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Ahoy, ladies! One of the Navy’s last gender barriers is broken

Midshipman Abigail Gesecki, at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., is one of 11 women selected to begin training to become submarine officers this summer. Photo: AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt

The Ohio class “Trident” submarine carries a payload of 24 ballistic missiles, displaces nearly 19,000 tons of water and comprises a key part in the country’s second-strike nuclear deterrent.

It’s also incredibly cramped.

Privacy is elusive, the boredom can be numbing and “hot bedding,” a practice in which multiple crew members are piled into the same bunk, is common. Serving on one of these “boomers,” as they are called, is not for everyone.

“It takes a certain personality to do that job,” Sharon Breece, a 25-year Navy veteran who retired as a master chief petty officer in 1993, said in a telephone interview. “I wouldn’t want to do it.”

And yet, Breece feels strongly that women should be allowed to serve on submarines. For years, the Navy has barred them from that assignment, saying health and privacy issues, not to mention the behavior of some male crew members, made a commingling of the sexes impossible. The cost to retrofit submarines to accommodate women would also be prohibitive, military leaders argued.

Now, after years of debate, they have relented. The Navy announced last week that it would begin to train small classes of female officers for service aboard nuclear submarines, starting in 2012. “Enabling them to serve in the submarine community is best for the submarine force and our Navy,” Ray Mabus, the secretary of the Navy, said in announcing the decision. “We literally could not run the Navy without women today.”

The question of whether women should serve aboard submarines has been hotly debated in Navy circles for years, stirring cries of protest from some veteran bubbleheads. Last year, military analyst and conservative commentator Elaine Donnelly accused Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, of bowing to political pressure without fully weighing the consequences of lifting the ban.

“By thoughtlessly pushing for co-ed submarines, apparently to please military and civilian feminists, Admiral Mullen has demonstrated an appalling unawareness of the health hazards involved, and a callous disregard for quality-of-life hardships that are difficult enough for sailors in the Silent Service,” Donnelly, who heads the Center for Military Readiness, said in a statement.

But the reality is that officials have been studying the possibility of allowing women to serve on submarines since well before the Obama era. As early as 1994, then-Secretary of the Navy John Dalton ordered a review of the costs of such a change. And in 1999, members of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, a Pentagon board, pored over expert testimony and spent time aboard the vessels themselves. They later passed a resolution calling for the ban on co-ed submarines to be removed.

“There was really no logical reason for women not to be assigned to submarines,” Brenda Moore, a professor of sociology at the State University of New York who was then a member of the committee, said in a telephone interview. “Women certainly have the intellect, and they certainly have the ability.”

The prohibition on female submariners has long been a major obstacle for women hoping to advance up the ranks to senior policymaking positions. Defense policy has, for the most part, been shaped by men who have experience with strategic weapons, such as nuclear missiles. Because women in the Navy have been barred from gaining such experience, they have often found it more difficult to advance their careers.

“That was a built-in bias against women,” Moore said. “Most elite positions or units are those that have some sort of involvement with combat, and so if women are barred from those positions, that’s like a ceiling on their advancement.”

Because more women earn technical degrees than ever before, senior Pentagon officials believe breaking down barriers for women in the military is necessary for the long-term survival of the all-volunteer force. But some concerns, however far-fetched, remain. Navy wives, for example, have argued that allowing their husbands to serve in close quarters with women might put them in a position to stray.

Breece, who served almost exclusively with men for most of her Navy career, dismissed those complaints as baseless.

“If he’s going to do something like that, he’s going to do it. It’s not because he’s going to be with a bunch of women,” Breece said, repeating what she has told Navy wives.

She acknowledged, though, that as a woman in the Navy, she has had to fend off more than a few advances herself.

“I have to laugh a little,” Breece said. “Being a woman, you get hit on all the time.”