For as long as the U.S. Navy has had submarines, women have been banned from serving on them. Now, it looks like one of the last great bastions of U.S. military discrimination will fall. Last month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote a letter to Congress, detailing his intention to phase in women’s submarine service.
Though women have been serving on navy warships since 1993—they make up 15 per cent of navy personnel—the navy’s 71 in-service submarines have always been off limits. Many have defended that gentlemen-only code. Some voiced concern that because of the notoriously close quarters, women would arouse underwater sexual tensions. Others made economic arguments, claiming it would be too expensive to retrofit subs with co-ed facilities. Elaine Donnelly served on a 1992 presidential commission on the issue. She has explained: “The passages are such that it would be impossible to pass without touching.” Donnelly also cited poor air quality aboard subs, which she says could pose a risk to the embryos of pregnant women.
Today, those views are being pushed aside by some loud voices—like that of Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who thinks “women ought to have full career choices for a range of careers in the navy and that includes serving on submarines.” Indeed, the submarine issue has become part of a broader reassessment of women’s combat roles. “I think it’s time,” said Gen. George Casey last month, “that we take a look at what women are actually doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. And then we look at our policies.”
Assuming that Congress does not object, vessels will soon be modified to include separate women’s quarters. It is expected to be about a year before the first female reports for submarine duty.