The pro-military feminist in me loves Thursdays. On Thursdays, the female midshipmen of the University’s Navy ROTC unit are dressed in their uniforms, hair neatly braided or arranged in a bun. And even though the hats they’re required to wear are kind of ugly, I’m always proud of them in a patriotic, girl-power sort of way.

The women of the University’s Naval ROTC (NROTC) — and women from NROTC units across the nation — are about to get a new service option after college that women in the Navy have never had before: They could be chosen to serve aboard submarines.

According to an Apr. 29 report by the Navy Times, Navy officials expect to choose which women will be the first to join submarine crews by the end of 2011. Navy officials first announced plans to station women on submarines on Feb. 19 but were required by law to give Congress time to raise objections. But the deadline for congressional intervention passed at midnight on Apr. 28. Female officers who will work in engineering positions will be chosen for submarine jobs from a pool of officers commissioned since 2008. The move also creates several open positions for female supply officers.

I come from a Navy family. My father served in the Navy and was a member of the NROTC when he attended the University in the 1970s. My older sister was in the NROTC at the University before she graduated and is currently an ensign in the Navy. And now, my younger sister is a member of the NROTC unit and just completed her freshman year in the College of Engineering. All three are (or will be) engineers.

Then there’s me. I write for the Daily.

But even though I’m a member of the liberal media, as my family likes to tease me, I try to keep up with Navy news. I pay special attention to news about the ROTC program and women in the Navy because I want to know what my sisters are going to be involved in. This new women-in-submarines option could be a huge opportunity for my sisters — and for other female engineers in the Navy.

Most people probably think that the reason it took the Navy so long to allow women on submarines stems from deeply ingrained sexism in the military. But that’s not really the case. Women haven’t been permitted to serve on submarines largely for logistical reasons. In fact, it’s been a long time since anyone thought that women couldn’t hack it during six-month underwater deployments.

The problem is space. Submarines are already a tight fit, so tight that members of the crew often share beds. There isn’t much space to provide women with separate bathing facilities. Arriving at a solution to these problems is why progress took so long, even though there has been discussion for years of changing regulations that allowed only men on submarines. As it is, only the largest class of submarine, the Ohio class, will be retrofitted to house crewmembers of both sexes because it is the only class that won’t require major overhauls.

At the University, women in the ROTC unit major in a variety of engineering specialties. And with midshipmen graduating from great engineering programs like those at the University of Michigan, Stanford University and Texas A&M University, among others, there’s no reason that the Navy shouldn’t be tapping into the talent at its disposal, regardless of sex — and the Navy knows it. That’s why it has decided to find a way to utilize its full pool of resources.

For my sisters and other female Navy personnel, this could mean the chance to work with some impressive technology. U.S. submarines — and aircraft carriers, on which women have been permitted to serve for years — are powered by nuclear reactors. To qualify to operate this advanced (and expensive) technology, officers chosen for service on nuclear-powered vessels have to complete 15 months of schooling in nuclear power. For women, who have traditionally been less involved in science and technology and have had fewer opportunities in the military, the Navy’s decision is a sign of progress. It’s also a great prospect for women at colleges like the University who are qualified to work with nuclear technology.

My older sister was assigned to the nuclear power program for surface ships before she graduated from college, and she is now eligible to apply for a submarine position. My younger sister hopes to qualify for the nuclear program when she receives her assignment in a few years. They could be among the first women to serve on submarines — and that’s a pretty exciting possibility.

Rachel Van Gilder is the Daily’s 2010 editorial page editor. She can be reached at

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