Skip to main content

Update: First Lady Michelle Obama Sponsors Nuclear Submarine USS Illinois


UPDATE: The Hill has since updated its post to say that they were mistaken in reporting that the USS Illinois would be crewed only by women. The Hill left unclear whether this mistake was made completely erroneously or because the Illinois would have more than the usual opportunities for seawomen seeking posts on nuclear submarines. Please enjoy the rest of this post, which is still otherwise about factual gender opportunities or lack-thereof in the U.S. armed forces and Command Sgt. Maj. Jane Baldwin and Col. Ellen Haring’s lawsuit against the mandates that restrict them.

Nuclear submarines have been some of the last holdouts in co-ed military integration worldwide. Long deployments and superlatively cramped and mostly communal living spaces kept most navies from being comfortable with bunking men and women together. The strict economy of space has kept separate bathrooms and sleeping quarters low on the priority list of technological innovations for new submarine classes.

However, in the past year or so, the United States increased the categories of women allowed to set foot on submarines from “female civilian technicians for a few days at most; women midshipmen on an overnight during summer training for both Navy ROTC and Naval Academy; [and] family members for one-day dependent cruises,” to allow women to serve in certain cases. But yesterday, Memorial Day, First Lady Michelle Obama sponsored and announced the creation of the USS Illinois, a Virginia-class nuclear sub that will, when it enteres the Navy fleet in 2015, be crewed by women, exclusively.

Last May, the Navy decided that since officers on nuclear subs get a private bunk and access to an officers only bathroom, female officers could serve on the subs with the implementation of a flippable sign to let other officers know whether the bathroom was being used by a man or a woman. Eight women graduated from Naval Submarine School’s Submarine Officer Basic Course last year and proceeded to their posts. The Illinois, named after Ms. Obama’s home state, widens the possible roles for women on American submarines considerably. She said, in a statement:

It’s an honor and a privilege to serve as sponsor of the USS Illinois. This submarine is a tribute to the strength, courage and determination that our Navy families exhibit every day.

Sponsoring ships and even subs is not an uncommon First Lady-like activity: Ms. Obama has also sponsored the USCGC Stratton, Laura Bush sponsored the USS Texas (another nuclear sub of the same class), and Hillary Clinton sponsored the USS Columbia.

Would now be a good time to mention Pirate Jenny, daughter of Captain Nemo and captain of the Nautilus in Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen?

I digress.

The announcement of a submarine crewed by women is well timed with the Pentagon’s announcement that it is opening up 14,000 positions (mostly in the Army) that were previously exclusively available to men by mandate. There are still more than 250,000 jobs in the U.S. armed forces that are unavailable to women. In fact, Command Sgt. Maj. Jane Baldwin and Col. Ellen Haring, two Army reserve officers, are suing the U.S. Department of Defense and Army for the rights of female soldiers under the Fifth Amendment to serve as they are able, not as gender exclusive mandates will allow.

From CBS news:

The lawsuit also notes that women are already serving in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and instead of assigning them to combat units, the military is purposefully and deliberately circumventing the exclusion by “attaching” them to such units. In doing so, however, the policies put the women in more danger than their male counterparts because they’re barred from receiving combat-arms training necessary for engaging with hostile forces.

Haring has held positions as platoon leader, commander, executive officer and bridge commander over a 28-year Army career. She currently serves as a Joint Concept Officer for the Joint and Coalition Warfighting Center in Suffolk, Va. The lawsuit argues that Haring’s options “were limited to support positions with no possibility to compete within the combat arms.”

The Department of Defense declined to comment specifically on the lawsuit.

(via The Hill and CBS.)

Previously in Women on Submarines

Have a tip we should know? [email protected]

Filed Under:

Follow The Mary Sue:

Susana Polo thought she'd get her Creative Writing degree from Oberlin, work a crap job, and fake it until she made it into comics. Instead she stumbled into a great job: founding and running this very website (she's Editor at Large now, very fancy). She's spoken at events like Geek Girl Con, New York Comic Con, and Comic Book City Con, wants to get a Batwoman tattoo and write a graphic novel, and one of her canine teeth is in backwards.