Nina Odele

Women have had a continuous and growing presence in the U.S. Navy throughout the 20th and into the 21st century. Women worked as nurses for the Navy as early as the American Civil War. The United States Navy Nurse Corps was officially established in 1908. Whenever international or domestic events dictated the need, the Navy expanded its opportunities for women to serve.

The first large-scale employment of women as naval personnel took place to meet the severe clerical shortages of the World War I era. The Naval Reserve Act of 1916 had conspicuously omitted mention of gender as a condition for service, leading to formal permission to begin enlisting women in mid-March 1917, shortly before the United States entered the “Great War.” Nearly six hundred Yeomen (Females) were on duty by the end of April 1917, a number that had grown to over eleven thousand in December 1918, shortly after the Armistice.

The Yeomen (F), or “Yeomanettes” as they were popularly known, primarily served in secretarial and clerical positions, though some were translators, draftsmen, fingerprint experts, ship camouflage designers, and recruiting agents. The great majority were assigned duties at naval installations in the continental United States, frequently near their homes, processing the great volume of paperwork generated by the war effort.

Yeomen (F), all of whom held enlisted ranks, continued in service during the first months of the post-war naval reductions. Their numbers declined steadily, reaching just under four thousand by the end of July 1919, when they were all released from active duty. Yeomen (F) were continued on inactive reserve status, receiving modest retainer pay, until the end of their four-year enlistments, at which point all women except Navy nurses disappeared from the uniformed Navy until 1942.

Many honorably discharged Yeomen (F) were appointed to civil service positions in the same Navy yards and stations where they had served in wartime. Entitled to veterans’ preference for government employment, they provided a strong female presence in the Navy’s civilian staff through the decades after World War I.

We could begin anywhere with the history of women in the military forces, and especially in the naval forces.  So, let’s just start with the WAVES: The U.S. Navy created a division which consisted entirely of women in the World War II era. WAVES is an acronym for “Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service”. With the word “emergency” included, it implied that women were only accepted to this all-men league in unusual circumstances of war and that at the end of such war, the women would not be allowed to continue in naval careers.

After a twenty-three year absence, women returned to general Navy service in August 1942, when Milfred McAfee was sworn in as a Naval Reserve Lieutenant Commander, the first female commissioned officer in U.S. naval history. Lt. Commander McAfee was also the first Director of the WAVES. This legendary female was also President of Wellesley College. This occurred two months after the WAAC (Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps) was established and Eleanor Roosevelt convinced Congress to authorize a women’s component of the Navy – the WAVES.

Lt. Commander McAfee

In the decades since the last of the Yeomen left active duty, only a relatively small corps of Navy nurses represented their gender in the naval service and they had never had formal officer status. Now, the Navy was preparing to accept not just a large number of enlisted women, as it had done during World War I, but female Commissioned Officers to supervise them. It was a development of lasting significance.

An important distinction between WAAC and the WAVES was the fact that the WAAC was an “auxiliary” organization serving with the Army, not in it. From the very beginning, the WAVES were an official part of the Navy, and its members held the same rank and ratings as male personnel. They also received the same pay and were subject to military discipline. The WAAC became the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in July, 1943, giving its members military status to that of the WAVES.

WAVES could not serve aboard combat ships or aircraft. Initially, these women were restricted to duty in the continental United States. Late in WWII, WAVES were authorized to serve in certain overseas U.S. possessions, and a number were sent to Hawaii. The war ended before any could be sent to other locations.

Within their first years, the WAVES were 27,000 strong – mostly assuming clerical work. The WAVES did not accept any African-American women until late 1944, at which point they trained one black woman for every 36 white women enlisted. In 1948, with the passage of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, women gained permanent status in the armed services. Although, the WAVES officially ceased to exist at this point, the acronym continued to exist until well into the 1970s.

The first six enlisted women to be sworn into the regular Navy on July 7, 1948 were Kay Langdon, Wilma Marchal, Edna Young, Frances Devaney, Doris Robertson, and Ruth Flora. On October 15, 1948, the first eight women to be commissioned in the regular Navy were Joy Bright Hancock, Winifred Quick Collins, Ann King, Frances Willoughby, Ellen Ford, Doris Cranmore, Doris Defenderfer, and Betty Rae Tennant. They took their oath as officers.

The WAVES kept the homefront affairs of the U.S. Navy going while the men were assigned to ships serving around the globe. While the official song of the U.S. Navy men was “Anchors Aweigh”, the WAVES’ official song was sung in counterpoint to the men:

WAVES of the Navy,
There’s a ship sailing down the bay.
And she won’t slip into port again
Until that Victory Day.
Carry on for that gallant ship
And for every hero brave
Who will find ashore, his man-sized chore
Was done by a Navy WAVE…


Women in the Naval Reserve were recalled along with their male counterparts for duty during the Korean War. Nurses served aboard the hospital ship, USS Sanctuary in the Vietnam War era. Only nine non-nurse women were authorized to serve in country during this period; however, no enlisted Navy women were authorized.

Major changes occurred for Navy women in the 1970s. The first female naval officer was appointed to flag rank in 1972, Captain Alene B. Duerk. She was followed in 1976 by RADM Fran McKee as the first female unrestricted line officer appointed to this rank. During this time, women began to enter the surface warfare and aviation fields. They also gained access to officer accession programs previously only open to men. Women started to screen for command opportunities ashore.

In 1973, the Secretary of the Navy announced the authorization of naval aviation training for women. The next year, the Navy became the first service to graduate a woman pilot, Lt. Barbara Allen Rainey. In 1976, the United States Naval Academy along with other military academies first accepted women and commissioned its first female graduates in 1980. That same year, women also began attending Aviation Officer Candidate School. In 1979, the Surface Warfare Community opened to women with the first female obtaining her SWO qualification. We also saw the Naval Flight Officer program opened to women this year & Lt. Lynn Spruill became the first woman naval aviator to obtain carrier qualifications.

Three decades into the future, the Department of the Navy authorized a policy change allowing women to begin serving onboard Navy submarines. The new policy and plan is set in motion with the integration of female officers to begin early in 2012.

Today, there are over 52,000 women serving on active duty in an array of traditional and non-traditional ratings or careers in the U.S. Navy. Like their male counterparts, female enlisted sailors are expected to adhere to regulations, specific to appearance: grooming, health and physical fitness. However, some differences exist in relation to pregnancy and parenting provisions.

In the Navy, women are eligible to serve in all ratings except as a SEAL or Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen. The current policy set by Congress and the Secretary of Defense excludes women from direct combat billets in the military.


Nursing, in the sense of bedside attendance of the sick and injured, has existed in the Navy from the first. Performed by enlisted crew members, the function was increasingly formalized during the 19th Century as part of the duties of the emerging hospital corpsman rates.

Even in the early 1800s, there was a recommendation that women be employed as Navy nurses. Nothing much came of this until the American Civil War, when Catholic Sisters of the Holy Cross served in Navy facilities and on board the pioneer hospital ship USS Red Rover. This was part of a great endeavor by women during the conflict, an undertaking which led to the post-war establishment of nursing as a real profession requiring formal training – a profession both open to and dominated by women. The U.S. Navy officially established the Navy Nurse Corps in 1908.

In 1862, Sisters of the Holy Cross served aboard USS Red Rover, the Navy’s first hospital ship, joining a crew of 12 officers, 35 enlisted, and others supporting medical care. Red Rover remained the only hospital ship in the Navy until the Spanish-American War.

Loretta Perfectus Walsh (1896-1925), became the first American active-duty Navy woman and the first woman to serve in any of the United States armed forces other than as a nurse. Walsh enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve on March 17, 1917. She subsequently became the first woman Navy petty officer when she was sworn in as Chief Yeoman on March 21, 1917.

Captain Ruth Alice Erickson was the Director of the Navy Nurse Corps from 1962-1966. As a lieutenant in the corps, she witnessed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. She served as chief nurse at three major naval hospitals before becoming director.

Retired Rear Admiral Frances Teresa Shea-Buckley was the Director of the Navy Nurse Corps from1979-1983. Shea joined the corps in 1951 and stayed in the Reserves when she left active duty in 1954. She earned a masters degree in nursing service administration. After returning to active duty in 1960 with a stint in Vietnam, she became the director in 1979 and became the commanding officer of Naval Health Sciences Education and Training Command as well as deputy commander of Personnel Management, Naval Medical Command.

Retired Rear Admiral Mary Joan Nielubowicz was the Director of the Navy Nurse Corps from 1983-1987. She was promoted to Commodore, in which this rank was changed to Rear Admiral in 1985. The following year the members of the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States established the Mary J. Nielubowicz Essay Award in recognition of her outstanding support and encouragement of active and reserve nurses. Retired Rear Admiral Mary Fields Hall was the Director of the Navy Nurse Corps from 1987 to 1991. She was the first military U.S. military nurse to command a hospital. She became the commanding officer at Naval Hospital, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in 1983, and later, commanded Naval Hospital, Long Beach, California.

Rear Admiral Joan Marie Engel held the position as the 18th Director of the Navy Nurse Corps from 1994-1998. She concurrently served as deputy commander of personnel management in the Health Sciences, Education and Training Command, and later as assistant chief for Education, Training and Personnel. Engel earned the Legion of Merit, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Navy Commandant Medal, and the National Defense Medal with bronze star in her distinguished naval career.


1990, Rear Admiral Marsha J. Evans, USN was the first woman to command a Naval Station. She assumed command of Naval Station, Treasure Island San Francisco.

In the same year, Lieutenant Commander Darlene Iskra, USN was the first Navy woman to command a ship, the USS Opportune.

In 1993, Congress repealed the Combat Exclusion Law allowing women to serve on combatant ships.

In 1996, Carol Mutter became the first female three-star officer in the military. Patricia Tracey became the second a few months later.

In 1998, Lillian Fishburne became the first black female promoted to flag rank.

Also in 1998, Commander Maureen A. Farren became the first woman to command a combatant ship when she took command of USS Mount Vernon, an amphibious dock landing ship.

In 2001, Captain Vernice Armour, USMC earned her wings. The Department of Defense acknowledged her as the first female African American combat pilot in the military during Operation Iraqi Freedom. She completed two tours in the Persian Gulf. After leaving the Marine Corps, she became an international motivation speaker.

In 2006, Angela Salina was the first Hispanic woman Brigadier General in the Marine Corps.

Zenaida Colon, a native of Puerto Rico and the Navy’s only female Master Chief Aviation Support Equipment Technician joined the USS Bataan crew also in 2008.

On January 9, 2009, Secretary of the Navy Ray Maybus announced that women would be assigned to Ohio Class submarines. The first women are expected to report to subs this year.


Rear Admiral Cynthia A. Coogan

Rear Admiral Cynthia Coogan is currently assigned as the Assistant Commander for Intelligence and Criminal Investigations. It is her responsibility to direct, coordinate, and oversee intelligence operations and activities that support all Coast Guard mission objectives, the National Strategy for Homeland Security, and National Security objectives. Throughout her career, she has received the following awards: two Legion of Merits, the Meritorious Service Medal with the Operational Distinguishing Device (five awards), 9/11 Medal, Coast Guard Commendation Medal (two awards), and the Coast Guard Achievement Medal (five awards).

Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, USN

“A Legend in Her Own Time”, Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper dedicated her life to the Navy. As a pioneer computer programmer and co-inventor of COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language), she was known as the “Grand Lady of Software”, “Amazing Grace”, and “Grandma COBOL”. Grace’s life consisted of one success after another including significant contributions to the computer age and the Navy.

After graduating from Vassar in 1928 with a BA in Mathematics at the age of 22, she went on to Yale University where she earned a MA in Mathematics as well as Physics; only to continue her education by earning her PhD in 1934 from the same edified university. Hopper began teaching mathematics at Vassar in 1931 where her first year’s salary was $800.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor bringing on World War II, Grace wanted to serve her country by joining the military. The obstacles would have deterred a lesser person. She was 34, which was considered too old for enlistment, and the government had declared her occupation as a mathematics professor as crucial. Navy officials told her she could best serve the war effort by remaining a civilian. Undaunted, she managed to get special permission and a leave of absence from her teaching position at Vassar. She also wrangled a waiver on the weight requirement. Weighing in at 105, she was sixteen pounds underweight for her height of five feet six inches. Grace persevered and was sworn into the U.S. Navy Reserve in December 1943. For 43 years, she proudly served the Navy she loved so dearly.

Upon being sworn in, Hopper was commissioned a LTJG and ordered to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University. There she became the first programmer on the Navy’s Mark I computer, the mechanical miracle of its day. Hopper’s love of gadgets caused her to immediately fall for the biggest gadget she’d ever seen, the fifty-one foot long, 8 foot high, 8 foot wide, glass-encased mound of bulky relays, switches and vacuum tubes called the Mark I. This miracle of modern science could store 72 words and perform three additions every second.

In 1946, Hopper was released from active duty and joined the Harvard Faculty at the Computation Laboratory where her work continued on the Mark II and Mark III computers for the Navy. In 1949, she joined the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation in Philadelphia, later called Sperry Rand, where she designed the first commercial large-scale electronic computer called the UNIVAC I. Grace’s love affair with the Mark I ended when the UNIVAC I (Universal Automatic Computer) won her affections. This computer system operated a thousand times faster than Mark I did.

She changed the lives of everyone in the computer industry by developing the Bomarc system, later called COBOL. COBOL made it possible for computers to respond to words rather than numbers. Hopper often jokingly explained, “It really came about because I couldn’t balance my checkbook.” She’s also credited with coining the term “bug” when she traced an error in the Mark II to a moth trapped in a relay. The bug was carefully removed and taped to a daily log book. Since then, whenever a computer has a problem, it’s referred to as a bug.

Hopper retired from the Naval Reserve with the rank of Commander at the end of 1966. She was recalled to active duty in August of 1967 for what was supposed to be a six-month assignment at the request of Norman Ream, then Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Navy for Automatic Data Processing. After the six months were up, her orders were changed to say her services would be needed indefinitely. She was promoted to Captain in 1973 by Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Jr., Chief of Naval Operations. And in 1977, she was appointed special advisor to Commander, Naval Data Automation Command (NAVDAC), where she stayed until she retired.

In 1983, a bill was introduced by Rep. Philip Crane (D-Ill.) who said, “It is time the Navy recognized the outstanding contributions made by this officer recalled from retirement over a decade and a half ago and promote her to the rank of Commodore.” Rep. Crane became interested in Hopper after seeing her March 1983 “60 Minutes” interview. He’d never met Hopper, but after speaking with several people, was convinced she was due the added status of being a flag officer. The bill was approved by the House, and at the age of 76, she was promoted to Commodore by special Presidential appointment. Her rank was elevated to rear admiral in November 1985, making her one of few women admirals in the history of the United States Navy. She retired at the age of 80. It was at her retirement that she was presented the highest award given by the Department of Defense – the Defense Distinguished Service Medal – one of innumerable awards she received from both the Navy and industry.

Other awards include the Navy Meritorious Service Medal, the Legion of Merit and the National Medal of Technology, awarded last September by President George Bush. She also received the first computer sciences “man of the year” award from the Data Processing Management Association (DPMA) in 1969. Other achievements include retiring from the Navy as a Rear Admiral and the oldest serving officer at that time, and being the first woman to be awarded a PhD in Mathematics from Yale University.

Retirement didn’t slow Grace Hopper down. Shortly thereafter, she became a Senior Consultant to Digital Equipment Corporation where she was active until about 18 months before her death. She functioned in much the same capacity she did when she was in the Navy, traveling on lecture tours around the country, speaking at engineering forums, colleges, universities and computer seminars passing on the message that managers shouldn’t be afraid of change. She always placed very high importance on America’s youth. Hopper often said, “working with the youth is the most important job I’ve done. It’s also the most rewarding.” This seems perfectly natural since she spent all her adult life teaching others.

One dream Hopper didn’t fulfill was living to the age of 94. She wanted to be here December 31, 1999 for the New Year’s Eve to end all New Year’s Eve parties. She also wanted to be able to look back at the early days of the computer and say to all the doubters, “See? We told you the computer could do all that!”

Her insight into the future will stay with us even though she’s gone. Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper was laid to rest with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery in the first month of 1992.

Rear Admiral Nora W. Tyson

Tennessee is where Rear Admiral Tyson graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree in English. She then went on to attend Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I., receiving her commission in the U.S. Navy in December of that same year. Tyson reported for flight training in Pensacola, Florida where she earned her flight wings as a naval flight officer in 1983.

Amongst her duties was command of the amphibious assault ship USS BATAAN leading the Navy’s contributions to disaster relief on the U.S. Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Rear Admiral Tyson was also deployed twice to the Persian Gulf in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. 
Tyson earned a Master of Arts in National Security and Strategic Affairs from the U.S. Naval War College in 1995.

Ashore, she served as Airborne Communications Officer Course instructor and officer in charge at Naval Air Maintenance Training Detachment 1079, NAS Patuxent River, Md. She has also completed tours on the Joint Staff as a political-military planner in the Asia-Pacific Division of the Strategic Plans and Policy Directorate; as executive assistant for the assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; as director of staff for commander, Naval Forces Europe/commander 6th Fleet, and as executive assistant for the chief of naval operations. Her most recent assignment was as commander, Logistics Group, Western Pacific/commander, Task Force 73.

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