– The Book – Chapter 5 – Women in the Navy Medical Corps

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By Janelle Marra, DO, Shauna O’Sullivan, DO, and Sara Burger, MD

Note: The views expressed in this chapter are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.


It’s estimated that female officers in the Navy comprise only 3% of those serving on active duty (officer and enlisted) at this time. Female officers comprise 19% of the officers serving on active duty in the Navy. For comparison, in 1973, when the draft ended, female officers made up only 3% of the officers serving on active duty in the Navy. Within the designation of Medical Corps, 28% of those currently serving are female physicians. We would like to use this chapter to highlight some of the history of women in the Navy, notable firsts of females in the Naval Medical Corps, and target some of the opportunities available to female physicians in the Navy.

Female Integration in the Navy

  • Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) was established in 1942, allowed women to serve during the war plus six months following.
  • Women’s Armed Forces Integration Act (1948) permitted women to serve as full members of the U.S. Armed Forces.
  • In 1951, U.S. Defense Department Advisory Committee on Women in the Services was established, to provide advice and recommendations and policies on the recruitment, retention, treatment, employment, integration and well-being of female military members.
  • In 1967, Public Law 90-130 was instated, which removed the 2% cap on female military members and removed the ceiling on promotions.
  • In 1973, The Supreme Court ruling in Frontiero v. Richardson allowed male spouses to have all the same family benefits.
  • The Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences opened in 1976 and the class included 31 students, 26 males and 5 females.
  • Judge John Sirica ruled that the banning of female military members from ships was unconstitutional in 1978.
  • In 1978, Congress amended Title 10 USC section 6015 to permit females to serve in sea billets and non-combatant ships.
  • Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy was enacted in 1993, prohibiting disclosure of Lesbian Gay Bisexual (LGB) sexual orientation.
  • In 1994, Congress set a policy that women could not serve in direct combat units.
  • The first women were allowed to serve as ship’s crew on Submarines in 2010.
  • In 2011, the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Repeal Act was fully implemented, allowing LGB service members to serve openly.
  • In 2013, Leon Panetta removed the ban on women serving with combat units.
  • Secretary of Defense Ash Carter opened all combat jobs to women in 2016.
  • Transgender service members were allowed to serve openly in 2016.

Notable Female Firsts in Navy Medicine

  • First Women’s Reserve Medical Officers (1943): Lieutenant Junior Grade Achsa Bean, Lieutenant Junior Grade Cornelia Gaskill and Lieutenant Junior Grade Hulda Thelander
  • First Female Medical Officer (1948): Captain Francis Louis Willoughby
  • First Female Medical Officer aboard a ship (1948): Lieutenant Commander Bernice Rosenthal Walters
  • First Female Flight Surgeons (1973): LT Jane Ogden-McWilliams (Captain Jane Hardman) and LT Victoria Voge
  • First Black Female Medical Officer (1975): Lieutenant Donna P. Davis
  • First Female Medical Officer to be a direct appointment to Captain (1975): Captain Jean E. Todd
  • First Female submarine qualified Dive Medical Officer (1977): Lieutenant Commander Pamela A. Kaires
  • First Female White House Physician (1992): Rear Admiral Eleanor Mariano
  • First Female Flag Medical Officer (1997): Rear Admiral Bonnie Burnham Potter
  • First Female Medical Corps Chief (1997): Rear Admiral Bonnie Burnham Potter
  • First Female Two Star Flag Medical Officer (1999): Rear Admiral Bonnie Burnham Potter
  • First Female to Command Naval Undersea Medical Institute (2000): Captain Victoria Anne Cassano
  • First Female to serve as Deputy Surgeon General (2002): Rear Admiral Kathleen L. Martin
  • First Female Three Star Flag Medical Officer (2014): Vice Admiral Raquel Bono

Leadership Courses

Leadership Awards

In 2010, the inaugural MHS Female Physician Leadership Award was awarded.

Command Nominations are typically due in July, with awardees notified in October/November. Categories awarded include a junior and senior recipient in each of the services including Navy, Air Force, Army, PHS/CG. The award covers lifetime achievement in service to date and is awarded at the AMSUS Awards Ceremony annually.

Fertility and Family in the Navy

  • In 1951, Executive Order 10240 permitted discharge of any pregnant female or newly adoptive mother.
  • In 1972, waivers could be submitted to permit the female service members to remain on active duty after pregnancy.
  • In 1973, mandatory discharges for pregnancy were abolished.
  • Navy pregnancy leave policy first created in 1989, 6-week postpartum leave, and 4 months non-deployable.
  • In 2015, The Navy increased the maternity leave to 18 weeks and 12 months non-deployable.
  • In 2016, Defense Secretary Carter announced a decrease to a 12-week maternity leave.
  • In 2018, the policy changed to primary and secondary caregiver leave periods. Primary Caregiver receives 6 weeks of leave and the secondary caregiver receives 2 weeks. The parent who delivers the child also receives 6 weeks of maternity convalescent leave.
  • In 2018, additional time to recover postpartum prior to participation in the PRT was announced. Service members will now be exempt for 9 months after the qualifying birth event, and then participate in the next cycle.
  • Chief of Naval Operations updated the Guidelines Concerning Pregnancy and Parenthood in 2018, including sections on adoption, pregnancy, infertility treatments and breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding in Boots

Current Navy Policy for pregnancy and postpartum includes a 12-month deferment from deployment after a qualifying birth event. It discusses current physical readiness test (PRT) guidance, and includes a table clarifying when a service member will be cleared to resume taking the PRT. Commands must provide accommodations for breast milk expression or breast feeding (with a space secured by a door and with accessible running water). During an 8-hour workday, a minimum of 2-3, 20-minute breaks will be granted to express breast milk, or feed the infant. In 2016, a plan was announced for a lactation room in every military building that has > 50 female employees. In 2019, nursing T-shirts were added to the optional authorized uniform items for the duration of breastfeeding.

Advice from MHS Female Physicians

  • It’s selfish to do it all on your own – let others share the opportunity to grow.
  • Ask for help early, not later.
  • Networking is important.
  • If you’re not uncomfortable in a new job, you’re not challenging yourself enough.
  • Women are mentored but under-sponsored.
  • You are not alone. Many women in the military struggle with triaging motherhood, families, and career.
  • Balance is a continuous process. Priorities will change over time, and there will be times family needs to come first, and times when career may need to come first.
  • It can be difficult to maintain composure as an activist when discussing gender related injustices.
  • You deserve a seat at the table.
  • Imposter syndrome is real.
  • Being a good leader starts with knowing yourself.
  • Wake up every morning thinking of how you can effect change.

Advice from the Eagle’s Nest

  • There’s no need to argue your credentials and competence. Let your quiet confidence speak for itself.
  • Humility is important in a leader. Speak up for yourself and more importantly for your subordinates.
  • Be genuine in your leadership style. If you try to lead like someone else, people will notice.
  • Be cautious of your emotional investment and how you express it.
  • Don’t gossip.

Advice from a Three Star – VADM Raquel Bono

  • Leadership takes courage and the commitment to helping make change happen.
  • Leadership requires a high degree of self-knowledge and self-awareness.
  • Leadership requires a willingness to be uncomfortable.
  • Be personable and authentic in your leadership, try not to take things personally even if it may feel personal.
  • As a doctor, you can help one person at a time. As a Commander and leader, you need to focus on how you can help make things better for many patients at a time.
  • Leadership thoughtfully executed creates the environment and conditions for others to align their actions and decisions to accomplish change. Let it go, and make change where you can.
  • Some is not a number. Soon is not a time. (Credit to Dr. Don Berwick:  former CEO, IHI and former Head, CMS)

Associations or Committees for Female Physicians







2 thoughts on “ – The Book – Chapter 5 – Women in the Navy Medical Corps

    Rebeca said:
    November 11, 2019 at 01:30

    i would offer the suggestion to rename the chapter to women in the Navy Medical Corps. Women in Navy Medicine tells the reader that the discussion is going to be about all women serving in various roles within Navy medicine, yet no role outside of the MC was mentioned, and there are many to name. It may be a moot point, but Navy Medicine does not solely refer to or reflect only those serving that have D.O. or M.D. after their name. It would be a shame to perpetuate this misconception of the use of Navy Medicine.


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