Have you ever thought about the fact that ships are referred to using female pronouns and that U.S. naval vessels are given feminine nicknames? For instance, the USS Yorktown, the Charleston area’s most visible connection to the United States Navy, is called “The Fighting Lady.” Yet when she was active during the mid-20th century, her crew was 100 percent male. Many more decades would pass before women sailors were assigned to the Navy’s combat ships.
Today, about 60,000 women are on active duty in the U.S. Navy, comprising 18 percent of that branch of service. Although, women have officially served in the Navy since World War 2. They were in a separate section called Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service or WAVES. It was established during wartime so that men stationed ashore could be freed up for sea duty. It wasn’t until 1994 that women were assigned duty aboard warships.
Things have changed a lot over the last 75 years. Since 2016, the military has allowed women to serve in all positions, and they now hold traditionally male jobs like aviators and explosive ordnance disposal specialists. Women can attain high ranking positions commanding legions of both men and women sailors. In fact, the vice chief of naval operations, the second-highest ranking position in the U.S. Navy, is currently held by a woman, Admiral Lisa Franchetti. She has been nominated by President Joe Biden to serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and is awaiting senate confirmation for that post.
Since the USS Yorktown never saw women assigned to her crew during her active-duty years, it makes for a bit of local irony that now, for the first time in history, the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum is headed by a woman. True, she is a civilian and not a veteran of the Navy. But decades ago, a woman would not have been considered to serve at the helm.
When Allison Hunt accepted the position of executive director last March, she had already made history by becoming the first woman to head the USS Yorktown Foundation, the group charged with providing support and fundraising for exhibits, scholarships and programs for the various museums of Patriots Point. She was well-prepared for the expanded position heading the operations of Patriots Point which includes not only the naval and maritime museum, but the management of 465 acres of land that’s also home to a golf course, athletic fields, restaurants, a resort hotel and a marina.
The star attraction of Patriots Point is, of course, the USS Yorktown. Hunt’s office is on the hangar bay, so there are lots of opportunities for her to interact with some of the 300,000 annual visitors to the ship as well as the 140 volunteers, many of whom are Navy veterans.
Hunt’s passion for exploring the story of the Navy began when she visited Patriots Point as a young child, vacationing there with her family. She explained that Patriots Point is the perfect medium through which to foster children’s enthusiasm, interest and appreciation for the Navy.
Hunt explained what’s in store for the popular attraction, now under her leadership, “We plan to continue to partner with the Town of Mount Pleasant in providing an excellent series of educational summer camps onboard the ship. We have redesigned our overnight program and are continuing to enhance our ‘Live Like a Sailor’ experience. We have a major initiative to upgrade our flight academy and add additional programming. I am inspired every day by our veterans who work and volunteer on the ship and our visitors who come from all over the world. And it’s an honor to tell their story.”
One woman who has lived that story is Mount Pleasant resident Allison Ashe-Arriola. “I’m currently serving in the Navy Reserves. I spent a little over 10 years on active duty and have been in the Reserves for nine, making 19 to date. I spent 12 years as a Naval Aviator flying SH-60B and MH-60R Seahawk helicopters. I loved my time flying, especially flying missions on my deployments across the Western Pacific all the way to the Middle East, as well as instructing. But I had a second passion I really wanted to pursue in international work, so I redesignated in the Reserves to become a Foreign Area Officer which is a military diplomacy role. We are international engagement professionals bringing a unique combination of operational experience, cultural knowledge and language expertise to the fleet. That’s been an amazing experience at military headquarters and embassies around the world. Some of the highlights have been working security cooperation in India, Malaysia, Bahrain and Germany.”
As any service member can attest, Ashe-Arriola said, “the biggest challenge of serving in the Navy is having to leave my family to serve. I mobilized to the Middle East a few years ago, and while being away was rewarding because I was contributing to a really important mission, it was also heartbreaking to leave my husband and kids for so long. We also want to make sure our children can still get what is needed. I’ve known women who’ve sent milk shipments on dry ice across the world to their babies.”
But even beyond the challenge of balancing family with career, Ashe-Arriola acknowledged that there are other hurdles. “Women are still a minority in the Navy. A lot has changed over the years, improving the culture to be more inclusive of women, and I’ve been very fortunate to have great experiences. But we definitely have unique challenges to overcome in a system that was originally designed with men in mind. There will be challenges, as with anything, but a positive, can-do attitude will carry you through those challenges.”
Currently, there is a small exhibit on the USS Yorktown devoted to covering the story of women in the Navy. Hunt’s team is in the process of writing a master plan which will include broadening their story — one that will educate and inspire all who visit The Fighting Lady and will surely ignite a spark for the next generation of women sailors to pursue their dreams.
By Mary Coy