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Owens v. Brown: How The Navy's Women Won the Right to Serve at Sea

Yona owens
Yona Owens, 1973

Published May 10, 2021 6:04 PM by Denise Krepp

On Nov. 10, 1976, Petty Officer Yona Owens and six other women sued the Navy. The women were determined to overturn a 30-year-old federal statute that limited Navy women to shore-duty billets, even though they were trained to work aboard ships. Judge John J. Sirica heard the case on April 11, 1978, and July 27, 1978, and he ruled that women should be allowed to serve at sea.

The woman who pushed for the change, Petty Officer Yona Owens, was born into a Navy family. Her grandfather served in the Navy during the Spanish-American War and World War I, and her father served in the Navy - first during World War II, then as a reservist. 

I recently spoke with Owens and asked why she decided to sue the Navy. Succinctly, Owens said that she was raised to solve problems. Once a problem is identified then one should work to fix it. Owens recognized that it was unconstitutional, not to mention a waste of taxpayer money, to limit the service of shipboard-trained female Navy Sailors to shore-duty billets.

Suing the Navy was not Owens’ first brush with challenging policies restrictive to women. After growing up in Charlotte, N.C., where she was a Girl Scout, Owens attended Appalachian State University. It was 1968, and ASU required women to wear skirts, but the winters were cold so Owens wore her dad’s Navy-surplus bell-bottom uniform pants to classes. Owens was reprimanded, and she transferred to East Carolina University.

Low on funds, Owens eventually left school and followed in her family’s footsteps by joining the Navy. She signed her enlistment papers on May 30, 1973, and was sent to Recruit Training Command (RTC) in Orlando, Fla. The boot camp was for men and women, but at the time they didn’t train together. They were allowed to enter the chow hall at the same time, but they couldn’t sit next to each other. 

After graduating from RTC in late July 1973, Owens attended Interior Communications Electrician “A” School in San Diego, where she was the only woman in her class. The Navy assigned the men in her class to ships but sent Owens to a second school at Great Lakes Naval Training Center. Again, she was the only woman in her class. At graduation, once again, she was the only person not to receive orders to a ship. Owens said in our conversation it was then she realized her assignments were based on gender. 

Owens said her male classmates also noticed the Navy’s differing treatment of women, and some found it unfair — towards men. Because men had to go to sea after their first school, many were displeased that women were allowed to gain additional training without serving in the fleet.

Owens was supposed to attend a third school after graduating from the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, but she convinced her detailer to send her to Japan.

Owens was an E-3 when she arrived in Japan and made E-4 with her performance during the next testing cycle. She was determined to gain the knowledge needed to pass the E-5 exam, so she started spending her free time working on Navy ships docked at Yokosuka. These work details were at the invitations of her former classmates when their ships came into port for repairs.

By both studying and obtaining hands-on training during her off-duty time, which included requesting temporary assigned duty (TAD) on two short-term cruises for family members (known then as dependent cruises), Owens said she surprised the higher-ups and passed the E-5 exam. She was the first female 2nd class interior communications electrician (IC) petty officer in the modern Navy.

While in Japan, Owens wrote letters to senior leaders, including the Judge Advocate General and the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy, advocating to let women go to sea. Neither supported this change.

So yet again in December 1975, the Navy assigned Owens to shore duty. This time she was assigned to the Command and Control Technical Center (CCTC) in the National Military Command Center for the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon.

From Washington, D.C., Owens contacted the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project (WRP), an initiative cofounded by then attorney and law professor Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The WRP agreed to take her case, and the lawsuit Owens v. Brown was filed as a class action on Nov. 10, 1976, in D.C.’s federal district court.

Sirica was assigned the case. He was none other than the Watergate judge who ordered the Nixon administration to share tape recordings of White House conversations about the break-in. The April 1978 oral arguments for Owens v. Brown were held in the same courtroom that had held the Watergate trial.

On July 27, 1978, Sirica found that title 10, section 6015 of the U.S. Code — the law the Navy was using to limit the assignments of women — violated the equal protection guarantee in the Fifth Amendment. 

In 1978, 25,000 women were serving in the Navy. Shortly after Sirica’s ruling, the Navy began assigning women to ships that were not expected to serve in combat. Subsequently, the Navy updated its policies in the 1990s to permit women to serve on combat ships.

Owens was 25 years old when her lawsuit was filed. She sued the service that her family loved, but she did so knowing that if the class action she led was successful, generations of women would benefit. History shows they have.

Thank you, Petty Officer Owens and the brave women who challenged the law with you. Thank you for your service to our country.

Named plaintiffs in Owens v. Brown, 1978, and pay grades at the time: IC2 Yona Owens, YN2 Suzanne Holtman (now Stout), PHSN Natoka Peden, LCDR Kathleen Byerly (Bruyer), LTJG Joellen Drag (Oslund), LTJG Suzanne Rhiddlehoover. YNSN Valerie Sites was on the original complaint but dropped out.

This article appears courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command, and it may be found in its original form here

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.