A Brief History of Women at Sea & On Subs

Khadijah Queen


For a long time, I said I was planning to write this memoir, using the planning process as a way of not writing it. I believed deep down that my story wasn’t interesting or important enough to warrant a whole book, that I didn’t have the right to tell it, and that block didn’t crumble until I decided to do some research about women in the Navy. I researched women sailors from the 18th and 19th centuries in the U.S. and abroad, read about U.S. WAVES and WRNS in the UK, absorbed stories about pregnant merchants and a 16th century Irish woman pirate. What I discovered through all of that reading is that the archival margins do hold the history of women at sea—we’ve been quietly at sea forever. But it is not quiet at sea, and, though fainter now, the feeling that it’s not my place to talk still lingers. For a long time, I couldn’t stop thinking about my ex-shipmate walking down the stairs in a USS Cole widow’s house asking me, or telling me, rhetorically, in a vicious tone: I bet you’re glad you weren’t there and snorting when I looked at her. I remember feeling her anger, feeling like I didn’t belong among those who had been on board when the bomb ripped the ship open in the Port of Aden on October 12, 2000.

Did I say yes? Did I answer her with any words? I can’t remember, but I must have said something, because I remember her saying Right as she got to the bottom of the steps and walked out the back door. I remember her snubbing me for the rest of the memorial event. We had on our dress whites because we had all attended President Clinton’s speech at the base earlier. She had taken off her black necktie, and her uniform looked a little wrinkled; I looked immaculate, even though I had my infant son on my hip. And I wasn’t there during the bombing, and it had only been a few weeks—and really they were still there, and 17 would never come back.

I left the Navy nearly two decades ago. I started writing about it in 2005, then stopped for a full ten years. How much of that avoidance is because I was traumatized not by the bombing aftermath, because I wasn’t there—but by the racism, hazing, and constant sexual harassment throughout my enlistment? How much is because I was simply exhausted, and how much is because I resisted writing it out of fear? I have written books while traumatized, tired and afraid before. To be fair, they were poetry, which is so much easier for me. I can hide in metaphor and various innovations of structure. But nonfiction has no such disguising artifice. The truth stays stark, ugly, hard. I thought that by using humor, I had figured out how to have fun with it, but that feeling didn’t last; I had to find my driving force for this work, to come to terms with the full weight of my experience and find a way in that would allow me to reach the other side stronger, not devastated. The answer simply became to tell the truth, however ugly or unflattering, however angry or whiny-sounding, however outrageous or mundane.

It’s a myth that you need conflict and strife in order to write. It is easier to write in comfort, when you are comfortable in your own skin, when comfort means you can eat until full, sleep clean and soft, when light is taken for granted, heat, cool air, love. It took me so long to write about that time, when I was young and strong and let myself be used up in service because I thought I had no better choice and maybe I didn’t—because I wasn’t comfortable. I left thinking it was escape but it was just a different kind of trap. I haven’t spent nearly enough time contemplating the illusion of choice. I could think about it forever and have no answer.

I wrote poetry on the ship, and when I did I kept it rhyming. I took my time. I waited until I felt something I could express in complete sentences, in full stanzas, a moment turning toward its capture. A poem would contain in language what I struggled to control in life, what I could not let loose in the day-to-day routine of enlistment. Sometimes on deployment I marked days as tick marks, like I saw cartoon figures do in cartoon prison. My days marked, I marked them back, an accumulation forward, acting as evidence of the future I chased. Chased is not the right word. Hoped for is also incorrect. Acting as evidence of the future I shaped in my mind. Imagined. After I wrote a poem, I could sleep. After I wrote a poem I could get dressed in the morning. After I wrote a poem I could go back on watch, go back up the ladderwell and be above decks without wanting to throw my uniformed body into the sea. After I wrote a poem, I could write letters to my family and tell them not to worry, I was fine. After I wrote a poem I could wash my ass in the tiled community closet of a shower. After I wrote a poem, sometimes I flushed it. Sometimes I would copy what I wrote in better handwriting, changing a word, a phrase, the order of lines, an ending, a start. After I wrote a poem I could read, finish what I was reading. I didn’t write many poems, really. I have one notebook left. I wish I had more.

When I think about my time in the Navy, sometimes I think about how much I didn’t belong there, and once I started asking questions it was difficult to stop. Why didn’t I belong? Was I the one trying to force it? Who, if so, did I think I was? I more than met the requirements. I was young, fit, smart. I loved the prospect of being a sailor, and had dreams of doing 20, retiring as an officer. But as my training got underway, I slowly learned to doubt myself. It took years to undo that doubt. However, I also learned to set goals and make choices and risk failure. In risking failure, I gave myself a chance at success—if not in the Navy, then elsewhere.

My first thought on re-encountering my early writing is not surprising: I need to do better. I started thinking about my descriptions of the people I served with. Because we are close and he knows me well, I asked my son what he thought the book should be about. He said well, your coworkers were shitty. I’ve not called my shipmates shitty, ever; he must have come to that conclusion based on their behavior as reported by me, usually in a humorous way, though yes, anger and disbelief co-star in the stories I’ve told him. But damn—the bullying, harassment, deliberate physical and professional sabotage of those deemed unworthy of support—all of that is pretty fucking shitty. This era of reckoning when it comes to Me Too and other movements toward behavioral and cultural change when it comes to how we treat each other hasn’t quite fully come for the military in a sweeping way, and it’s long overdue. Women have officially served in the Navy for over a hundred years, and even though it took until 2014 for a woman to reach the rank of four-star Admiral, more and more women are qualifying for elite forces and we aren’t going away. It’s past time we stopped having to fight our own colleagues for some dignity, not just in the military, but in every industry and workplace.

I had dealt with sexual harassment for so long (and not just in the Navy) that it felt normal, baseline, just a fact of life to endure it. Maybe the first step to changing that baseline perception is to realize it has been and still is a problem. Part of me deeply mourns that my son and his generation are entering adulthood void of any innocent illusions about the kind of negativity that the world is capable of. But I hope, and will try harder to communicate, that the imagination is a way through—that it was also my way through, and that’s real power. Abuse and domination, bullying and violence—that’s cowardice masquerading as power.

Trauma makes you forget how to act. The body responds to unexpected threats with panic, withdrawal, fight-or-flight activated. Too sensitive, some call it—the honesty of feeling exaggerated into the primitive life or death response. But repeated trauma dilutes that response, makes you treat it as normal. Your voice doesn’t change its volume, your body stills its desire to escape because it’s futile. You unlearn self-protection because it has ceased to exist. Your natural responses tamped, your feelings numb—your thoughts can then accept the illogic of remaining calm in a traumatic situation and unite with your suffocated feelings to create a new kind of “normal.”  I think a lot about the relationship between instinct and feeling, feeling and thought. During my dissertation research I found a book about how the brain has evolved over time, how the triune brain’s parts—reptilian, limbic, neocortic in order of evolution from earliest to latest development—that don’t always communicate clearly with one another. [1]The book’s primary focus was love, but it also reckons with anger—the deep rage and outrage that discrimination and harm generate.

It seems to me that expressing both emotions, especially for Black women, holds certain dangers. If bullies discover that you love something, it gives them pleasure to take it away or destroy it. Rage feels like a natural response, along with its cousin, outrage. And yet, women and victims of abuse learn that they’re supposed to swallow their anger at such abuse in order to prevent further harm. But does hiding that anger prevent further harm? No, because the victim of harm does not control the perpetrator of it. Instead, anger—clearly articulated and thoughtfully channeled—has the power to expose harm and if not prevent it, at least understand that it is wrong. And that understanding is important.

I can think of no one who embodies this dilemma than Representative Maxine Waters of California, who I have followed since her leadership during the post-Rodney King verdict uprisings in Los Angeles in 1992, when I was in high school, and voted for her as my congressional district representative as soon as I turned eighteen. Over the ensuing decades she has remained the same—outspoken, brilliantly incisive, unbowed by bullies and media pundits’ condescension. Her popularity now seems to have grown because she is infinitely quotable and meme-able, especially in her calls for Trump’s impeachment, Rebecca Traister writes in Good & Mad. Waters’ anger toward Russian election interference and Republican corruption is justified, and yet her opponents do the most to vilify her—to cast her as an Angry Black Woman. But Traister maintains that anger like Maxine Waters’ is marketable because of its relative powerlessness to change anything in the political sphere. I believe, however, that that is a narrow definition of power. I believe that Waters draws on her own conviction, that any title confers her with power, but that she grants herself power by respecting her own intelligence and intuition, and taking action to right observed wrongs.

I believe that accessing such power within ourselves can drive us to survive impossible odds and, when observed, in turn inspires others to do the same—and that that is equal to or greater than any institutional power. Our obsession with male domination and male-driven power limits our imaginations, and it slows the natural evolution of humanity toward more humane ways of being, and in some cases, reverses it back toward barbarism. It keeps us focused on destruction instead of creation, problems instead of solutions. With that said, I don’t intend for this book to be a litany of complaint sans solutions. I intend to provide an account of what it was like for me to serve, and, when relevant, brief accounts of extraordinary women from history along the way. It’s time we refuse the shame and derision heaped upon women sailors and veterans, whether secret or not. That shame doesn’t belong to us; it belongs to the people standing in our way.


The first woman at sea pretended to be a man. In the mid-1700s, Hannah Snell, alias James Gray, served a cook on board a frigate, as a seaman, as a battle veteran. She was entitled to a pension and burial at sea. Mary Lacey, alias William Chandler, worked construction on the HMS Sandwich and equaled 1.5 men in the dockyards. In 1808, the year Mary Ann Talbot died, the British Navy officially outlawed women's presence aboard ships. A few years before, she wrote of her adventures—a pamphlet, The Life and Surprising Adventures of Mary Ann Talbot, in the Name of John Taylor. An orphan, tricked into service, Talbot became a war hero, wounded in two battles by 1794. She loved to dress, until the end of her life, in sailor whites and talk to tavern-goers about her exploits and her sufferings.

In America, the story shifts from pretending to nursing. A hundred and ten years ago, the Sacred Twenty enlisted in the Navy Nurse Corps by Congressional appointment. During WWI, WAVES to handle the paperwork left behind by dead men. In the summer of 1942, women were allowed to become reserve officers via Roosevelt's Public Law 689. Today there are just four ships named for women: Higbee (DD-806), launched in 1944 and named for Lenah Higbee, who received the Navy Cross in 1920; Hopper (DDG-70), named for Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, an early developer of COBOL, laid in 1995 and launched the following year; USNS Mary Sears (T-AGS 65), a Pathfinder-class oceanographic survey ship that aided in recovery efforts following the Indonesian tsunami in December 2004, named for the first Naval oceanographer; and the Roosevelt, co-named for the President and his wife, Eleanor. Today, I am not sure whether that makes a difference in how women are seen and treated in the military. A writer and ex-marine I once dated told me that when he was enlisted, around the same time I was, male marines called us WMs—walking mattresses.

Female officers began to serve aboard submarines in 2011, more than a dozen years after I first dreamed of being a sonar technician on board a sub. I wanted it badly, foolishly, with so much fierceness I could hardly stand it. But I was laughed at by my superiors, told that women would be a distraction and a hazard underwater for that long with a bunch of men. I felt so much anger at being denied opportunities because men couldn't keep their hands to themselves, furious that I was mocked for even imagining the possibility. Too bad technology and laws had advanced in the 200 years since Hannah Snell pretended to be James Grey; I might have done some pretending myself, just so I could get some goddamn work done.

[1] See Fari Amini, Thomas Lewis, and Richard Lannon’s A General Theory of Love (Random House 2000).

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