Long before I was even thought of, my mom served her country in the Navy. I grew up hearing bits and pieces of her story and as I’ve gotten older I found an appreciation for what she accomplished as well as groundwork she made for women that followed behind her.
She served during a time when sexual harassment wasn’t even a word and sexual discrimination was rampant. These factors were normal for the day and time but they also are the motivating factors for many of the regulations and adjustments that we now have implemented in our society.
No longer are women of equal training denied the ability to do their job. Service women aren’t forced to leave the military due to pregnancy. Today we have women serving aboard submarines, flying fighter jets, and serving in leadership roles. To appreciate the progress women have made though, it is important to understand where they came from.
Linda (Kochenburg) Besenyei served in the Navy between August 1965 and August 1967, a time when gender inequality was very prominent. Though her time in service was short, she stands among the women veterans who helped pave the road for today’s new recruits.
18-year-old recruit Besenyei stepped off the bus at Baimbridge, Maryland and scoffed at the WAVE (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) who was on her hands and knees scrubbing at the tile floor with a toothbrush. “I thought they were just trying to scare us but a few days later I was scrubbing the floor with a toothbrush,” she recalls while sitting at the kitchen table, a cup of coffee before her.
At the time when Linda enlisted there weren’t even co-gender boot camps much less women aboard submarines. The females on the base were completely isolated from the men and thus for the duration of their 12-week training period they had limited contact with males. “The only time we saw the guys was at the chow hall,” she explains. The females weren’t allowed to talk about the males, referring to them as “trees” instead. Due to the strict segregation guidelines, the reward of making good marks for 10 weeks was a day’s leave to Lancaster to which the men and women could finally socialize together. Today, boot camp is a co-ed atmosphere with females training right alongside their male counterparts and everyone is called sailor.
Not only were the women separated physically but they were treated differently as well. Linda explains that they were to wear red or mauve tinted lipstick with their uniforms, they carried purses (which had to be on the left shoulder and hand positioned a certain way upon it). Their dress uniform consisted of a skirt, blouse,,high-heels, and gloves while their work dungarees were fitted to flatter the female shape. “We were expected to act and look like ladies at all times.” This lies in contrast to Navy regulations today in which females are required to maintain a more natural appearance with lipstick and eye makeup being of a more “conservative” nature.
The regulations for hair have not changed through the years, however. A female’s hair is still to be above the collar and if it is not of regulation length upon entering boot camp they will ensure it is taken care of. “Most girls got their hair cut before coming so that it would look nice. And after 10 weeks we could visit the hair salon to get it done.” Everything about their appearance was to be in good taste and emit pride in appearance and in the uniform and the men were expected to respect the females. “The men were expected to treat the females like ladies, especially when in uniform.” They were not to use profanity around the females, were expected to open doors, hold out chairs, and otherwise use manners.
The WAVE’s uniforms were markedly feminine as well, complete with nylons with the seam going down the back of the leg as was popular at the time. Everything in the recruit’s possession was expected to be labeled with name, service number, and company and each label had a specific place to which it was to be affixed. “Everything was labeled – eyeliner, nylons, garter belt, everything.” Today’s recruits still have to label their belongings but social security numbers now take the place of serial numbers, and garter belts and nylons are no longer required as coveralls and fatigues are now the standard working uniforms.
It wasn’t just in appearance that women were treated differently, but in job selection as well. Today, the Navy has women serving in all fields, including aboard ships and submarines. In 1967, the year Linda left the Navy due to being pregnant, women could only make up 2 percent of the military forces, and they could not hold a rank above captain or colonel with only one female serving in this rank at a time. According to Military.com, as of 2015 the Navy was making plans to increase the number of women serving, hoping to bring it up to 25 percent or higher. This could only be accomplished by opening up the spectrum of jobs offered them. However, during the years that Linda served and even after, women were only positioned in stereotypical “women roles” such as clerical work and nursing.
When Linda’s company graduated, only 28 WAVES remained of the original 100, and they were only offered a small selection of jobs within the Navy – yeoman (a secretarial type job), corpsman (a nurse’s aid), keypunch operator (working with the computers), or radioman (receiving and relaying messages). Linda was placed as a radioman and spent the next 6 months in radioman school which took place on the same base she had spent boot camp at.
Again, the women’s barracks were isolated from the rest of the base, positioned up on a hill away from everything else. However, unlike boot camp, she would attend classes with her male counterparts. She would train side by side with the male sailors, getting the same security clearance as them, learning Morse Code and other skills useful for the job. When she graduated from radioman school she was one of two WAVES, the third who had started with them, had to leave when she got married and became pregnant.
Despite receiving the same training and security clearance, when Linda was assigned to her first duty station just outside of Washington D.C., she was not aloud in the radio shack. She was to work in the room outside of the radio shack so as not to be “a distraction to the men.” The Morse Code she had learned would be of little significance to her role as she did mostly clerical type work – filing, book keeping, answering phones, organizing and dispatching classified messages, and working the teletype. She was even told by her commander to “wear high heels all the time because [she] has pretty legs.” This was an era before sexual harassment was even a phrase, today such a statement would lead to stiff penalties under military law.
Linda would go on to marry a sailor she met in radioman school, and eventually would become pregnant with their first child. During this time in the Navy there were no maternity uniforms, therefore once the military uniform no longer fit properly the woman was discharged from the service. This ruling kept the number of women in service extremely low. In fact, to join the Navy a girl had to be 18 years of age and single. She could get married once in service but not prior. Linda would leave the Navy as an E-4, just two years after entering boot camp. Today, all branches of the military allow women to have families, and serve in vast capacities, including combat positions.
Around 1978, the United States Government tried to correct its policy on forcing women out of active duty service due to the pregnancy stipulation. Linda would receive a letter inviting her back into the Navy and restoring her rank. However, by this time she had two children to care for and her husband was still serving in the Navy thus leaving childcare a questionable thing. She politely declined the offer, leaving the story of her time in service a thing of the past.
When she speaks of her time in service she does not appear offended by the different treatment she received. “It was just the way it was back then. We were expected to be ladies.” There’s a sense of nostalgia in her green eyes, a spark of pride as she holds her garrison hat in arthritic hands. She survived the mental challenges of boot camp, she had served her country with pride.
Linda Beseneyei and countless other silent female veterans helped lay the foundation that has allowed young women to work in equal capacity to their male counterparts.
I am a Veteran Too (talk given at Concord University)