WASHINGTON -- This month, in the North Atlantic waters and in a speech by the Navy's top official, came the first tones of the death knell for one of the last male preserves: the submarine.
About 144 female Navy ROTC midshipmen are spending 48 hours with male sailors on five submarines, a first for Navy women. Space restrictions now prevent them from serving in the so-called Silent Service.
Meanwhile, Navy Secretary Richard Danzig created a stir before the Naval Submarine League Symposium when he called submarines a "white male bastion." Sleeping quarters and other privacy problems that bar women can be overcome, Danzig said. He acknowledged that this is a "touchy subject" among submariners.
Danzig noted in his June 3 speech: "Congress and political power are changing. More and more, we see the role of women increasing in that regard. If the submarine force remains a white male bastion, it will wind up getting less and less support."
Though the female ROTC midshipmen are on relatively brief cruises, and Danzig has no time line for a permanent arrival of female submariners, women's advocates who favor the change and conservatives, who generally oppose it, saw both moves as significant.
"I would characterize this as overdue," said Mary Wamsley, head of the federal Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, which since 1996 has advocated having women serve aboard submarines. Women sailors already serve on Navy combat ships.
"It is a career path that should be open to them," Wamsley said.
Evacuating pregnant sailors
But Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, a conservative group that has opposed women in combat roles, saw an immediate problem: pregnant submariners.
Women on combat ships are more than twice as likely as men to drop out for medical reasons, with more than a third citing pregnancy, a Navy study has found.
Of the estimated 300 women who serve on the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, 45 did not complete deployment during the past year because of pregnancy, said the Navy, which reported that 11 of the women were flown off the carrier while it was at sea.
Donnelly said the need for such an airlift could pose a problem aboard a submarine. "You can't evacuate so easily when you're under the polar ice cap," she said.
Capt. Craig Quigley, a spokesman for the Navy secretary, brushed aside such concern, saying it was a "very unusual occurrence" to airlift a woman off a surface ship. A woman could be removed from a submarine "the same we way we airlift a male who has appendicitis," he said.
Danzig wanted to promote debate on the issue of women on submarines, Quigley said, but the Navy secretary is not ready to recommend that women serve on them. "He knows full well this won't happen overnight."
The Navy downplayed the placement this month of female ROTC midshipmen aboard the five Ohio-class submarines at the Navy's submarine base at Kings Bay, Ga. Lt. Steve Mavica, a Navy spokesman, said it was a coincidence that this occurred on the heels of Danzig's comments.
Mavica said the 48-hour shift on the submarine was designed to provide the ROTC midshipmen -- who were limited to day trips during their summer orientation -- with the "full impact" of submarine life. Though they don't serve aboard subs, Mavica said, women who are destined to become naval officers still should be familiar with them.
The training trips, from June 7 to July 3, are reserved for the ROTC program. Female midshipmen at the Naval Academy are not taking part.
Of the 28 ROTC midshipmen aboard each cruise, nine will be women. The women will bunk in an enclosed portion of enlisted berthing. The displaced male sailors will take shore leave or "hotbunk" -- meaning they will share a bunk, with one working while the other sleeps.
The ships generally carry 15 officers and 148 sailors.
Mavica said the Navy has not heard any reaction to the training cruises from ROTC midshipmen or active-duty submariners.
The cramped quarters that bar female sailors from serving on submarines also keep them off patrol crafts and minesweepers. But the Navy is considering a plan to open the minesweepers to women.
Women have been serving on Navy support ships since 1978 and on combat ships since 1994. Of the 378,000-sailor Navy, about 50,000 are women, and nearly 6,800 serve on surface combatants.
In his address, Danzig said he had decided to raise the issue before an audience "where in fact the resistance may be the greatest." The Navy secretary said he was not moved by "affirmative action or political correctness."
"As the character of our country changes," he said, "so must the character of our military."
One Navy official said the speech before the submariners generally drew opposition from older officers and support from their younger brethren.