Q: Is there a moment you can fix-- where you knew that change had happened?

BAXTER: I think I started to see it in flight training. The instructors, when I went through, were still pretty much gentlemen. The students that were coming in with me, some of the younger men, weren't handling things as well. Maybe there were some instructors that didn't like the idea of the women being there, they conducted themselves properly. But I didn't see that in the younger men. And somehow they missed something in the training.

Q: Tailhook .....You were there?

BAXTER: I was there because I was a carrier aviator, I was a member of Tailhook. It was a professional symposium. It was also a good opportunity to see friends that you'd been stationed with and since moved away from. So it was a professional and a social gathering.

Q: Tell me about the Persian Gulf War . Tell me about what the buzz was among Navy aviators about the Persian Gulf War.

BAXTER: I really couldn't tell you. I was at the Pentagon at that time in terms of pilot-to-pilot; I wasn't getting a lot of information that way. My husband was in Desert Storm. And I think he was flying the C-9s, and most of what I knew from that source was from him. The types of things I was doing at the Pentagon was, I was crunching numbers, and planning airplanes, that sort of thing. So I really can't answer that one for you.

Q: Receptivity to women....Why does it work in some squadrons, and not in others? Is it a leadership issue? Quality of the pilots? What is it?

BAXTER: In [my husband's] squadron there wasn't as much of a challenge in terms of terrain and domain. They didn't mind; the women were flying the C-9s; it wasn't combat, it wasn't challenging the roles, not freshly, anyway. A lot of times it is a leadership, a person-to-person thing. I've had some COs who supported women, help you get the good mission, to go out and do things that were good for your career. And then I'd get another CO who'd say, no, the women aren't going. And make some excuse that "So-and-so doesn't want a woman on the ship," and sometimes you don't know who's telling the truth or what the truth, but it does vary from person to person.

Q: The fact is, you never felt-- Or did you? That you were an equal to all the pilots in the Navy?

BAXTER: No, I couldn't have been. If somebody's telling me I can't do something because they don't want women on the ships or on this particular ship, then, no you can't feel equal, and you don't get the same opportunities to go out and compete.

Q: What was that like for you?

BAXTER: It was very frustrating. It seemed really stupid. They spent a million dollars training me to be a pilot, just like they trained somebody else and they spent a million dollars. And this person can go out and do something, and this person can't because they're female. That was very frustrating.

Q: When you went to the Tailhook convention symposium, were there issues, critical issues on your mind, on the minds of other women who may or may not have been there?

BAXTER: I remember and you probably heard about this -- at the Admiral's panel, the flight panel. A woman stood up and asked the question about when are women going to be allowed to go into combat-type jobs? And she got booed down. And the thing that was so surprising to me was that our admiral at the time, was standing out there. He was leading the panel. He really didn't do much to stop it. It was kind of an, "Awe, come on, guys." It wasn't the type of leadership or the type of strength that I would expect to see from an admiral. There were four-star admirals up there! And they all basically kept their mouth shut, or leaned over and said something or snickered, when that question was asked. The combat issue for women, that was a very predominant issue at that Tailhook convention

I was hugely disappointed. I was very disappointed. Because this was my admiral; this was the guy I worked for. He was the guy I looked up to. And I had had previous conversations with him about supporting women in combat; and he says, "Oh, yeah, I support it!" And when that woman asked the question, I expected him to support it! I expected him to say something positive, something is rolling in your direction! And he didn't.

Q: Were you hopeful to get into combat role?

BAXTER: I already knew it was a little too late. When you have somebody who moves in it's hard to make a change and go a new direction within the military. The military has it's own timeline, and when you're going to make a change, you need to do it early, to stay along, stay up with everybody.

Q: Were you still interested in a career at this point?

BAXTER: I was really gung-ho.

Q: Play out as a commander and then a captain? What was going to happen?

BAXTER: I didn't make commander. I was hoping to make commander. I was hoping to go back to the RC squadron, COD-pilot again, and get the CO of the squadron. I certainly had the experience; I had the qualifications. It didn't work.

Q: Why didn't you make commander, Roxanne.

BAXTER: I don't know. I think it was lack of opportunity. When you're competing with somebody who can go out and spend the night on the ship, where the CO doesn't want a woman spending the night on the ship, then this person's getting more bullets in this regard. There's a lack of representation of our community, the rear-sea community, on the promotion board because they don't consider the warfare community. There were a lot of factors that went into it.

Q: What's a bullet?

BAXTER: A bullet is, on a fitness report, is a one-liner about something you did, or were able to do. And it's really difficult to get those kind of mentions in a fitness report if you don't get to go do it.

Q: So there is a sort of glass ceiling.

BAXTER: Oh, yes. It's built-in.

Q: How do you view Tailhook's significance -- at that moment in time -- for the Navy?

BAXTER: It was the moment.....I have to think of the right metaphor. It was, that was the moment things came to a head in the military. A lot of things were happening that were squashed, were squelched, kept quiet. And when Paula Coughlin went forward, that was like breaking a dam. And it all just comes flooding out.

There was a lot of pressure to keep quiet about things that would happen. Most women I knew could tell you horror stories. I can tell horror stories. But there was a lot of pressure to keep your mouth shut, especially if you wanted to keep your career. You were damned if you do, and damned if you don't, if you went forward with anything or pushed anything. When Paula went forward, went to the press, the dam broke, and that's when a lot of women found the courage to go the other direction-- including myself.

Q: When was your moment? I mean, did you read about it, did you hear about Paula Coughlin? Did you say, I gotta do it, did you anguish about it?

BAXTER: I anguished about going forward, and first when I wanted to go public, I had a different intention in mind. And that was to talk about the Tailhook Association. Because I know it was a good organization, and I know they tried to keep things under control. The convention served a very useful purpose. There was communication. Some brand-new ... (inaudible) pilot from the fleet could come to this convention and ask a formal question to an admiral on the flag panel. So that served a useful purpose. And when I went forward, I thought that I was going to say, this is a good organization. But something started happening inside of me. I started getting really angry about what had been happening in the military, to my friends, to myself, and I got more honest with myself about where I was and what I felt, and that's when I decided to go forward talking about some of the things that weren't so good.

Q: Tell me who that Roxanne is, the one at that moment.

BAXTER: It was like a new Roxanne Baxter. She'd always been in there, always kept her mouth shut. I tried to. I think one of the other reasons why I went forward after Paula, was, I saw Paula kind of standing all by herself talking about this, and I knew that was a really dangerous thing to do for her, and I wanted some change. And so I went forward too.

Q: How dangerous?

BAXTER: Boy. I have been where Paula was, in terms of being alone and saying something is wrong. There's a lot of pressure. If somebody wants to make it really hard on you, they can make it really, really hard on you. And I didn't want her to be in her position, and I didn't want the Navy to be able to put Paula down and make it look like an isolated incident. I didn't want them to get away with it. I know that some of the leaders in the military, the leaders in the Navy at the time, would have loved to paint the picture that way.

Q: What happened to you there?

BAXTER: At Tailhook? It wasn't anything really, really traumatic, for that particular event. That doesn't mean that other things that I've experienced haven't been traumatic. They have. But it was basically, somebody assaulted me. They grabbed a part of me that they had no business touching. I tried to put it out of my mind. I got real upset that night, because some other things came up. It was kind of like a culmination of things rose in me regarding the things I've been through in the military.

Q: Your must have known what would happen to you if you stood up and spoke out, yes?

BAXTER: I think so. I don't know. My husband is a nice guy and sometimes I think he can be a little naive, so I don't know for sure (laughs.)

Q: You knew what a big step it was.

BAXTER: Oh, yeah. I knew that was the end of it. If I would have ever wanted a career, and I knew that was the end of it.

Q: Why, Roxanne?

BAXTER: That's just the way it is in the military. That was the unspoken truth. Everybody knew that, making a step like that was the end of a career. And Paula knew that, too. She must have known that. Maybe for awhile she was thinking that she was going to be able to get through this and have a career and everything, but I think eventually she came around to realize that you can't do that. It won't work.

Q: So what bad started to happen to you, after you spoke out?

BAXTER: After I went forward, after I went public, people changed a little bit in the way that they treated me, and talked to me. My office environment changed. And I don't know, too, in that office environment, if some of it wasn't me because I was a little more angry. I was starting to develop this anger. There was a lot of talk around the subject. And I'd be sitting at my desk, and they would start up a conversation about, "Oh, that Paula Coughlin," and start saying bad things about her, or, "She's making a mountain out of a molehill," and a lot of those things would be said for my benefit. In some ways it worked. It scared me off. It made me feel crummy. It was a bad environment.

Q: Did you think of it as crusading? "I'm going to change the Navy for the good," did you understand that it was a big deal that it was a fundamental thing .....that it might go all the way to Kelso, that it might get to Sam Nunn....?

BAXTER: I didn't know what was going to happen, but I knew that it was really a big issue, and that it was going to get a lot of attention. And I wasn't afraid to help it be the big issue that it needed to be. I knew that there was a lot of political power and life in the press. I knew what I was doing, and I knew what I was giving up for it. It wasn't that I thought I was going to change the Navy, because I think the Navy's an organization and you can make all sorts of paperwork changes but it's the individual that really needs to change. I knew it would put some pressure on the change.

Q: You said that there might be a personal price....What did it cost you?

BAXTER: The price was, I still had an opportunity to be promoted coming around. It wasn't really over yet. I basically wrote it off, being promoted.

Q: So, no big deal.

BAXTER: Well, it was a big deal at the time. I loved what I was doing.

Q: Did you fly after that?

BAXTER: No.

Q: What'd they have you doing next?

BAXTER: Well, I continued working the Pentagon, until things got really bad in my office, and then I asked for a transfer. And I ended up at a place where I hired bands to go overseas to entertain the troops, and darn the bad luck, I had the Mediterranean and Caribbean circuit, and sometimes I had to go, too.

Q: Did you have a sense, while you were at the Pentagon, that the top had any sense of the magnitude of Tailhook?

BAXTER: I think they knew. I think they knew the magnitude. I think everybody was just running for cover and hoped that they wouldn't be hit by the flack.


continued

pilots, jets, & the enterprise | tailhook '91 | old navy/new navy | what ails the navy? | readings | reactions | tapes & transcripts | admiral boorda's in basket | chronology of women in the navy | explore frontline | pbs online | wgbh

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation pbs online

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS