We at PDJ join the U.S. Navy and the nation in celebrating Women’s History Month during March.
Navy Women by the Numbers
Currently more than 59,000 active-duty women, and more than 9,000 Reserve women, serve in the Navy. Making up 18 percent of the total force, women make numerous contributions to our Navy’s mission and readiness. Additionally, more than 54,000 women serve in a wide range of specialties as Navy civilians. Women leaders in the Navy Total Force include 32 active and Reserve flag officers, 69 Senior Executive Service (SES) members, 48 command master chiefs, and three command senior chiefs.
The First Navy Women
In 1908, Congress established the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps. The first 20 Navy nurses—who were women—became known as the “Sacred Twenty.” As one of the Sacred Twenty, Lenah S. Higbee was one of the first women to serve formally as a member of the Navy. In 1909, Higbee was promoted to chief nurse at Norfolk Naval Hospital, and in 1911 she became superintendent of the Navy Nurse Corps, serving throughout World War I. The Navy recognized Higbee’s distinguished service as superintendent of the Navy Nurse Corps, awarding her the Navy Cross for service in the line of her profession, and for unusual and conspicuous devotion to duty. In 1944, the Navy commemorated Higbee’s naval service, naming a ship in her honor. USS Higbee (DD 806) was the first combatant ship to be named after a woman.
World War I
The Navy’s first enlisted women, more commonly known as yeomen (F) or yeomanettes, provided clerical support during World War I. Captain Joy Bright Hancock initially enlisted as a yeoman (F), serving until the end of World War I, by which time she had risen to the rank of chief petty officer. In 1942, during World War II, she was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) program. Hancock rose to the rank of captain and led the WAVES through the 1940s and 1950s, facilitating the addition of women as a permanent part of the Navy.
World War II
Master Chief Yeoman Anna Der-Vartanian entered the Navy through the WAVES program. She was not only the first woman to hold the rank of master chief in the Navy, but also across all armed services. Reflecting on her service, Der-Vartanian noted that most of the personnel she led treated her with respect and professionalism. The few exceptions, where her authority was challenged, she maintained her professionalism and said, “Fall in and pipe down!” Upon her retirement, after 21 years of naval service, Der-Vartanian continued serving her country by joining the Central Intelligence Agency.
Women in Today’s Navy
Darlene Iskra was one of the first female line officers to graduate from the Naval School of Diving and Salvage in Washington, D.C.
Looking back, Iskra said, “Dive school was the most physically challenging thing I had ever done to that point in my life. Had it not been for the support of my fellow classmates—especially my roommate and diving partner [present day] Rear Admiral Martha Herb—I would have probably quit.”
As a lieutenant commander, Darlene Iskra became the first Navy woman to command a ship, when she assumed command of USS Opportune (ARS 41) in 1990. Iskra took her ship, a Bolster-class rescue and salvage ship, to patrol the Suez Canal during Operation Desert Storm, ensuring the canal remained clear for commerce. Reflecting on her time as the first female commanding officer of a naval ship, she now understands that being a trailblazer means opening new paths for others to follow, and that sometimes there are hazards along the way. Iskra retired in 2000 as a commander, with 21 years of service.
Most recently, Vice Admiral Michelle Howard was nominated for appointment to the rank of admiral and assignment as vice chief of naval operations. Upon confirmation, she will make history as the Navy’s first female four-star admiral—and the first African American, and first woman, to serve as vice chief.
What’s Next for Navy Women?
The character, courage, and commitment shown by Higbee, Hancock, Der-Vartanian, Iskra, and Howard paved the way for women serving in the contemporary Navy. Today, women in the Navy, both officer and enlisted, hold leadership positions aboard warships, as well as in carrier air wings and squadrons, recruiting districts, training stations, and shipyards. As we continue to move forward, previously closed billets will open to women, and the Navy will continue to witness women making history and achieving new “firsts.”