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Women at Sea : Navy Adjusting as Feminine Tide Hits Ship Crews

April 09, 1989|JANE FRITSCH | Times Staff Writer

"No captain is a tower of strength," he said. "We are just like any other individual. We have peaks and valleys, and she or he has to look at the peaks or valleys, and where I had a valley she had to have a peak. Her personality had to be subordinated to mine.

"If the captain was mad, she had to keep people away from him. She had to know exactly what was in my mind at all times. She became probably very aware of my personal life. She had to know everything that was in my life at any given time. She had to be able to judge what I would do in a given situation so that, if I were not there, she could do that."

Working It Out

Overall, they developed an "excellent relationship" and were able to "shout at each other just like anybody else," he said. "She is a very professional, very competent officer. She was not what you would call a shy flower, and she couldn't be."

In an interview last January before she left the Cape Cod for an assignment on the East Coast, Gernes said she encountered no unusual problems as one of the first female executive officers in the Navy and did not find it difficult to give orders to men. "I've never found it a problem, and hopefully they never have," she said. "I think most of them are very happy for me and they have congratulated me."

A graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Gernes joined the Navy in 1973 with the intention of leaving after a four-year stint. "But, once I got in, I really enjoyed it, and I decided to stay," she said. "It's much better now for a woman to be in the Navy."

When she joined, she said, "Women were seldom even allowed on naval vessels, much less to be in the ship's company. And the thought of commanding one never crossed my mind. . . . It feels great."

Gernes said she and most other women in the Navy would like to see the federal law on women in combat changed to eliminate the remaining limitations on their jobs. "Most of us feel that we have a greater contribution to make, and that we could make them on all ship types. I think that everybody wants to see the law changed."

As the first woman to be selected for command, Gernes said she feels "some pressure" to perform well. "Naturally, you feel as though everybody's watching you when you're the first," she said.

During her two years aboard the Cape Cod, Gernes said, there were few problems related to the mixing of sexes, despite a six-month deployment to the North Arabian Sea.

"I think any time you have a sexually integrated crew, even on a shore situation, you're going to have some problems with the interaction of men and women. We try to treat each case as a separate case, just as anyone on a shore station would, and try not to make a large issue of it.

'Far Bigger Problems'

"The men and women interact as friends. They interact as co-workers. They have to depend on each other in times of emergency, and they do that very well, as a rule, but there are occasional problems." Relations between male and female crew members are "probably one of the smaller items that the commanding officer of any ship has to face," Gernes said.

"There are far bigger problems that you need to worry about. Such things as maintaining your ship, maintaining discipline, maintaining morale, making sure that your ship meets all its commitments, making sure that it's ready in all respects, making sure the dependents are well taken care of."

One of most nettlesome problems facing officials is pregnancy, which Ruff, like other Navy officials, sees as a roadblock to advances for women in the Navy. In 1987, 46 women assigned to the Cape Cod became pregnant, according to Ruff.

Under existing Navy policy, a woman cannot embark on a cruise if she is pregnant at the time her ship is deployed. If a woman becomes pregnant while at sea, she may stay aboard the ship only until the 20th week of pregnancy. However, she may leave earlier if her medical condition warrants, or if she opts to resign from the Navy.

"Until we develop some means of giving someone an inoculation of something that would say she positively won't be pregnant this six months, and force them to do that. . . . But then you'll end up in all kinds of moral and legal and ethical and cultural problems. But, until you can do that, you're always going to have that issue," Ruff said.

"If there's a problem, you deal with it," Ruff said. "That doesn't mean you don't put (women) in a position of responsibility. You just pay the price."

He said the Navy might have to consider assigning extra crew to ships to compensate for the potential loss of women who become pregnant. Navy officials say the problem is especially acute when ships lose crew members highly trained for specific jobs.

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