Women in the RAN

Women serving in the RAN

The subject of women serving in the armed forces has been contentious for centuries. Not long ago there were accusations that a USN female pilot had been pushed beyond her limits, with fatal consequences, after the crash of her F14 Tomcat following a possible single engine failure on finals approach to a carrier. Two American women died in the USS Cole terrorist attack, 12 October 2000. An RAN female Midshipman perished in the 5 May 1998 HMAS Westralia engine room fire.

It’s dangerous at sea, even in modern times, but the original argument probably goes back to Boadicea and beyond.

RAN women serve in our submarines.
Sceptics claim that females are weaker physically and mentally than males. Women also get pregnant and this contributes to their early posting ashore from seagoing ships. They also require special toilet and sleeping arrangements. Additionally, some male sailors’ wives don’t want their husbands exposed to romantic shipboard temptations. Others worry about romantic favouritism or false sexual harassment claims and time wasted on sexual harassment education and punishment issues that detract from morale and readiness. Submariners, with their close-quarter living arrangements and distinctive lifestyle, are particularly vulnerable to these issues.

There are also sneaking perceptions that, given free rein, with increasing emphasis on academic proficiency in the ADF, the more verbally adept and generally more intelligent females (according to Recruiting Office IQ tests) might outscore their male peers for selection to desirable courses and promotion in peacetime, but be found wanting in war. Admission to the Australian Defence Forces Academy, strictly on a merit basis, records close to 50 per cent women in recent intakes. In time this might risk promotion block for some men, dissatisfaction and perhaps even lower male retention rates.

Submariner issues

J. Michael Brower, an American civilian IT specialist, acknowledges recent worldwide changes, including those in the RAN. He notes that women serve in all arms of the Israeli forces and that a female has even commanded a coastal-range Norwegian submarine. He is particularly concerned with the USN submarine issue. “What female submariners really threaten is existing power relations. While top admirals … maintain that putting women on submarines constitutes an insurmountable logistical challenge, many women possess just those attributes submariners actively seek … The fundamental issue is less about managing privacy in the head and more about keeping everyone at the top male,” he claims (Brower 2000).

RAN women serve as musicians.

Margaret Mead

It is important to remember that we do not have to reinvent the wheel every time we wish to discuss the issue of women in the services. Margaret Mead is as good a place as any to start with a library review. She was the first to examine systematically the physical and mental “weaker sex” argument, back in 1935 and she reported strong counter-intuitive data. She found isolated primitive societies with contrasting gender roles. In one, the men might be the warriors and heavy workers. In another, within the same country bounds, females assumed more of those roles while the men raised the children and cooked. In others these roles were shared (Mead 1935, 1950).

Many of her derived assertions were challenged, but Mead’s original data were never seriously challenged. Traditional male-female roles, therefore, may be shaped more by learned behaviour, such as culture, than just simple genetics. Learned behaviour, unlike the “hardwired” genetics, may be fairly easily modified through relatively simple interventions.

RAN women also monitor and maintain the machinery.

Sara Lister

There have been a number of interesting studies recently about women serving at sea. Sara Lister, a former Secretary of the U.S. Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, and a visitor to Australia, published a well-researched article, probably in response to earlier discussions dating back to 1997 in the USNI Proceedings, about women serving in the USN.

“The second major issue (after Services homosexuality), often phrased in terms of a (civil-military) gap, is whether the ‘social experiment’ of bringing more women into the armed forces “and opening jobs for them previously reserved for men” has “weakened or drastically changed the military ethos,” she writes (Lister 2000).

Warrior spirit

She argues that women possess a “warrior spirit”, yet combat “and particularly ground combat” remains an issue; the USA does not yet deploy women in “combat billets” except as aviators and on board ships. She acknowledges that “liberal” and “feminist” pressure from government increases the number of women in the services and combat-related jobs, but this kind of civilian control over the military risks “the professional military’s disdain for civilian society and its values”.

She eschews the hard line “women’s liberation position” that any woman with the right tools can do anything better than any man, but she sees no long-term problem with women serving alongside men in any military capacity.

Marine LCOL C.J. Lewis commanded a joint unit staffed by 13 per cent females in Sarajevo in 1998-99. “Every one of these women … was as tough as any one of us (and) exuded the ‘warrior spirit’ described by Mrs. Lister,” he says (Lewis 2000).

CAPT L.A. Wells, USNR ret, a female legal officer, takes issue with Lister on a number of points. She says that we cannot ignore but must deal with the issue of pregnancy among serving females. “A commander may forbid all sexual encounters aboard his ship, but this rule becomes yet another ‘zero tolerance’ standard, doomed to fail,” she correctly asserts (Wells 2000).

CMDR Vickie McConachie, was Commanding Officer of the shore station HMAS

Pregnancy data

There are a lot of unfounded “weaker sex” and pregnancy rate assumptions based on poor anecdotal data. Hard data were supplied by CAPT K. Amacker, USN. In a 1999 USN survey, the unplanned loss of females was found to be 2.5 times that of males (25 per cent versus 10 per cent) and “most of these losses are for medical (including pregnancies) or disciplinary reasons,” he says (Amacker 2000). Oddly, the RAN pregnancy rate is only about one eighth of the USN’s, according to unofficial but reliable data. Perhaps the RAN has better sex education and contraception attitudes.

Sexual harassment is an important issue. A certain “critical mass of women is necessary” for optimum integration into ships, according to Dr. Sue Bailey, the United States Assistant Secretary for Health Affairs. Small numerical or powerless minorities, male or female, within larger populations become traditional harassment targets. It is RAN policy to post a minimum of six women at a time to submarines.

Despite the “critical mass” problem, there has been a fairly successful gradual integration of females into Australian naval aviation. Women were employed in clerical and similar jobs in shore-based squadrons for many years, but the first three female RAN maintainers joined HS 817 in 1985. The first female RAN observer, (then) SBLT A.J. Goodier, graduated from RAAF East Sale in 1991 but she resigned in 1995.

LCDR Nicole Wilson is the RAN’s senior female aviator. She trained at East Sale and flew in Seahawks in the Persian Gulf from Melbourne. She is presently a Seahawk TACCO/co-pilot and airborne instructor.

RAN women fly as helicopter pilots

In 2001, there was only one female pilot, LEUT N.J. McDougall (above), a Sea King Captain, serving in the RAN. Others tried but, like their male counterparts, many failed to learn to fly or, as in one early instance, were poached by the RAAF during their flying training.

RAN submariners

Following the “critical mass” line more closely, and leading the world, RAN female submariners train as a group and quietly join their long-range submarines as a group. Six or seven females are posted to one submarine at a time and the official minimum number to serve on board is three. Unfortunately, examples of women serving in the RAN that have received greater local publicity include isolated instances of a possible harassment of a female officer in Swan and a more recent example of misbehaviour by an alcohol-influenced Newcastle female sailor and others returning from duty in Timor.

In contrast, severe criticism of the USN Tailhook organisation followed a 1991 Las Vegas function that featured sexual assaults of females, including female USN officers. Contributing factors were a botched cover up and an equally unsavoury politically-inspired congressional overreaction.

First seagoing commands, first clearance divers

Notably, the first female to command a USN warship, CMDR Kathleen McGrath, went on station in the Persian Gulf in early 2000 in command of the USS Jarrett, FFG-33. This frigate, with a crew of 262, carries surface-to-surface as well as surface-to-air missiles, a 75 mm gun, torpedoes and a pair of SH-60 Seahawk helicopters. Jarrett’s major task was to detect and board blockade-running tankers carrying Iraqi oil (Thompson, 2000). Closer to home, hydrographer LEUT Jennifer Daetz, assumed command of a 305-tonne RAN survey craft, HMAS Shepparton, in 1997 (navy.gov.au). She was the first woman to command a commissioned RAN vessel. LCDR Michelle Miller, a PWO, was appointed the Commanding Officer of the patrol craft HMAS Dubbo, last year. Female submariners now serve in Collins class submarines and the last RAN all-male bastion, the Clearance Diver Branch, is presently accepting women.

This Fremantle class patrol boat is a sister ship to HMAS
Dubbo, which was commanded by LCDR Michelle Miller, RAN.

CMDR Vicki McConachie, CO Kuttabul and a legal officer, was a member of the (later) ADML Barrie’s 1993 “travelling circus” that explained gender issues to the RAN. She forecasts that a female officer could command an RAN major unit within three to five years. She found very little opposition to women in the RAN. “People anticipate problems but resolve them. Australian navy people want to know the rules. Once they know them, they follow them,” she asserts.

“Most did not know what sexual harassment meant (in 1993). We were the first western nation to put women in long-cruise submarines and we are in the forefront of the world in this and other gender-related issues,” she adds. Australian women have been serving in the Persian Gulf in support and other ships since the early 1990s.

USN history

Women served in the USN in WWI and WWII, but it was not until 1948 that they could join the USN in peacetime. Then, they could not make up more than two per cent of the force and could not be promoted to admiral. By 1972 the first woman was promoted to admiral rank in the USN (by CNO ADML Zumwalt) and in 1973 they began navy pilot training. The first mixed gender US Naval Academy class graduated in May 1980, with 55 females. Women now make up about 14 per cent of the USN’s uniformed strength and supply 12 of 220 admirals.

In 1994 the carrier USS Eisenhower became the USN’s first combat ship with females as crew, typically about 600 women aboard in her crew of 4,700, serving in all trades and ranks, from sick berth attendants to flight deck ordnance handlers. In 1998 LEUT Kendra Williams, USN, became the first female pilot in US history to drop bombs on an enemy target, this time from an F18 over Iraq.

WRANS history

Nursing sisters filled seagoing billets in either the USN, RN or RAN for more than a century. During WWII WRANS and WRNS served ashore in, for instance, “non-belligerent” communications, supply and medical billets. The RN extended this policy so that by the end of the 1940s women were well established in Naval Air Stations as aircraft mechanics and air traffic controllers.

In Australia, the WRANS quietly started in 1941 with 14 telegraphist instructors “enrolled” from the voluntary Women’s Emergency Signalling Service. “Enlistment” (conferring post-service benefits) followed in 1942. By the end of WWII, more than 3000 WRANS had joined, filling about 10 per cent of all RAN billets.

One Coastwatcher

They served in all the major shore establishments and in a number of very remote locations. However, apart from one notable Coastwatcher, WRANS never served overseas and other than service aboard harbour-based depot ships such as HMSs Maidstone and Adamant, never aboard sea-going ships. The WRANS disbanded in 1948, but started again in 1951 with an initial planned complement of 300 (Curtis-Otter 1975).

As the Australian adult male recruiting rate slowed in the late 1950s and 1960s, high quality female applicants still presented themselves at the recruiting offices. This led to a pool of female volunteers, permitting selection of only the very best, contrasting with the virtual guaranteed enlistment of any reasonably intelligent and fit adult male body.

“Women have served at sea in the RAN since 1981,” says the RAN’s Web site. “In 1990 their role expanded to include service in ships assigned for combat-related duty.” It was originally intended to integrate submarine crews with women in 1997, but this was delayed until 1999, awaiting the resolution of privacy and accommodation issues in the Collins class submarines. In July, 1999, there were 11,425 men and 1,979 women (14.7 per cent) serving in the RAN.

Males become watch on, stop on sea-goers?

With adult male recruits hard to find and sometimes harder to keep, female sailors are one solution to maintaining the RAN at full strength. Keeping the women ashore, as the RAN did in WWII, is no peacetime solution. This strategy might leave more men free to man ships at sea, but this means even fewer male shore billets, at a time when many of the higher profile and desirable shore jobs have been civilianised. Only a very few very odd males will want to spend their entire lives at sea in warships.

Women have become an integral part of the RAN, ashore and afloat. There will be isolated problems, but as CMDR McConachie asserts, there does not seem to be any major systemic problem. Knowing the rules is important. She has found from experience that once they know the rules, Australian sailors are more than eager to follow them.


Amacker K. Letter USNI Proceedings 126/2, February, 2000, p. 2426.
Brower J.M. The enemy (below), the brass above. USNI Proceedings 126/6, June, 2000. p. 33.
Curtis-Otter M. WRANS, Garden Island: Naval Historical Society, 1975.
Lewis C.J. letter USNI Proceedings 126/3, March, 2000, pp 10-11.
Lister S.E. Gender and the civil-military gap. USNI Proceedings 126/1, January, 2000. pp. 48-53.
Mead M. Sex and temperament in three primitive societies. New York: Morrow, 1935.
Mead M.  Male and female. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1950.
Thompson M. Aye Aye Ma’am, Time, 27 March, 2000.  pp. 22-26.
Wells L.A. letter USNI Proceedings 126/4, April, 2000. pp. 30-32.


RAN web site: www.navy.gov.au.