Debating Tailhook

tailhook '91
Collected here are three articles written in the aftermath of Tailhook '91:

"Going Wild?" by Susan Faludi, 1994.
(Faludi is writing a book about masculinity in America.)

You know what really stinks? - the young Navy officer asked me. He pushed aside his third Scotch and leaned across the table in a chain restaurant near the Naval Air Station in Norfolk, Va., where the Tailhook prosecutions have crept along for more than a year and where he was one of the dozens accused of "conduct unbecoming."
"What about all the female officers who were going wild at Tailhook? How come they haven't been prosecuted?"
Going wild?
"You know, wearing sexy clothes, dancing like a bunch of party girls, getting their legs shaved in the suites." He lowered his voice. Some, he continued darkly, even had sex with other officers. "How come they aren't being prosecuted for that? This whole thing stinks of a double standard."
The "double standard" lament comes up repeatedly with Tailhookers. How come the female officers got to "go wild," and not the guys?
At first look, this seems a ludicrous argument. Assault, not partying, was the offense that prompted protest from the female officers who attended the annual convention of naval aviators in Las Vegas in 1991. Lieut. Paula Coughlin, a helicopter pilot, blew the whistle on Tailhook because a crowd of men formed a gantlet down a hallway and tore at her clothes, grabbed her breasts and seized her buttocks with such force she was hoisted airborne.
The dozens of other women attacked in the hallway said their fellow officers hurled them to the floor, yanked off their underwear and molested them. This was not fun and games; many women who fought back only met with fiercer assaults and epithets like "whore" and "bitch."
Perpetuating the confusion between assault and mere bad taste may be the only lasting achievement of the Tailhook affair. The prosecution stumbled to a close last week with the dismissal of the three final cases that were pending court-martial and the resignation of Lieutenant Coughlin. In the end, she's the only junior officer who is out of a job.
Sure, the investigation embarrassed the top brass and cut short some careers. Yesterday, Adm. Frank Kelso, the Navy's top officer, requested early retirement so the Navy could close "this difficult chapter." Last week, a military judge found that, contrary to his denials, Admiral Kelso had witnessed misconduct at the convention and failed to stop it.
But the 28 junior officers actually disciplined were censured for these charges only: "indecent exposure," "conduct unbecoming an officer" and making "false official statements." In other words, they were reprimanded for making half-naked buffoons of themselves and lying about it later.
None of the 28 - and none of the original 43 men who faced administrative action - were charged with assaulting or molesting women. They got in trouble for such sins as streaking and dropping their pants. By focusing on the officers' adolescent antics, the Navy not only missed the point; it reinforced the same false message that has become increasingly prevalent in recent years: Advocates of the rights of women are really just prudes, anti-sex. Feminism, we hear once again, is just a euphemism for puritanism.
Ironically, the prudes waggling their fingers at the male Tailhook exhibitionists weren't female officers or feminists; they were men from the military establishment. It was the military that granted immunity to ringleaders of the gantlet so that they could testify against a bunch of streakers.
Tellingly, in his 111-page ruling last week dismissing the final three Tailhook cases, the Navy judge, Capt. William T. Vest Jr., focused not on the violence against women but on Tailhook's "reputation for wild partying, heavy drinking and lewd behavior." When he suggested that sex, not assault, was on trial here, the young accused officer I talked to had a point.
If there's anything to gain from the hash made of the Tailhook investigation, perhaps it's the (slim) possibility that the bawdy officers who were disciplined might feel more empathy for women - who, after all, have always faced censure for exhibitions of lustiness. The men might remember that if there is a "double standard" at play here, that shoe is generally on the other, feminine foot. If they don't like how the shoe feels, maybe they won't insist that women wear it.

"Universal Soldier: What Paula Coughlin Can Teach American Women"
by Katherine Boo. Washington Monthly, September 1992.
(Reprinted with permision from the Washington Monthly. Copyright by the Washington Monthly Company, 1611 Connecticut Ave.,N.W., Washington DC 20009 (202)462-0128.)

Deep in the 2,200 pages of Naval investigative Service transcripts about the infamous Tailhook weekend, a moment of humanity interrupts a catalog of outrage and indifference. A man sees a distraught woman flee onto a hotel balcony, her clothes stretched and torn and three naval aviators fast behind her. As the men laugh and taunt, the Samaritan intervenes. Ordering the offenders to leave her alone, he fernes her out of the melee and into safety.
Unfortunately, our hero isn't a serviceman. He's a bartender. And that woozy night, it seemed as if you had to live outside military culture to recognize that attacking women isn't just boys being boys. Fortunately, however, the past few months have been a long, harsh-lit morning for the American military, as the official Lessons of Tailhook swim into focus. We've had lessons about outlaw aviator culture, about convoluted chains of command, about widespread service alcoholism, about women's place on the front lines - military lessons, all. Yet the timeliest lesson may speak, not to the guys in uniform, but to that anonymous woman who was chased around the Hilton - and to every other woman in America. It's the lesson embodied by 30-year-old Naval Lieutenant Paula Coughlin, a pilot mauled by her peers that weekend, who came forward at considerable professional risk to demand that the Navy bring her attackers to justice.
Her superiors ignored her; other victims deserted her; even the mini-skirt she wore that evening was held up to the light. In the usual doomed - whistleblower scenario, Coughlin would today be selling discount fatigues at Sunny's Surplus, cursing the day she spoke out against the Navy. There'd be a drink named after her - a sour one - at some Miramar aviators' bar. But a year after the raucous convention that ushered Tailhook into the civilian lexicon, this isn't shaping up like the usual story. In fact, there's a chance that Paula Coughlin's courage will actually change a culture many feminists had long given up as lost.
So why should female civvies care? Because a few weeks after Paula Coughlin was attacked, she and the rest of America heard lawyer Anita Hill explain her decision not to protest Clarence Thomas's repeated sexual harassment over the years in which she worked for him: "I was aware," she said, "that telling at any point in my career could adversely affect my future career." It was a justification that provoked instant empathy from working women.
"I think that is something that a woman in that situation would do," asserted Hill's friend Ellen Wells at the hearings, a speculation that had women nodding in agreement across the nation. "You think, yes, perhaps this job is secure, but maybe they will post me in an office in a corner with a telephone and The Washington Post to read from nine to five, and that won't get me anywhere. So you are quiet and you are ashamed and you sit there and take it."
A decade after Hill sat there and took it, and a year after she sat there and told it, her choice of silence has been so energetically defended it now seems to rank among the unassailable feminine prerogatives. She personally is enough of an icon that campaign literature from Senate hopeful Carol Moseley Braun gives the Oklahoma law professor as much space as the candidate. Yet it is precisely for those who argue that Anita Hill had no other choice that Paula Coughlin's story is a countermyth of crucial importance, one that cries to be rescued from the brig of military lore. It says that a woman can fight against injustice in a closed, hierarchical, defensive culture. And, hell, she can even prevail - not just for herself, as Anita Hill did in silence, but for hundreds of thousands of other women.

Babes in Boyland
The comparison between the two women is, of course, a ragged one. There's vast difference between privately tendered sexual innuendo and a populous hallway brawl. And Paula Coughlin wasn't victimized (at least at first) by her boss. Yet to fully appreciate her guts, it's worth rewinding, via the Navy transcripts, to the Tailhook weekend and the months that followed. That, mind you, was well before the beer swilling, crotch-groping, criminal-making aviators' party had made its way into the major press; before Navy leaders had their mouths frozen into outraged 'O's. Rather, it was back when the odds of Paula Coughlin's prevailing looked slim next to the odds of being ignored, marginalized, or even demoted - in other words, about as grim as young Anita Hill's.
While you'd have to strain to find a "good" arena for a professional woman to fight sexual harassment (although Hill's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission should've come close), the military may have been the consummate hard-luck setting - a truth rounded on much more than a few rowdy weekends. Thus the likelihood of obtaining professional equality with male peers probably already seemed a long shot to Coughlin, an aide to Rear Admiral Jack Snyder at Maryland's Patuxent River Naval Air Test Center. Yet, like Anita Hill, Coughlin was no bristling, broadcasting feminist. For eight years she adhered to the bootstrap philosophy of equal fights: By making it yourself, you do a service to womanhood in general. "I had worked my ass off trying to be one of the guys," Coughlin noted later, "to be the best naval officer I can and prove women can do whatever the job calls for."
But after she wandered into a Las Vegas Hilton hallway that Tailhook weekend and faced the Navy tradition known as the "gantlet," the bootstrap stuff must have seemed a little flimsy. Suddenly a chant of "admiral's aide, admiral's aide" rose up and several dozen of her service peers engulfed her, mauling her, pushing her to the ground, and attempting to take her clothes off. As Coughlin yelled for help, they laughed, abandoning her only to treat more women walking down the hall to the same giddy molestation-attacks meant, as one Whidby Island, Washington, airman later noted, "in a good-natured, lighthearted way." Coughlin wasn't the only officer who had personally learned the difference between good nature and hostile groping that night, but in the beginning she might as well have been. Although two civilian women filed official complaints about their treatment at Tailhook, the assaulted servicewomen, fearing professional reprisal, adhered firmly to the Anita Hill School of Silence. One female officer, who had earned a certain fame among Tailhook attendees for having decked one of the men who attacked her, cried for days after the incident. But when another officer encouraged her to file charges, she decided to just "let it go." "In the beginning I thought about reporting it," she told Navy officials later, "but I thought that there was nothing anyone could probably do about it anyway .... "
Recall that, like Anita Hill, these were women of considerable accomplishment and leverage - in this case, naval officers. They had a lot more credibility than the drunk teenage girl who that night had been stripped of her clothing, manhandled by dozens of aviators and left exposed and confused in a Hilton hallway. They had more power than the hundreds of enlisted women raped and otherwise abased annually in the service. Yet, as they repeatedly indicated to naval investigators, they also had a lot more to lose. Thus, at about the same time that Hill was explaining her eight years of silent suffering, Tailhook assault victims found themselves following her example.
Fear of professional reprisal is no idle worry, and post-Hill surveys have shown it's still a primary concern of victimized women. Yet it's critical that feminists count in the social cost of keeping quiet - a cost that the Tailhook victims had cause to understand firsthand. As male servicemen repeatedly noted to investigators, the gantlet, and the assaults it implied, had been going on at least since 1986; it was, as one put it, "an honored tradition." And as many aviators also pointed out, this Tailhook gathering was a beck of a lot less raucous than the previous year's. But while civilian women had occasionally protested their treatment, women officers - the ones with real love for, and leverage in, the Navy - had seldom joined them. The gantlet continued. And the women at Tailhook '91 became victims, not just of drunken aviators, but of all the women before them who had made the same choice of silence.

Full-Metal Jackals
With a wider lens, it's hard to deny that knowledge of wrongdoing should carry with it some obligation: to do what you can to stop the drug company executive who suppresses negative evidence from laboratory studies, to keep the head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from breaking the rules he's been entrusted to implement, to turn a time-honored atrocity into an obsolete one. Hill seemed to concentrate primarily on personal preservation-what George Bernard Shaw called the Gospel of Getting On. Coughlin, on the other hand, seemed to get the big picture. "This was not the Navy officer image I grew up with, that I worked with," she later said. So she tried to change that image.
Still, as anyone who's been there knows, there's a yawning chasm between believing that something should be changed and actually making it happen. When Coughlin reported her story to her superiors, she found herself in another gantlet - a kind of Let's Go guide to institutional sexism. Her boss' response on the morning after the attack was, "That's what you get when you go to a hotel party with a bunch of drunk aviators." In the following weeks, she was told to get counseling, warned of the enormous professional folly of her actions (she could or be "blackballed by the aviation community," a superior informed her), made fun of, and just plain ignored. The detailed complaint she wrote languished in the hands of her boss. And while dozens of aviators had witnessed the '91 gantlet, they circled their wagons so tightly that Clarence Thomas's fawning secretaries look like turncoats by comparison.
X refused to participate in any "witch hunt for admirals and had no further information concerning this investigation." Y "may have attended Tailhook '91 but he is not sure. Could not provide any additional information .... "Z defended a suspect by noting, " Accused was a very handsome person and ... women were attracted to him." A male officer'acquaintance who had consoled Coughlin immediately after the attack felt compelled to note, when interviewed by the Naval Intelligence Service (NIS), that the skirt she had been wearing was rather short. And even the NIS agent assigned to help her identify her attackers came on to her, at one point calling her "Sweet Cakes."
This is the stuff of Anita Hill's worst nightmares circa 1983 - and it was a collective acceptance of their plausibility that caused women to embrace her eight years later. And why not accept it? It takes true doggedness to force an organization to live up to its ideals, and the media are full of stories in which the innocent lose when they fight. Those stories surely crossed Coughlin's mind as the Navy dawdled after her attackers. In the months following the attack, she sobbed like a child and ate like a logger. What she didn't do, however, was shut up. Instead, in June she decided to go public.
To the average woman discriminated against at work, "going public" means getting a lawyer, turning to an advocacy group, perhaps talking to the local paper. For Coughlin, who happened to be sitting on a major story, it meant essentially telling the world. Still, in interviews with "World News Tonight" and The Washington Post, Coughlin criticized the Navy bluntly and allowed her name to be used. And if that seemed to her female colleagues like career suicide, it ended up being the savviest move, on feminist and professional grounds, that she could have made. Amid the Navy transcripts is the testimony of another woman officer abused at Tailhook. "I didn't think about reporting this to anyone," she stated, until she read an article about Coughlin, whom she had previously met and respected. "Then I felt it was my duty to come to the defense of the lieutenant who initially reported the incident." More and more officers joined her, until a dozen had disgorged their stories. The Navy now had on its hands something too noisome to ignore.
By summer, the chief of naval operations, Admiral Frank Kelso, found himself publicly vouching for Coughlin's career on national TV. The folks who ignored Tailhook, on the other hand, weren't nearly so well protected. Two days after Coughlin went to the media, Navy Secretary Lawrence Garrett, who himself had attended Tailhook (he was hanging out on the patio outside a suite where strippers and prostitutes were working), was forced to resign. And thanks to enormous public pressure to ensure that this time around the charges are thoroughly investigated, there may be more U.S. military casualties by the end of the Tailhook affair than there were in the Persian Gulf.
That part of the story is kind of fun to watch. But the most important outcome of Coughlin's action is a subtler one. In 1989, when Admiral Virgil Hill dismissed as "highjinks" the chaining of a female Naval Academy student to a toilet, and the five midshipmen who had abused her were allowed to graduate, the semaphore was surely read by the ranks. This time around, as naval officers and enlistees take their new training on sexual harassment policies and hear rumors of another officer canned for looking the other way in a harassment case, the old message has gone the way of the B-1 bomber. Sure, the smarmy slogan now playing on billboards at bases across the country - "Not in Our Navy" - will probably never be true, but the Navy's commitment to making it so may be.
Of course, it is futile to try to predict the full repercussions of speaking out as Coughlin did. Who would have guessed, for instance, that Tailhook would revive the revanchist idea that women shouldn't be allowed in the military? And as for credit, don't count on it, even from those you help.
When Lt. Commander Roxanne Barrett, one of the highest-ranking women harassed at Tailhook, was asked recently on a D.C. radio station whether Coughlin's coming forward had prompted her to tell her story, she emphatically demurred. She had thought it better for her career to stay silent, Barrett said, until the Naval Intelligence Service came banging on the door. "I thought that was the right time," she added primly - ignoring the fact that, without Coughlin's willingness to take the risk that Barrett herself opted out of, that time would never have come.
In other words, it was because one woman stood up and spoke out that a misogynist culture is now forced to reconsider its ways. So why hasn't People magazine called? Perhaps it's because we like stories of damsels in distress better than stories of women triumphant. Or maybe the lieutenant simply didn't do enough TV. Nevertheless, we shouldn't allow the lesson to float away. Anita Hill's message to American women was that it's okay to choose our own professional advancement over loftier social goals. Paula Coughlin reminds us that, if we sweat for it, we may sometimes have it both ways.

Research assistance was provided by Emily Nelson.

Back to Index

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

pbs online