Women’s History Month Speech

Women’s History Month speech at Naval Air Facility Atsugi in Japan — 21 March 1997

I’m awed to be standing in front of you today. I never thought I’d be senior enough or important enough to be a luncheon speaker.

When my boss and I were discussing whether we should do something for Women’s History Month, I sent an e-mail to the base executive officer asking if NAF had any plans. He responded with a note saying they were talking about a luncheon, with me as guest speaker. ME? A guest speaker?

I mentioned this invitation to my boss, and told him I didn’t know of anything to talk about. He said being invited as a luncheon speaker comes with the silver eagles, whether or not you think you have anything to say. “So get used to it.”

And here I am, getting used to it.

The title of this year’s commemoration is “A Fine and Long Tradition of Community Leadership.” Today I’ll share with you some of my community leadership experiences, as well as a bit about my career.

I never get involved in women’s organizations and I have mixed feelings about the value of Women’s History Month. Perhaps someone needs to do those things. I’ve always tried to do my part by being good at my job and setting a good example.

I’ve tried to offset those often-heard stories, “I once worked with a woman who…,” followed by a description of what she had done wrong.

I hope over the years I’ve been able to change a few attitudes about the value of women in the military. I found early on, if I act like a professional, I get treated like a professional. If I treat others with respect, that’s how they treat me.It’s always bothered me to see young women smoke and cuss in an effort to be like their male peers. That just isn’t the way to go. I never smoked, swore, used drugs or got so drunk I couldn’t remember what I’d done. I participated in social events, usually kept a sense of humor, and was considered “one of the guys.”

As a maintenance officer, though, I had to prove myself professionally–something I didn’t have to do as an aviation storekeeper or in my one tour as an 1100 officer.

During my two squadron tours, I was always on edge, always feeling tested. Part of the reason was due to learning the aviation maintenance business from the ground up. I was seldom sure I knew as much as I should at whatever point I happened to be.

But I’d also chosen a community struggling to build up its reputation. When the 1520 community was established, ten years before I joined, it opened its ranks to almost anyone who applied. So it acquired some deadwood, and was now trying to overcome the legacy of a few poor quality officers. Squadrons wanted limited duty officers who–in general–had a reputation for knowing their business. I had to prove myself both as a woman in a man’s world and a 1520 in a world that wanted LDOs.

After my first maintenance tour at a training squadron in Kingsville Texas, I arrived at a maritime patrol squadron in Jacksonville, Florida, as third in seniority of approximately 45 lieutenants.

My new boss made me the material control officer. Material Control! A beginner’s job, the job all maintenance officers start out with, the one I’d had in Kingsville three years earlier. Needless to say, I was irate.

The MO explained, that since I didn’t have a P-3 aircraft background, the squadron would put me in Material Control until I became comfortable. Can you imagine a senior male LT checking into a command and being placed in a corner until he feels comfortable?

I realized the squadron had to get used to me, not the other way around. It was a combat squadron, with no enlisted women and no female aircrew. The only other woman was the intelligence officer, but that was “okay” because women had long been intel officers.

I was something different, a woman in the maintenance department. So I fought for the jobs I wanted, proved I was good, and got along fine.

I can remember when I reached the point I no longer had to prove myself. After a few months as Maintenance Material Control Officer at AIMD Norfolk, I realized the division officers accepted me unequivocally as their boss, and everyone above and below assumed I knew what I was talking about. I’ve never again felt the need to prove myself as a professional.

By the time I finished my next tour, AIMD officer in Guam, and went back to NAS Jacksonville for my major AIMD, I had almost forgotten those old days of proving myself. So I was surprised when my XO mentioned that taking over the AIMD must have been difficult for me, but that I’d done it well.

It took me awhile to realize he was talking about my being a woman. To my knowledge, NAS Jax had never had a female department head, so once again it was everybody else who had to get used to me.

My only regret of my career is that carrier aviation didn’t open up to women soon enough for me to be part of it. I always wanted to be a tailhooker. I put VF/VA and CV on all my duty preference cards. They were dreamsheets, right?

There’s a hole in my experience because I was prohibited from being part of the major focus of aircraft maintenance. It’s like standing in the doorway and not being allowed to go in the room.

I did time on a flight deck when I took detachments out “to the boat” for carrier quals, but I’ve never gone through workups or a cruise. I always listened to my male counterparts and absorbed what they said, so I could speak intelligently.

Women in the future won’t have to suffer from the automatic assumption that they lack experience. They won’t be told, incorrectly, as I was, “Oh, you wouldn’t understand. You’ve never been on a carrier.”

I was asked to include “women mentoring women” in my speech today. Mentors are valuable, but I’m not sure there’s added value in them being women. I’ve never worked for a woman, I’ve had few women peers, and I’ve been the senior or only woman in most of my commands. My mentors–as such–were men, and my leadership lessons–good and bad–came from men.

Now that I’m a captain, people wonder whether I outrank all other women in the area. I don’t know; it isn’t important. My business isn’t women; it’s aircraft maintenance. I don’t compete with women; I compete with maintenance officers.

What I’m trying to say is women should concentrate on their jobs, not on being a special category.

I once heard a captain–the first woman to command a tactical squadron–say that female pilots got where they are today because senior male aviators fought for them, believed in them, and bucked the system to provide them opportunities.

Obviously, the women had to do some fighting themselves. They had to be extra good and work extra hard to get that notice.

Perhaps there’s a comfort level in women working together. I don’t know; I never had it. I’m certainly not ridiculing the idea of women mentoring women. Whatever works is good. But men can be just as helpful and caring as women.

We’ll all work together better if we just do the best we can, regardless of who we are. And when we’re off duty, we can get fulfillment and leadership training through volunteer work.

My first volunteer job was with Navy Relief in Kingsville, crocheting layettes for babies and interviewing sailors who needed Navy Relief assistance.

Over the years I’ve been a Sunday School teacher and superintendent, church council member, reading tutor, mentor, civic association officer, and involved in various other activities. Twice I assisted with the Moving Wall project, a replica of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial that tours the country. Because of the people I met there, I was later made an honorary member of Florida’s ex-prisoners of war association. And honorary is as far as I want to go!

Then I moved to Washington D.C., where opportunities to volunteer are limitless. Since I couldn’t possibly be involved with everything that interested me, I chose three organizations. The first was the Navy Memorial on Pennsylvania Avenue, where I answered questions and showed people around. Some of the visitors were my old shipmates.

If you’re a past or present member of the Navy, Marine Corps or Coast Guard, and haven’t registered in the Navy Memorial Log, you should. Any visitor who types in your name will see your picture and service dates on the computer screen.

I was also a White House volunteer, with the President’s mail analysis staff. One evening each week I went to the Old Executive Office Building next door to the White House and read letters written to the President by ordinary Americans. I typed addresses into the computer and decided which prepared response the writers should get.

You never know what might result from volunteer work. When my little nephew died last spring and I went home for his funeral, I received a sympathy letter from President Clinton. I knew he didn’t actually write the letter, and it was signed by a machine, but still, how many people have “personal” letters from the President of the United States in their scrapbooks?

My third volunteer job in Washington D.C. was with WIMSA, Women In Military Service for America. There I typed information into a database of female veterans throughout history. My mother had often talked about her World War II best friend, whom she’d lost touch with after the war. So one day I typed in the name, and a record popped up.

It turned out to be the right person, and she lived only thirty miles from my parents. Thus, I reunited two friends who hadn’t heard from each other in fifty years.

If any of you have been to Arlington National Cemetery, you’ll remember the large old wall at the front entrance. That is now being turned into a military women’s memorial, due to be completed this October. The goal is to have two million women registered by then. As at the Navy Memorial, you’ll be able to punch names in WIMSA’s computer and call up records.

When I described this memorial to my boss, he jokingly asked, “Where’s the memorial for men?”

His wife had a quick answer: “All of them!”

Now women will have one, also. And it’s being made possible by volunteers.

Since I’ve been in Japan, I haven’t done any volunteer work. I asked my secretary to find out about volunteer opportunities in the local area. There aren’t many, partly due the language barrier, I suppose.

MWR needs volunteers here on base, but there don’t seem to be opportunities out in town. If you’re interested, though, the Teen Center is a good start. Coaches, Cub Scout leaders, chaperones for dances and teen tours are needed there. MWR facilities such as the hobby shop and ceramic shop would also like volunteers.

In addition to providing unexpected rewards, volunteer work will expand your horizons and your experiences, make you feel needed and appreciated, and enhance the Navy image in your community.

You will be remembered fondly after moving on to another duty station. I’m sure you can all think of a time you benefited from someone else’s volunteer work.

As for your regular job, whether you’re a man or woman, military or civilian, if you concentrate on doing the best you can, you’ll be a success. You may not change the world, but you’ll improve your little corner and be happy with yourself.

I chose the low-key approach to bring about change. I don’t know how many lives I’ve affected or how many attitudes I’ve changed. I only know my career and my volunteer work have been personally rewarding to me, and I feel my contributions have been important.

Your challenges will differ from mine, but challenges there always will be, and I wish you luck and enjoyment in mastering them.

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