Monday, March 13, 2017

Women in the Navy: The Century-Old Question

Just over a century ago, a very important man asked his legal advisors a very simple, yet profound question:

"Is there any law that says a yeoman must be a man?"

Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels. (Naval History and Heritage Command photograph)
The questioner was Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, and, while he might not have been the first person to ask such a question, he was evidently the first to have the power to affect the answer. This factor ultimately resulted on March 19, 1917, in the Naval Reserve becoming the first of any branch of the United States armed forces to allow women to enlist into their ranks.

By March 1917, with the war in Europe approaching its third year, the realities of modern warfare had forced Germany's leaders to radically change the Mahanian naval strategy they had originally envisioned.  Her commerce raiders and forward-deployed cruisers had been either sunk, captured, or were interned in neutral ports (such as Norfolk, Virginia) earlier in the war.  The Battle of Jutland in May 1916, while far from a victory for the British in a tactical sense, had achieved an important strategic objective by keeping the remaining major German surface combatants in port from then on. Far from the series of decisive naval body blows its leaders expected to mete out before the war's outbreak, Germany's submarines were subjecting Britain's merchant fleet and the Royal Navy instead to a death by a thousand cuts, as it were.  Although they were loath to admit it, even to the British people, the Admiralty in London knew that the strategy was working. Valuable war material was going to the bottom faster than it could be replaced, even with America's tacit assistance.  To win the war at sea, the Americans would have to formally enter the fight.

Thanks to the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in February and the sub rosa overture to Mexico that had been blasted across the front pages of America's newspapers at the beginning of March, Germany had made the US Navy's official entry into the war inevitable.  Secretary Daniels had studied developments during the conflict closely and had concluded that the Navy was not ready to enter the war with the men and material on hand. Moreover, a strategic vision commensurate with the task at hand was also required. Well ahead of other members of President Woodrow Wilson's cabinet, he realized that, in his words, the Navy's "most important task [would be] to land American soldiers on French soil." A Navy ultimately capable of transporting 2,017,000 American military personnel to Europe across dangerous waters, along with safeguarding the commerce of the allied nations against the submarine threat, would be required.  The Navy had a little over 300 ships during the prelude to the war.  By November 1918, it would exceed 2,000.  How in the world was the Navy to recruit and train enough Sailors to man the ships, much less staff billets ashore?
Yeoman 3rd Class (F) Julia W. Allen, photographed in 1918 in Norfolk, Virginia.  She is wearing her uniform coat-cape turned back on her shoulders to show the Norfolk jacket.  The jacket was not named for the city.  Rather, it was a style that until then had been popular with both hunters and police officers. (Courtesy of Julia Allen-Green/ Naval History and Heritage Command photograph)
That was ultimately the question Secretary Daniels was posing when he inquired as to the legality of enlisting women into the Navy.  The aim was to free up as many men as possible for sea duty.  Daniels might have embraced many populist causes, but in this regard he was not a progressive in any sense that would have been recognized as such, then or now.  

The former North Carolina publisher was derided by some for his lack of military experience, but no one could question his political acumen and his lifelong adherence to social causes benefitting those he saw as the downtrodden, often at the expense of the privileged.  The man who had almost unilaterally banished alcohol from American naval vessels in 1914, despite the protest of senior officers, would with the same disregard of customs and tradition begin the process of allowing women to serve in the Navy.  Biographer Lee A. Craig wrote that his "soft, reedy voice and coastal plain accent ... could easily cause a potential opponent to confuse Daniels's good manners and reserve with an absence of gravitas and thus lead that opponent to underestimate the intelligence and drive, both physical and mental, of the down-home editor." 

Daniels's legal staff pored over naval regulations in order to give him a definitive answer.  Within the Naval Reserve Act of 1916 that established the Naval Coast Defense Reserve, they found that "persons," rather than "males," were specified.  The answer to his question was, in effect, no. 

"Good," responded Daniels.  "Enroll women in the Naval Reserve as yeoman, and we will have the best clerical assistance the country can provide."

Yeoman 3rd Class (F)
Caroline Smith of 
Norfolk Naval Shipyard, 
as featured in the October
1918 Navy Life magazine. 
(Courtesy of the Portsmouth
Naval Shipyard Museum)

Of course, this was only the first of a multitude of questions which followed this watershed decision.

Were women to be limited to clerical duties?  The answer was also no, as women were also to become radio and telephone operators, chemists, pharmacists, draftsmen, and accountants.

Another question followed:  What shall they be paid in comparison to their male counterparts?  To Daniels this was an impertinent question.  "A women who works as well as a man ought to receive the same pay," was his reply.  

When it came to what kind of recruit training they were to receive and what uniforms they were to wear, things got fuzzier.  By the time war was officially declared on April 6, over 200 women had already become yeomen, yet without formalized military training whatsoever, and with only armbands over their civilian clothing denoting them as such.

Although military training would follow on an ad hoc basis for the majority of female enlistees during the war, the process of becoming a female Navy yeoman, including filling out the application forms and passing a physical exam, typically took less than a day. They then began work immediately at duty stations across the nation, often before anyone knew that they had enlisted.

Estelle Kemper, a young recruit from Virginia, actually reported for duty on the same day she enlisted.  "By nightfall," she recalled decades later, "I felt like an old hand.  After dinner I phoned my family in Richmond.  My father answered the phone and I told him proudly that I had joined the Navy.  Never immune to my bombshells, he gulped and said quickly, 'I'll call your mother.'"        

This identification badge belonged to Ruth Adella Ellwood, one of 700 female yeomen and telephone operators who served at Norfolk Naval Shipyard during World War I. Before the war, the shipyard only had one female employee.  (Courtesy of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum)
As for the question of uniforms, Daniels played a role in answering that question as well.  As he recalled it:

Some people thought they ought to wear something like pants.  Some had different ideas.  The length of the skirt, that was a serious problem. Should we have a long skirt that would sweep the decks?  Or something that revealed more leg?  Never in my life have I attempted anything, great or small, without the wise counsel of the women.  We decided on [skirts] about eight inches from the ground.

After a few female Yeomen reported to the ships they had been assigned, their assigners not yet cognizant that they were women, a parenthetical "F" was inserted next to their rate to stem the tide of clerical oversights.  Nevertheless, another term popped up to describe the new enlistees, "yeomenettes."  The term generally stuck, to Daniels's chagrin.

"I never did like this 'ette' business," Daniels said later.  "I always thought if a woman does a job, she ought to have the name of the job."

Although the recruitment of women for naval service was intended as a temporary measure to deal with an unprecedented problem, the impact was by no means temporary to many of the first generation of female Navy enlistees.  Even after the last of approximately 11,274 women who became enlisted Sailors during the war was released from active duty in July 1919, hundreds would continue to work directly for the Navy, even throughout the Second World War, in the civil service.  At least 100 rejoined the Navy on active duty as Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES).  Some of them served as commissioned officers this time around, something that had been denied them during the Great War.

In September 1938, as war began consuming Europe yet again, Daniels told a group of female Navy veterans, "You more than came up to my expectations. I feel it is one of the greatest honors of my life to have been associated with you in the days of emergency and war."
Original photographs and artifacts related to the Yeoman (F) program on display at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum. (Photograph by M.C. Farrington)
During the century that has transpired since Secretary Daniels posed his question, many others have been posed and answered by naval leaders.  Does a naval aviator have to be a man?  Can women handle the rigors of life on a deployment?  Are men the only people qualified to operate submarines or command a strike group?  These are among the thousands of questions that have also been answered, some only within the past couple of years, with history being made in the process.

--Editor's note: Diane L. Cripps, Curator of History at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum in Portsmouth, Virginia, contributed to this post. 

No comments: