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The end of 'midshipman'?

By Christina Jedra | The Capital (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 17, 2016

What happens when you take the "man" out of "midshipman"?

Navy officials will consider this question as they turn to language in an effort to fully integrate women into all levels of the service, including the Naval Academy.

Ray Mabus, the secretary of the Navy, issued a memo to the chief of naval operations on Jan. 1 asking for an "update of position titles and descriptions to demonstrate through this language that women are included in these positions."

He also wrote: "Please review the position titles throughout the Navy and ensure that they are gender-integrated ... removing 'man' from their titles."

So what should it be?

Midshiperson?

Shipmate?

Just mid?

Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson assigned the Navy's master chief petty officer to establish a group that will, Navy officials said, "canvass the fleet, talk with sailors to hear their thoughts and provide recommendations on feedback."

Navy officials said a report, due to Mabus no later than April 1, will outline which titles should change and how -- and if some with storied histories, such as "midshipman," should remain as they are.

Part of a trend

The term "midshipman" has been use since the 1600s, long predating the academy, which opened in 1845. The word originally referred to those who worked or slept in a specific area of a ship: amidships. It later came to be associated with officers in training.

Women first enlisted in the Navy in 1917, weeks before the United States entered World War I -- as yeomen (F) or yeomanettes -- as well as in the Marine Corps.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced in December that the military would welcome women into previously closed positions, including the Navy's remaining all-male units.

Officials released a notice this fall announcing unisex headgear and garments for the fleet.

At the academy, it has been over a decade since Superintendent Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt revised the school's alma mater, omitting references to "men." At that time, women made up about 16 percent of the student body, The Baltimore Sun reported.

This year is the 40th anniversary of the integration of women at the academy, and women make up more than 25 percent of the officers in training, school officials said.

But in 1976, midshipmen weren't sure what to call their new female peers, said Sean Cate, president of the Class of 1979.

"There were a lot of suggestions going around," said Cate. "Midship-people? Midship-folks? There were comic suggestions."

Cadet, the title for trainees at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, would be unthinkable, considering the rivalry between the schools.

Cmdr. John Schofield, an academy spokesman, said the school's officials did not consider altering the title when women first arrived.

Should we change?

Since the Navy's inception, there have been more than 700 rate name changes, Navy officials said.

Roger Lunde, 74, who graduated from the academy in 1964, said gender neutrality in military titles is "overdue."

"Tradition isn't necessarily a bad thing," said Lunde, who lives in Rockville. "But slavery was a tradition. There aren't very many people who think that was a good one."

Kyleanne Hunter, a former Marine Corps pilot, founded the Think Broader Foundation to bring attention to social biases.

Hunter, who is based in Oregon, said past changes in military titles -- airman to pilot, armormen to tankers -- show that the service is serious about integration.

"It makes a difference to have a gender neutral title because it doesn't create an institutional barrier to you doing your job," she said. "Language subconsciously shapes our values and culture."

But several academy graduates aren't so open to the idea.

Anthony Papandrea, a 76-year-old graduate of the Class of 1961, called the initiative "political correctness run amok."

"Does it increase our military capability to do the mission, to kill our enemies?" he said. "If it doesn't, then stop playing around."

Randy Kurtz, 55, who graduated in 1982, said she never questioned the title of "midshipman" when she attended the academy.

"There were certainly things as a woman that I found offensive, but that's not one of them," said Kurtz, whose daughter is a midshipman first class. "Looking at it as a title, if you take the man out of 'human,' I'm not sure what you have."

Midshipmen at the academy are instructed to direct media inquiries to the public affairs office. Schofield said it would be "premature and inappropriate to comment on any possible policy change being considered on levels above the Naval Academy administration."

Elizabeth Rowe, the first female graduate of the academy in 1980, said when she became a midshipman she didn't question the gender of the term.

"That was cool that I, as a woman, could be a midshipman at the Naval Academy," said Rowe, 57, who lives in Yorktown, Virginia. "I was happy to be one of them."

Navy officials have not publicly speculated what midshipmen would be called if the title is changed. But Rowe said if the title was split, distinguishing between midshipmen and midship-women, it would only further separate females from the male majority.

"For me, there's a balance between women's rights and tradition," she said.

More than words

H. Michael Gelfand, author of "Sea Change at Annapolis: The United States Naval Academy 1949-2000," said he appreciates the effort by the Navy secretary.

"It needs to be part of a larger discussion about how the USNA and alumni association think about women," he said.

In Shipmate, the U.S. Naval Academy Alumni Association magazine, each class shares notes and news of their peers' accomplishments. For the Class of 1979, the last graduating class comprised only of men, the section signs off with the class motto: "Omnes Viri."

All male.

Gelfand interprets this phrase, also printed on class rings, as a jab at the women who came after them -- and a slight that is repeated in every issue to this day.

"It's astounding that the sexism in that term can continue to go on," Gelfand said.

Cate said the phrase is simply factual.

"There has been talk from the alumni association leadership several years ago about us changing that and I said absolutely not," he said. "Why would we do that? It's reflective of a historical fact."

Ultimately, Rowe said, words don't matter as much as action.

"What they're doing now, allowing women to do any job in the Navy, those are the changes that make a difference," she said. "And time."

cjedra@capgaznews.com

(c) 2016 The Capital. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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