One of the First: A Female in a Male Dominated Navy

Story by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Kayla Jo Finley, Defense Media Activity

Photo: DoD graphic illustration by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Kayla Jo Finley/Released

(DoD graphic illustration by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Kayla Jo Finley/Released)

Throughout the 90’s many rates began to open up for females in the Navy.  More women were being allowed on ships and more women were performing jobs that were once only filled by men.  Even though jobs were becoming open towards females, they continued to find themselves in a male dominated world.  Both males and females had to find ways to adjust while working in the same environment.

The women who joined the Navy during this time, had to chance to experience a change in progress and hold a rate that no other females have had before.  Jessica Melton was one of these females.

Not unlike most people who recently graduated high school, Jessica found herself debating her next move in life.  Fortunately for her, a high school friend who was leaving for the Navy, encouraged her to enlist.  Not long after that in 1997, Jessica took her friends advice and left her hometown in Missouri to attend basic training.

After her completion of basic training, Jessica first assignment was to be aboard the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville (CG 62).  Shortly before being stationed aboard Chancellorsville, the ship had gone through an overhaul to make accommodations for females – for the first time.

The ship had one berthing for all the females aboard.  Twenty females had three toilets, two showers and three sinks.  Although living in close quarters, the females were able to live in harmony.

Photo: Seaman Jessica Hickman (Melton) poses for a photo with friends aboard USS Chancellorsville (CG 62).

Seaman Jessica Hickman (Melton) poses for a photo with friends aboard USS Chancellorsville (CG 62). (Jessica Melton courtesy photo/Released)

“We all got along,” said Jessica.  “We all had a strong sense of camaraderie and were always there for one another.”

Although the females got along, some remained hesitant about their presence on the ship.

“At first some guys weren’t as accepting of females aboard, but they didn’t say anything,” said Jessica.  “The guys also went through training before we came aboard, so they were aware of what the chain of command would or would not tolerate.”

Jessica said that overtime she began to see a gradual change of in the growth of equality for females.

“Over time the guys started to realize that we weren’t going anywhere,” said Jessica.  “We (females) were accepted once we started to prove that we were able to get the job done and we weren’t causing any problems.”

Jessica started her time aboard Chancellorsville as an un-designated seaman assigned to the deck department.  In her division there were 18 junior sailors, five being females and the rest were male.  This was the only division that Jessica found herself working with females.  It was while serving in deck department, that Jessica developed an interest in becoming a damage controlman.

Photo: Seaman Jessica Hickman (Melton) poses aboard a rigiid-hulled inflatable boat (RHIB) while aboard USS Chancellorsville (CG 62)

Seaman Jessica Hickman (Melton) poses aboard a rigiid-hulled inflatable boat (RHIB) while aboard USS Chancellorsville (CG 62). (Jessica Melton courtesy photo/Released)

“I found firefighting exciting,” said Jessica.  “I enjoyed being a lead hoseman in drills; it was all an adrenaline rush for me.”

Along with firefighting, damage controlmen are required provide damage control training, maintain equipment and ensure shipboard safety.

Jessica also saw this as a way to advance in her career.  While serving in deck department, Jessica began the process to cross rate – meaning to switch from being un-designated to having her primary job of damage controlmen.  After completing a book full of questions, Jessica was able to cross rate, making her one of the first females to hold an enlisted engineering rate.

In her new division as a damage controlman, Jessica found herself as the only female.  Jessica said she was considered one of the guys and still had camaraderie among her new shipmates.

“I wasn’t left out, just because I was a female,” said Jessica. “For the most part I was treated the same. But, at times it seemed like I was given higher expectations.  I worked hard and met those expectations.”

Meeting the expectations was an example of why females could and should be engineers in the Navy.

Jessica said her division also worked well as a team.  They encouraged and helped each other grow in their Navy careers, whether it be for qualifications, advancements or physical training.

The biggest lesson that Jessica learned while working in an all-male division was to ask for help.

“There were times where I didn’t want to ask for help because I wanted to be strong,” said Jessica.  “There were times I couldn’t lift something or figure out how to put a system together.  I had to learn to ask for help when it was required to get a  task done.”

Jessica said once she started asking for help, she soon found out that her male counterparts were more willing to help her out without any repercussions.

Over time females working alongside males was the new way of life for the Navy.  Both males and females grew from their experiences and gained a new respect for one another.

“A lot of females were respected on the ship,” said Jessica.  “People still say that it was the best crew of females that they’ve ever worked with.”

After her first enlistment Jessica left the Navy as a Petty Officer 3rd Class.  She says the crew of the Chancellorsville continues to keep in touch and talks of a reunion happening in the future.

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  • Mary Lakeriedog Snider

    Great article, brings back memories… but the title is a bit misleading. We (women) first reported aboard US Navy ships in the late 70′s, and although there were only a few of us, and only on non-combatant ships we also served in the Engineering rates.