WASHINGTON, Oct. 6, 2010 — The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, flanked by two of the nation’s top female military officers, today recounted the early days of women’s integration into the services and said “we would be nowhere as a military” without trailblazing women.
“In combat, in every part of who we are as a military right now, women have been extraordinary,” Navy Adm. Mike Mullen said at Fortune magazine’s Most Powerful Women summit here today.
Mullen took the stage before an audience of mostly civilian women leaders alongside Gen. Ann Dunwoody, commander of Army Materiel Command, and Navy Vice Adm. Ann Rondeau, president of National Defense University.
At the summit’s Leadership Lessons panel moderated by CNN’s Kyra Phillips, the three senior leaders recalled how far the services have come in integrating women since they entered the military — Mullen in 1968, and Rondeau and Dunwoody in 1974 and 1975, respectively.
Mullen recalled serving on the Naval Academy’s admissions board in October 1976 when the academy received a telegram from the White House announcing that women would be permitted to enter the academy in the next academic year. Only one woman served on the admissions board, he recalled, and they would have to move quickly to prepare for the change. The chairman acknowledged it didn’t go smoothly that first year.
“As I look back, I realize now how little I knew about how to integrate women,” Mullen said, adding that he learned from the experience. “Throughout my career, I’ve tried to listen to people and view the situation through their eyes.
“For me, it’s about how we create opportunities, then sink or swim,” he continued. “If the talent pool is there, we need to recognize that and make sure doors stay open.”
Those first female graduates opened doors for others, Mullen said, noting that the military now stays between 20 and 25 percent female. The Navy continues to undergo significant integration efforts, the panelists noted, with the first female submariners chosen last summer, 16 years after women were permitted to serve on surface ships.
“We would be nowhere as a military if someone not had the wisdom to send that telegram way back then, and if we had not had women like this ready to step up when the military wasn’t ready for them and blaze a trail,” Mullen said, referring to Dunwoody and Rondeau.
The Navy’s lack of preparation for integrating women in the 1970s “was pretty profound,” Rondeau said. What that meant for her, she said, was trying to find a mentor she could trust to help her grow, determining where she could make a difference, and knowing which battles to fight.
Asked whether women servicemembers must prove themselves more than men, Rondeau said, “I’m not sure that it is as much about who you are, as where you are, and what you bring to the table. You come with a certain amount of competence and confidence, then you just lead.”
Dunwoody, the military’s first female four-star officer, joined the Army just after the Women’s Army Corps was disbanded. “Our journey was to forge -– and sometimes force -– women into the full spectrum of capabilities,” she said.
For Dunwoody, that meant jumping out of airplanes, doing 12-mile rucksack marches, and commanding troops in war zones, she said. “That’s our journey and our legacy,” she added.
“That was the journey we had to build throughout our careers.”
Phillips asked about the evolving role of women in combat and whether women might soon serve in Special Forces. While none of the three would speculate on when law or policy might change in that regard, all acknowledged that women already serve in combat and that the nature of warfare has changed such that the issue will continued to be addressed.
“We are in an asymmetrical environment without front and rear boundaries,” Dunwoody said of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Every soldier is in danger. What’s so good about the military is that we continue review those [policies]. The doors continue to open, and policies continue to change to capture the talent of men and women in uniform. All in battle are making sacrifices, and we can never forget that.”
Military leaders need to assess what has been learned from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan regarding women servicemembers, Mullen said. “It’s very important that we take a look at what we’ve learned in these wars and look at whether we should evaluate those policies. Battle is nowhere and it is everywhere right now; everyone is in a combat zone. We’ve got to understand what that means and roll it into the future.”
Rondeau also said she expects laws and policies to evolve to open more doors for women. “We’re putting women on submarines, we’ve had them at sea for a while, and we’ve had them in the air a while,” she said. “You can’t win the current fight without women on the field, and that just is a fact.”
The issue surrounding women in combat roles, Rondeau said, is about not only capabilities, but also mindset. She recalled a time when she was commander of Navy accessions training and a female sailor just out of boot camp went out of her way to ask the commander a question. “Am I ready to fight and win?” the young woman asked Rondeau.
“I’d put her in war any day,” the admiral told the audience. “Being a warfighter is not just about the competence to fight. It’s also about the spirit. A warfighting spirit is something that comes from the heart.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)