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Women's History Month: Navy Life

Women have supported the U.S. Navy and its Sailors since the founding of the naval service. As wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, and sweethearts, the women at home shaped the men of the early Navy.

Throughout the 19th century, despite official regulations that forbid U.S. Captains and Commanders from having women at sea "without orders from the navy office, or the commander of the squadron," wives and daughters often accompanied their families in to war zones and on naval missions, though, most often unofficially and, with the threat of courts-martial for the husband. Diaries and letters tell the stories of Susan Dillwyn Conner, who sailed with her husband Captain David Conner, when he commanded the sloop-of-war John Adams to the Mediterranean in 1834, and Harriet D. Welles experiences aboard the USS New Orleans in China and Japan two decades earlier.

Women have served, openly, on U.S. Navy ships since 1862 when the Sisters of the Holy Cross joined the crew of the Navy's first hospital ship, the USS Red Rover. During times of war, women answered the call serving as nurses at sea and on shore during the Spanish-American War, enlisting as Yeoman during WWI, and joining the war effort as Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) during WWII.

The role of women in the Navy expanded exponentially in the years since NWC alumnus, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, issued Z-gram 116 on Equal Rights and Opportunities for Women in 1972. Newport and the Naval War College played integral roles in this endeavor. The Navy established the Women Officer School (OCS) in Newport, RI the following year and, in 1976, NWC alumnus RADM Fran McKee became the first female unrestricted line officer appointed to flag rank. 

Today, women comprise approximately 20% of the Navy's active and reserve components. As of 2016, 100% of Navy billets are open to women and nearly 95% of the Navy's operational commands have female enlisted Sailors on board. In the U.S. Navy, women fully participate as naval aviators, naval base and naval air station commanders, submariners, and Blue Angels. Forty women serve as flag officers and the Navy selected its first female Vice Chief Naval of Naval Operations, Admiral Michelle Howard, in 2014. 

The contributions of women to the Navy, from the families at home and on bases around the world to the Navy's leadership and naval officers and enlisted women across the service reflect the best values of the Navy: Honor. Courage. Commitment.

Credits

Dara A. Baker, Head Archivist, Elizabeth Delmage, Assistant Archivist, Naval Historical Collection