A salute to women's history
Editor’s note: March is National Women’s History Month, and Stripes Okinawa is honoring our courageous women in uniform – past and present – by sharing their historic stories each week. If you have such a story to share, send it to OKINAWA@STRIPES.COM and help us salute women in the military.
WASHINGTON – The Navy joins the nation in celebrating Women’s History Month during March, as announced in NAVADMIN 043/14, released Feb. 28.
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 leading 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.
In 1908, Congress established the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps. The first 20 Navy nurses were women, who 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 the Superintendent of the Navy Nurse Corps, serving throughout the duration of 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 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.
The Navy’s first enlisted women, more commonly known as yeomen (F) or yeomanettes, provided clerical support during World War I. Capt. 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.
Master Chief Yeoman Anna Der-Vartanian entered the Navy through the WAVES. 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 with the saying, “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.
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 Adm. 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 upon her time as the first female commanding officer of a naval ship, she now understands that being a trailblazer means opening new ground 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 Adm. 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 first African-American and first woman to serve as the vice chief.
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, of carrier air wings and squadrons, recruiting districts, training stations, and shipyards. As we continue to progress forward, previously closed billets will open to women and the Navy will continue to witness women making history and new “firsts.”
Commands are strongly encouraged to increase their knowledge and awareness of the contributions of women to our Navy and nation by celebrating the National Women’s History Month theme, “Celebrating Women of Character, Courage, and Commitment,” through programs, exhibits, publications, and participation in military and community events.