man but it does me no good when she cannot get me back to my helo, hummer or foxhole because she is to weak. It does me no good when she cannot hump the same weight I can for as long as I can because she is physically unable to do so. It does me no good when she is injured more easily than a man, etc..etc…DO NOT LOOK AT THIS AS A RIGHT, LOOK AT THIS AS A NATIONAL SECURITY ISSUE, do you really want the weakest person doing that job? Do not fall for the myth that if we have the same standards for all that it will be ok then, the standards will be dropped so low that someone in a wheel chair could pass them due to politics, look at the SPARTAN Study! lol! They would rather risk peoples lives than hold a standard and stick there necks out and risk there careers! (They being the Officer Corps). If you are honest in your assessment, you would say that while women may be ok to be pilots, they have no place in areas of ground combat and/or even on ships in many instances due to physical differences, a different hard wiring (being more and more proven every year) and common sense. Women and Men are not tools to interchange and war is not meant for a social science lab.

    If they allow them to go into SOF Selection of any kind the training will be so watered down it will be a joke and then, like the regular Army, Navy and Air Force, the training will become a joke.

  2. Erin Rickard permalink
    February 27, 2010 1:38 pm

    While combat roles for women are not directly at issue in regards to the submarine ban, it’s interesting that you bring this up. Combat roles were mentioned in some of the news articles I read about the ban. Take this Washington Post article for example:

    “Women began serving aboard the Navy’s surface ships in 1993. Since then, many of the distinctions between who is in combat and who is not have been erased. Women are formally banned from combat posts in the Army, for instance, but routinely serve in jobs such as medics, pilots and drivers that place them shoulder to shoulder with men serving in ‘combat’ jobs. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey told Congress on Tuesday that he supports a reconsideration of women’s combat roles. ‘I believe it’s time that we take a look at what women are actually doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. And then we take a look at our policies,’ Casey told the Senate Armed Services Committee.”

    So in their roles women are handling the stress and the risks alongside male combatants. You could argue that they haven’t taken on those tasks requiring a lot of physical strength, as you mention. And yes, I know that on average, women are smaller and have less muscle mass than men, and I concede that there are some physical tasks that some military women can’t do as well as some military men. I’m not convinced however that this means they should be entirely excluded from combat. While there are some things women can’t do in combat, there are many ways that they can be an asset in combat—especially since the nature of warfare has changed quite a bit in the last twenty years.

    The New York Times has an interesting article about what women have done in Iraq and Afghanistan:

    “[Women’s] success, widely known in the military, remains largely hidden from public view. In part, this is because their most challenging work is often the result of a quiet circumvention of military policy….Over and over, in Iraq and Afghanistan, Army commanders have resorted to bureaucratic trickery when they needed more soldiers for crucial jobs, like bomb disposal and intelligence.… as soldiers in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, women have done nearly as much in battle as their male counterparts: patrolled streets with machine guns, served as gunners on vehicles, disposed of explosives, and driven trucks down bomb-ridden roads. They have proved indispensable in their ability to interact with and search Iraqi and Afghan women for weapons, a job men cannot do for cultural reasons….A small number of women have even conducted raids, engaging the enemy directly in total disregard of existing policies.”

    I think the idea of women in combat is actually both a rights issue and a national security issue. Rules about women in the military are being broken and changed because their contributions are needed, as reports about the submarine ban and the NYT article note.

  3. Don permalink
    February 27, 2010 1:59 pm

    I agree that the ban on women serving on submarines needs to be lifted. If the navy wants to move forward and improve the submarine force they will have to integrate women. There is really no way around it. Yes, men, on average have more muscle mass. I can’t argue against that. But education level is just as important…if not, more important. And women make up the majority of college graduates. In fact, women make up 58% of higher education enrollment compared to just 42% men. And that number is growing in favor of women. These are facts that you have to consider. The Navy realizes that if they want to fill positions on submarines with the best as well as the “brightest” they need to be able to bring in women. The quote from Erin Rickard in her blog above sums it up the best:

    “According to the Washington Post, the Navy plans to integrate subs in part because of the brainpower it’s losing by excluding women.”

  4. Medic5392 permalink
    February 27, 2010 3:14 pm

    The NYT is about as objective on anything with the military as the NRA is about the 2nd Amendment. I have seen it first hand and it is a common myth that women are doing the same roles as men in the field. Also, in a way, we have taken a step back in regard to warfare. The US Army Combatives Program is being revamped after hundreds of interviews of people who engaged in hand to hand combat. Any time you have people on the ground you will have this happen, when we enter a room in an urban area we have a good chance of getting into a hand to hand fight. PHYSICAL STRENGTH is often paramount in these situations. It would be one thing if they were close in strength but they are not. This is not TV where Buffy the Vampire Slayer jumps up and kicks the crap out guys or movies like Lethal Weapon where females do the same, this is real life. As for ships, I am glad that moving wounded and damage control issues are not as important as what seems to be the advocacy for some mythical “right”. YOU NEED TO STOP LOOKING AT THIS AS A RIGHT, it is a National Security Issue and these are people’s lives, this is not a job like any other. It drives me almost mad when I see people thinking that somehow men and women are not vastly different in physical and mental makeup, despite the science, despite more and more info coming out, it does not matter to some. When women do not get as easily injured, have the same physical strength and cardiovascular strength then we can talk about it but until that evolutionary step comes along women do not belong in the combat arms.

  5. Medic5392 permalink
    February 27, 2010 3:15 pm

    Oh, I posted on the NYTs article as well about “Home Fires” concerning the same topic.

  6. Medic5392 permalink
    February 27, 2010 3:20 pm

    They are opening up the subs to women out of politics, nothing more. The CNOs stated goal is to have the Navy look more like America and wants a quota of 20% of the Navy to be females, that means 20% of all recruits HAVE to be female. It has nothing to do with access to brain power. The people who run the reactors are enlisted, they test out on the asvab and then go to Nuke School, college is nice to have but would not change that. Females are in the service due to politics and quotas, ask a recruiter over a beer how many females he/she has to get, stop kidding yourselves that this is a merit base initiative. If it was merit based we would hardly have any women in the Academies but that did not matter. If it was merit based they would not have changed the standards for PT and Damage Control. Do not give me the tired line that it is for the good of the Military, it is for the good of a political initiative, nothing more.

  7. Don permalink
    February 27, 2010 5:09 pm

    Both genders have their advantages. Men have an advantage physically by having more muscle mass. But women have the advantage mentally by possessing the majority of college degrees. Women earn 58% of college degrees every year compared to only 42% for men. And the gap is widening. Looking at it objectively, if one group is earning nearly 60% of the college degrees wouldn’t you want to heavily recruit members of that group? …whether they are black, white, male or female? In this case the members just happen to be women. I just don’t understand why people would want to exclude a group of people who have the most education. I am just looking at this objectively. In my opinion, it has everything to do with brainpower…which is why the Navy wants women.

    • Medic5392 permalink
      February 27, 2010 5:39 pm

      It is not why the Navy wants more women, sheesh, read something besides Mother Jones. The CNO himself said why, I should not have to repeat it. They are on a quota basis. Do you know what the CNO even is? As for the College Degrees, great, super, good for them, but they are not needed nor necessary for running the Nukes on a ship. A few officers are in charge but the day to day operations are done by enlisted personnel. Don, with all due respect, you are not looking at this objectively. You are looking at this from the perspective of someone with an agenda and little to back up the view point but a stat on more BA/BS Degree being given to women. Great, but what does that have to do with a women who cannot get a man up the ladder and he and she die as a result? What does that have to with a woman who cannot perfrom damage control as well as a man could so the ship sinks or people die in a fire? What does that have to do with the fact that a women cannot take the same amount of weight on here body or fight in a hand to hand situation which happens all the time in Afghanistan and was going on all the time in Iraq? What does that have to do with the fact that she cannot drag my light body (180lbs) to the HUMMV, Helo or truck? Do I really need to go on or are you going to continue to hang your hat on the degrees? Also, for subs, on that topic, it would be an engineering degree they would want for an Officer, most go to men.

  8. Medic5392 permalink
    February 27, 2010 5:57 pm

    One thing I will say is that women do have advantages in some areas due to physical differences-better ability with languages, hand-eye co-ordination, etc..these are things being mapped out via brain scans and it is looking more and more genetic/hard wired. Men are looking more and more like they have better spatial abilities due to the same thing. The sooner folks understand that men and women are not social constructs the better off we will all be.

  9. March 2, 2010 8:20 am

    Medic, I understand your point about women not having as much muscle power as men. However, not all women are weaker than all men. We’re talking about women being statistically weaker, which means some can be quite strong. Especially when they *train* to be strong. They don’t have to be as strong as the strongest man, just strong enough to do what they have to do! So it would be logical not to exclude all women on the grounds that some women don’t meet the standards, but to require everybody, whether male or female, to meet the standards. If no women do meet them – well then we won’t have any women on submarines. But it’s not fair nor logical to exclude them on the grounds that they belong to a group that doesn’t meet the standards *on average*.

    • Medic5392 permalink
      March 2, 2010 10:25 am

      KS, that point, if you look at the West Point Study, is that hardly 3% would make a fit male standard and the PT test do not even include doing man carries, something I have watched females do in the rear and not perform without help. You can also look at the SPARTAN Study, they tested the women, then put them on weight training for 6 mos and tested them again, look what happened. What was the Navy’s answer? Lower the standards. Even a female body builder has to work out hours per day and maintain a strict diet, etc..they are about as strong as an average male who is in good shape but that same male does not require that time, training and diet to acheive those results, something that matters when you are in a combat area. Also, go grab a fit and strong women, ask her to pick up a 190lbs man from the ground, has to be dead weight, throw him over her shoulder and run 100mts. Now that 190lbs man is an average size male, without kit or weapon.Tell me how that goes, honestly. What is not fair it putting peoples lives at risk for PC or someones idea of opportunity. This is not a civilian job where money is lost, there are peoples lives and I wish more people could understand that but I think to often they put into the context of just another job.

  10. March 2, 2010 11:08 am

    Yes, well… most men can’t pick up a 190 pounds man either, let alone run with him on their shoulder, in my experience. IF you’re right about the data you’re giving, I will have to agree with you. But I do have doubts, especially since you mentioned that it’s ‘proved’ more and more that women and men are different mentally. My (scientific)information tells me the exact opposite, so one of us (at least) must be wrong. Since I naturally assume that I’m right ;o) I conclude that your data isn’t all you’re thinking it is. But, again, IF it is like you say, and women can never meet the standards, while men do, I agree with you.

    That said, I still think it’s wrong to make a rule that no women are allowed to join whatever their fitness. I would still make the rule so that a standard has to be met, and if women don’t meet it, then that’s it. But making a rule on the grounds that someone with two X chromosomes *probably* won’t meet the standards, so we don’t have to test her, that’s completely unfair.

    • Medic5392 permalink
      March 2, 2010 1:07 pm

      lol, we all naturally assume we are right. 😉 But between the SPARTAN, West Point and Presidential Commission and seeing it myself I do not doubt it nor do I doubt my countries pattern of doing what is PC or easy than doing what is right. The proof is in the pudding on those. Also, we do buddy carries all the time, I have seen a few small guys have problems with guys fully kitted up (adds about 40+ pounds) but that is it, going slick have not seen it yet and most can do it with full kit on but we are a direct combat group who train for it all the time. As for “mental difference”, they are doing more and more brain scans and conceptual tests and they are finding that women and men both tend to be better at certain things, for instance, women use a lot more of thier brain mass for languages/communication and can tend to read peoples emotions via facial expression much better than men can. Men use more of their brain fro math and spatial problems. Mind you, these are just initial studies but they do tend to point to a basic hardwiring of the male and female brains. Also, the PTSD studies are pretty new, I am not sure there is enough date yet to come to a final conclusion since so few woman in comparison have served in the combat zones and the data is also not in yet, I also have my own ideas on why so many men and women get PTSD without firing a shot in anger yet but that is another topic.

  11. Don permalink
    March 2, 2010 9:31 pm


    I agree w/ you 100%. To exclude all women, no matter what their fitness level, based on their gender alone is rediculous. That concept is so outdated. We all know some men that are small and weak…but they still have the opportunity to try for those positions just because they are male???

    I know that when the first women earn positions on the subs alot of men will say that the positions were given to them…no matter how good they are. That’s just the way it is. Just a few weeks ago my friend was up for a job promotion but didn’t get it because he lost it to a co-worker who is a woman. He immediately said the only reason she got the job was because she was a woman. But the fact is, she really was/is better and more deserving of the job. However, there are still men out there that have a difficult time accepting the fact they were beaten by a better woman.

    But, as long as the standards are the same for both genders, like KS stated, there should not even be an issue with gender.

    • Medic5392 permalink
      March 3, 2010 8:51 am

      Try to be rational here and understand that standards will never be enforced. Like they were not on the SPARTAN, West Point, in the early push for female pilots, etc…you are naive to think that is what will happen and with all due respect you are again speaking from emotion and a sense of entitlement, not what is practical and what works. You can ignore reality all you want but the truth of the matter is that the first in WILL have it handed to them and there is no standard because when they tried it the women failed at it. But you continue to ignore what I laid out and not address it, keep thinking it is a right and an entitlement, after all you will never have to worry about it so no skin off of you right?

    • Medic5392 permalink
      March 3, 2010 1:22 pm

      One last point Don, you use a civilian job in comparison, a mistake far to many in support of this use, there is no comparison to a job in the civilian side, not even a cop to what you would want women to get into-Infantry and SOF.


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