WASHINGTON — For much of the past decade, the US Navy has hardly seemed like a place of equal opportunity for women.
First there was the chief of Naval operations, Admiral Frank Kelso, testifying before Congress that women had no place on warships. Then there was the Tailhook Association incident, in which Navy men sexually assaulted 83 women at an annual convention.
Today, however, there's a new story.
Her name is Kathleen McGrath, a mother of two who will set out to sea today from San Diego as the first female commander of a Navy warship. Her destination is the Persian Gulf region, where the USS Jarrett, a 453-foot frigate, will try to catch oil smugglers breaking the United Nations sanctions against Iraq.
Ms. McGrath's mission punctuates the steady progress of women in the Navy - and other armed forces - that began in 1948 with the passage of the Women's Armed Services Act.
"Nobody thought women could do jobs like this," says Lory Manning, a retired Navy Captain who works at the Women's Research and Education Institute in Washington. "But necessity has forced all the services to bring women in and give them a chance."
Ms. Manning, and others who follow the issue, say the Navy has succeeded in bringing itself to a level of sexual equality that is comparable to the private sector. In other words, there are still problems, but they are no longer by design.
Some women still complain that they are harassed, and some men still say they are uncomfortable serving alongside women. The Navy has still not decided if it will let women serve on extended submarine missions and women are still barred from ground combat positions in the Army and Marines.
"It's not going to change overnight," says a female Navy ensign. "You have to remember how it was when the people who are in charge came in. But I think the new people don't mind [working alongside women]."
The Navy's route has been the result of careful planning, individual achievement, and a sheer need for more sailors. McGrath is not the only woman to take the helm of a Navy ship. In 1998 four other women were assigned the top post in lightly armed amphibious vessels (which are not considered warships).
Out of a total of 155,000 officers and sailors assigned to ships today, some 11,400 are women. The women's movement in the Navy followed a path that was paved by the Coast Guard, which during times of peace falls under the Department of Transportation and is not subjected to military restrictions.
In 1978 women were allowed to serve on Navy auxiliary ships, which some see as the major breakthrough since it allowed them to prove their worth.
"Before that you could never be as good as the men because you had never been to sea," says Georgia Sadler, a retired Navy captain at the Alliance for National Defense in Washington.
They became eligible for combat ships in 1994, following the Air Force's groundbreaking decision in 1991 to let women fly combat jets.
Perhaps the greatest show of women's new naval value came early this year, when the carrier USS Eisenhower left for the Balkans and the Persian Gulf with about 600 women in a crew of 4,700. Because of falling numbers in overall Navy recruiting and retention, the captain, Denby Starling, went out of his way to squeeze as many women on the ship as possible.
"I would like to have enough women on board [that] it is not an issue anymore," Capt. Starling said at the time.
In order to level the playing field, the Navy has used a hands-on system that is now being copied in other countries.
According to Capt. Linda Long, the Navy's head of women's policy, they have tried to start the integration process with female officers, and then work down through the ranks. McGrath, for example, is one of four female officers on the Jarrett. (There are no enlisted women because there is not sufficient berthing space.)
At the same time, Navy officials have held group briefing sessions with the men - and their wives - to explain the situation, and allow for any venting of emotions. In the final stages of assuring equality for women, Navy officials are trying to round out the field.
"The critical thing is to make sure there is a range of people in a variety of positions," Capt. Long says.
Still a ways to go
Yet there are still disproportionately few women in high Navy positions - only 12 of 220 admirals, for example. And there are still opponents to having women in positions that were traditionally thought of as men's jobs.
In a recently released book, "The Kinder, Gentler Military," author Stephanie Gutmann argues that the armed forces are becoming "too politically correct and sensitive."
"I don't know if a woman can be as good in a war setting," she said in an interview. "They tend to be less warlike than men."
And, in what Manning, the retired captain, considers a setback, a group of nuclear submarines that the Navy just ordered are not modularized enough to provide berthing space for women.
But a lot will ride on the shoulders of McGrath, who declined to be interviewed because, "she has more important things to worry about," according to a Navy spokeswoman.
By taking on a combat command, McGrath will go on an A-track that could make her eligible for the highest levels of the Navy. "She could become a four-star admiral, a commander of the Navy or a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff," says Manning.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society