U.S. Navy Gets with the Program? Not Really

When I was eighteen and in my first year of military college I, along with all the other first-year naval cadets, travelled to Halifax for a ‘look at the wonderful career that awaits you when you graduate’ field trip. The trip included a tour of one of Canada’s ‘new’ submarines (new to Canada, to be more precise). This was in the spring of 2001, which happens to be around the time women were first allowed to serve on Canadian submarines.

Though I don’t recall anyone asking his opinion on the matter, the submariner giving our tour was happy to share all the reasons women on submarines was a bad idea. Among his chief arguments, which all seemed to center around space and privacy, was the size of the bathroom. I can’t remember his exact words, but it went something like this:

He pointed to the head, “Isn’t even enough room there to close the door and sit down to do your business. I don’t see how that’ll work for ya.” I can only assume he was referring to the females of the group.

I looked at the head. It was narrow. I could see why our tour guide would have trouble closing the door. I didn’t have exact measurements, so hard to say, but the head looked narrower than the diameter of his midsection by my estimation. I was, however, pretty confident I could sit down in there and ‘do my business’ with the door closed.

I kept my thoughts to myself. Something told me this guy wasn’t particularly interested in a debate of the facts. Anyway, I never had any intention of becoming a submariner (I admit, I like my personal space. I also like seeing the sun once in a while). The event was filed away somewhere in the Irking Experiences drawer of my brain.

Sixteen years later, after being thoroughly entertained by Stephen Fry in Last Chance to See, I decided more Fry could only lead to more entertainment. I decided to watch the documentary Stephen Fry in America.  I was right. It was entertaining, for the most part. However…

In the first episode, Stephen gets a tour of one of the U.S. Navy’s nuclear submarines. He asks whether women serve on board the vessel. As of the filming in 2008, they did not. The U.S. Navy was one of the only Navys in the world that still banned women serving on submarines.

The reason Stephen was given when he asked? A lack of separate bathroom and berthing facilities.

Can you say flashback? My irking experience from 2001 came flying out of the drawer, along with a lot more emotion than I remember feeling about it even back then. I wasn’t exactly yelling at the television, but I was telling it off a little.

At this juncture I feel I must point out, compared to any Canadian sub (probably compared to subs from any other country), a U.S. nuclear sub is the fricking Ritz. If every other country in the world can figure out how to make it work…I was miffed at Stephen Fry for not asking the obvious question.

Putting the swankiness of U.S. subs aside for a moment, here’s another personal anecdote:

The summer following my submarine tour, part of my training included three weeks on a boat called a YAG. Here is the inside layout:

There were no separate women’s bunks, and certainly no ladies bathrooms. On some boats, the students hung a curtain across the center when they needed to change. Guys on one side, girls on the other. On mine, we didn’t bother. We faced our bunks and kept our eyes to ourselves. When things were feeling particularly crowded, some of us also mastered the art of changing our clothes inside our sleeping bags.

I won’t pretend this is my favourite living arrangement. It also wouldn’t work for everyone. But it did work for us. It worked because it isn’t the number, or layout, of bunks and bathrooms that makes the difference. It’s respect and trust. We trusted each other and we respected each other’s space and privacy, limited as it was.

During the summer of 2003, I spent about five weeks on a frigate. There were separate berths for men and women, and men’s and women’s heads. If I had to do one of those summers over again, I would choose the YAG in a heartbeat. On the YAGs we spent most of our time on the upper decks in the fresh air and sun. On the frigate, unless you worked on the bridge (as an engineering student I didn’t), you spent most of your time in dark rooms with a variety of interesting smells.

In 2011, I spent seven weeks on another ship (this one was civilian and, by that time, so was I) off the west coast of Africa. I was the only woman on board. I did have my own cabin. I did not have my own bathroom. Neither of those things defined the quality of the trip. On that trip I learned the importance of good food to a person’s overall physical and psychological wellbeing, and decided I really don’t want a career on a boat (actually, I figured that out in 2003, but sometimes I need to learn things twice). A story for another post, perhaps.

I was encouraged to learn the U.S. Navy finally decided to incorporate women into their submarine fleet in 2010. I was not encouraged to learn how they are redesigning their subs to accommodate women. Some of the changes they are making are as follows:

1)         “…adding more doors and washrooms to create separate sleeping and bathing areas for men and women and to give them more privacy.”

2)         “Sailors will be able to connect their masks into the emergency air system at the side of passageways, instead of overhead.”

Ok, these are fine. Actually, I’m a little surprised no one thought no. 2 was a good idea before now. But these:

3)         “…installing steps in front of the triple-high bunk beds and stacked laundry machines.”

4)         “Every submarine…was designed with the height, reach and strength of men in mind, from the way valves are placed to how display screens are angled…

Screen angles? How short are they expecting these women to be? And did it really take women on board for someone to think an adjustable screen might be useful? Or were all submariners prior to 2010 between 5’10” and 6’1”?

I would not be at all surprised to learn that on many military submarines there is a lack of the respect and trust necessary to make them a comfortable environment for women (or anyone). If that is the case, the ratio of men to women is not the cause of the problem and no amount of gussying the place up for women will fix it. In fact, it could make things worse. I can already hear men (and women) chiding each other for using the ‘lady step’ to get up to the top bunk.

As it happens, in 2003 I had the top of the triple-stacked bunks (they’re not unique to subs). It wasn’t that high. The second bunk makes a perfectly fine step. And I’d bet money the guys were stepping on that middle bunk too. Unless they joined the Navy after leaving the NBA, in which case they might find life on any boat, let alone a submarine, a little cramped.

This is not to say these submarine redesigns should not be happening. I’m sure there are lots of improvements that could, and should, be made to submarines to make everyone’s life on board easier and more comfortable. But need it be the equivalent of moving the outfielders in closer when the little ladies come up to bat?

Give these women some credit. They are serving on the old, manly submarines (not to mention space staions) at this very moment. And I bet they’re getting the job done.

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