NORFOLK (NNS) -- Sailors aboard aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73) are reflecting on the many accomplishments and firsts for women in the U.S. Navy as an observance of Women's History Month.
Although women were able to serve in the U.S. Navy throughout World War II and the Korean War in non-nursing capacities, it wasn't until 1978 Judge John Sirica ruled the law banning Navy women from ships to be unconstitutional. That year, Congress approved the Navy to assign women to fill sea duty billets, where they had previously been unable to serve.
In 1961, nearly 20 years before the ban was lifted, Lt. Charlene Suneson reported for duty aboard P-2 transport ship USS General W.A. Mann (AP 112) and became the first female line officer to have shipboard duty.
"It all began at a cocktail party in San Diego," recalled Suneson in a 1961 Chicago Tribune interview. "I was talking to a captain and I mentioned I would like to go to sea. He said he could arrange it for me."
Prior to reporting to her ship, she asked the commanding officer if she could be assigned watch duty while the ship was underway. She was instead assigned to assist the transportation officer. Her duties were restricted to those of a seagoing purser, handling financial accounts and various documents relating to the ship. It was a job she had not expected and did not want.
"I expected the negative reaction from Navy men," said Suneson in her autobiography with Veteran Feminists of America. "On board, I was not permitted on the bridge or in the engine room. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, we left the Pacific via the Panama Canal loaded with supplies and waited in New Orleans. I was told that if the ship went to Cuba, I would not."
Although Suneson had an excellent record and was well qualified, the assignment was far from a success. The Navy announced it would no longer assign women line officers to sea duty, nor would there be a seagoing code on her record.
"The Navy has told me I'm sort of a trial balloon," said Suneson in an interview with United Press International in 1961. "If they don't send any more women to sea, you'll know why."
Following her time at sea, she went on to several shore commands including recruiting and administrative work. Her final duty station in New York led to Suneson's affiliation with the New York chapter of the women's rights group, National Organization for Women (NOW).
After 13 years of service, Suneson resigned from the Navy. She received a doctorate in sociology from the University of Southern California with a certificate in gender studies.
At the age of 83, she remains actively involved with NOW, operating as an independent sociologist and activist for women's rights.
The law changed allowing women to serve on ships 11 years after Suneson left the Navy, mainly to adjust sea-shore rotations. While she didn't directly influence the change, her accomplishment as the Navy's first female non-nursing line officer is not forgotten.
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