Meet the sailor who made it possible for women to serve on ships

RALEIGH, N.C. (WAVY) – All month, 10 On Your side is celebrating the 100th anniversary of Naval Station Norfolk. The centennial celebration of the Navy’s largest base coincides with 100 years of women in the Navy.

Without Yona Owens, who sued the Navy to overturn a law barring women from ship duty, it’s unlikely any woman in the Navy would be able to serve in the capacities seen today.

That’s not something Owens would have predicted in 1973, when she was living in Charlotte, North Carolina, working as a potter.

She decided to enlist not to flout tradition or break down barriers, but because she was broke.

“I was really so desperate for income,” Owens said. “I had my sights on a college degree, because I hadn’t finished at East Carolina, I ran out of money.”

Naval Station Norfolk | 100 Years

Owens’ parents had reservations, but she left for boot camp feeling ready.

“Three days into it, I finally realized what I had done,” she said. “I got up in the middle of the night and threw up.”

Yona Owens

Physically, though, Owens did fine, and scholastically, she worked her way through the tests without any major issues — except one.

“It was squiggly lines and circles and pluses and minuses,” she said. “So I just went down the answer sheet and random choice-d it, and turned it in.”

Eight weeks later, Owens found out it was the electronics test. She had correctly answered 63 of the 75 questions, meaning she would become an ICman, short for interior communications electrician.

Owens went to school with men in the same role, and completed the same training they did.

“The guys would start saying, ‘Hey, when are they going to give you orders for a ship?'”

Owens worked on ships when they came into port and dry docked, so she got hands-on training as well. She asked her detailer to have orders written for a ship stationed in Yokosuka, Japan, packed her bags and waited.

“I got a call from the detailer and he said, ‘I can’t tell you who’s made the decision, but I have had to cancel your orders. We’re not going to send you to sea.'”

Owens found out, even though she had the training and experience, a law existed that meant neither she nor other women were allowed to serve on Navy ships. She wrote editorial letters asking other sailors for their input, asked a high-ranking JAG official if the Navy would ever repeal the law on its own, and finally decided her only option was to sue.

By then, the American Civil Liberties Union had taken interest in Owens’ case. In 1976, the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, co-founded by now-Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, filed a lawsuit on Owens’ behalf against the Navy in U.S. District Court.

In 1978, a judge ruled the law unconstitutional. Owens won, but she never got to experience what she fought for firsthand. Feeling that she had gone as far as she could under the current law and fearing for her life because of the controversy, she had not re-enlisted when the opportunity arose in 1977.

When Naval Station Norfolk honored Owens at an event celebrating women in the Navy this March, she finally realized what pride she felt.

“I looked out across this audience that we were talking to about our experiences and for the first time in my life, I felt like a grandmother,” she said. “All I did was kill the rule. That was like scratching at the door. This crowd has gone way beyond anything that I thought was going to happen.”

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