Last April during a trip to Boston, I stopped off at the U.S.S. Constitution, which I hadn’t seen since my only other visit to Boston a decade earlier. I remember noticing that one of the Naval personnel serving aboard ship was a young woman. If you didn’t know this, I should probably also note that the seaman who take charge of the Constitution dress in 19th century clothing as part of their efforts of historical interpretation.
The woman’s presence struck a chord with me –
In summer 2009, I spent a week doing research at the Navy Operational Archives, where I came across some correspondence about potentially putting Navy women on duty for some historic ship. Offhand while in Boston, I couldn’t remember which ship it was, but I thought it was funny that in the early 1970s, the proposition had been pooh-poohed….and here, in 2010, a woman was serving shipboard in 19th century sailing garb, along with several other enlisted men.
I re-discovered that correspondence just yesterday, and ironically, the ship in question was the U.S.S. Constitution. Here’s the story:
In spring of 1972, someone contacted the Constitution’s commanding officer to see about the possibility of adding women to the crew. Rear Admiral J.C. Wylie, Commandant of the First Naval District, wrote at least two letters on the matter – one to Captain Robin Quigley, Assistant Chief of Personnel for Women in the Navy, and one to Rear Admiral J.D. Watkins, Assistant Chief for Enlisted Personnel Control. Both letters noted Wylie’s objection to the proposition, but the one to Rear Admiral Watkins was a little more explicit on why they thought adding women wouldn’t work.
In the letter to Captain Quigley, Wylie wrote that the Constitution used staff dressed in period clothing and that they tried to recreate 19th century shipboard experiences for the 700,000 annual visitors. Wylie told Quigley,
“they only had one kind of woman on board Constitution 175 years ago and that this was both legally and socially frowned upon. Robin, dear, I think you’re marvelous, but don’t let this one become an issue.”
But in his letter to Watkins, Wylie offered two additional items that he hadn’t mentioned with Quigley. First was the matter of the nighttime fire and flood watch, and whether they could use women in that chore or not. If no, it wouldn’t be fair to the men. If yes, it would lead to trouble:
“The time-clock patrols are hourly, the nooks and crannies below the berth deck are many and private and the nights are long and dull. It would be asking for trouble, and this could be, to be blunt, an unwanted pregnancy or rape.”
Secondly, he raised the issue that the Boston Navy Yard was not equipped to house or feed women – and furthermore, the Yard was located “in probably the worst slum in Boston.”
Two weeks later, Watkins responded, acknowledge Wylie’s concerns, and told him he understood – yet encouraged Watkins to consider whether a smaller number of women could be stationed there, as
“we are striving hard to place additional women at every shore activity in the Navy, freeing men for duty at sea where they are so desperately needed at this time.”
Quigley, for her part, acknowledged that the nineteenth century replication perhaps made this something to leave alone – why bother traipsing on their efforts at authenticity? In her letter to Wylie, she made clear that this really wasn’t a matter of trying to just put women anywhere, writing,
“I must hasten to assure you that this notion arose not out of any Women’s Lib nonsense but rather out of a real personnel management need [to alleviate seamen shortages].”
I don’t know what happened, but I assume that the addition of women to the U.S.S. Constitution crew came later – at that time, most of the services frowned upon sending only 1 or 2 women to a duty station, preferring to group them in larger numbers. Regardless, by this spring I can attest that there was at least one woman serving on crew.
But what I think makes this story even more interesting is Wylie was wrong about there being only one type of woman on board the Constitution in the early 19th century –
In the War of 1812, the first female Marine, Lucy Brewer, served on board the U.S.S. Constitution. Although disguised as a man at the time, she’s since been recognized as the first woman to serve in the Marines.
Too bad Quigley didn’t stick to her guns. Sounds like the U.S.S. Constitution crew of the 1970s really could have used a woman to make their historical accuracy complete after all.
[Edit: there’s some debate as to whether Lucy Brewer was real or fictional, but the legend remains, and she does retain the title of the first woman to serve in the Marines.]