It happens sometimes at cocktail parties. Capt. John C. Ruff is pointed out or introduced and someone shakes his head and says, "I feel so sorry for you. I wouldn't be in your position for anything."
Each time it occurs, Ruff is annoyed. A 30-year Navy veteran, he has climbed through the ranks to become commanding officer of the Cape Cod, a destroyer tender with a crew of about 1,200, and he has no patience with the offerings of sympathy.
It's just no big deal, Ruff says, that nearly 20% of his crew is female. His ship has 238 women aboard, one of the largest female contingents in the Navy. With the addition of 226 openings for women over the next two years, the crew of the San Diego-based ship will be more than 40% female.
For many civilian work places, those numbers would be no big deal. But, in the male-dominated world of the Navy, where women until the mid-1970s were barred from any jobs at sea, there remains considerable skepticism and resistance to the changing makeup of the work force. Concerns range from minor gripes by men annoyed that they can no longer walk around in their underwear to questions about shipboard romances and pregnancy.
As the Cape Cod becomes less of an anomaly in the Navy, those officers who pity its captain could soon find themselves commanding substantial numbers of women themselves, or even working for them.
The Navy recently named Cmdr. Deborah S. Gernes, 39, the Cape Cod's former executive officer, the first woman eligible to command a ship. It will be a year or so before she receives her first sea command, and Navy officials predict that it will not be long before several more women are promoted to Gernes' level.
Although women are barred by law from serving on combat ships, the Navy is opening increasing numbers of assignments on "non-combat" ships to women, who now make up nearly 10% of the naval force. About 4,900 of the Navy's 49,000 enlisted women are assigned to ships and more than 1,000 more openings for women on ships went unfilled because of mismatching in skills, according to a Navy report released a year ago.
Substantial numbers of women now work on destroyer tenders, supply ships and other Navy vessels that tend to the needs of aircraft carrier groups as they steam into hot spots like the Persian Gulf. The Acadia, a San Diego-based destroyer tender with a large contingent of women, was among the ships that came to the aid of the Stark, the Navy frigate that was attacked by Iraqi warplanes in the Persian Gulf in 1987.
The Acadia "did a magnificent job" after the Stark attack, according to Capt. Gordon Peterson, a Navy spokesman in Washington. "There were young men and women sailors working side by side under very arduous conditions to bring the Stark home.
"Navy women . . . are making a growing contribution," Peterson said, "and the contribution is going to grow even more in the future as we expand the opportunity for them to serve at sea."
In recent years, the Navy has pushed the definition of a non-combat ship to what might be its limit, however. It permits women on ships such as the Acadia that wait at the fringes of combat areas to provide supplies and assistance to battleships and carriers, from which they are barred. Women also are not allowed in submarine crews.
Unless Congress decides to change the law, opportunities for women in the Navy will not come aboard battleships or aircraft carriers, but on ships like the Cape Cod. Navy officials studying the issues surrounding the entry of so many women into the service watch the Cape Cod for signs of what problems to expect and what concerns to dismiss.
For Ruff, who took over as commanding officer of the Cape Cod two years ago, the problems have been less serious than he feared. "I've lived in a male-dominated world in the Navy all my life," Ruff said, adding that, until he was assigned to the Cape Cod, his exposure to women in the Navy had been limited to three he worked with in Vietnam.
"There was an interesting spectrum," Ruff said. "One was a very competent officer. She is a captain today. One was an airhead who was floating with the admiral all the time and whom we all vehemently resented. And one . . . hid in her office. I don't know what she did."
Ruff conceded that he felt a little uneasy about having Gernes as his executive officer, the second-in-command and alter ego on the ship. His fears turned out to be baseless, he said.
"With a male, traditionally that's an easy relationship to establish," Ruff said. "We are comfortable with that. We're familiar with that. I've lived in that world before, but I've never been in that world with a woman . . . so there was a little bit of trepidation."
Ruff said he told Gernes "from the very beginning that she was going to have the closest platonic relationship she was ever going to have with a man."