How Adm. Elmo ‘Bud’ Zumwalt helped pave the way for women in the Navy

by Vern Evans

Women’s History Month is a time to acknowledge and honor the advancements made by and for Navy women: active and reserve, retired and veteran, uniformed and civilian.

Our Navy is a learning organization, with a long list of leaders who opened paths of opportunity for me and the more than 134,000 women serving in our Navy today.

One of those leaders whose policies expanded the opportunities for Navy women was Adm. Elmo R. “Bud” Zumwalt, our 19th chief of naval operations, who led our sea service from 1970 to 1974.

Zumwalt inspired me to write this article to highlight the unique leadership and career opportunities available in today’s Navy, and as a call to action to encourage people from across the rich fabric of America to join our Navy team.

His policy decisions played a key role in my Navy career, and I invite you to join me in invoking his legacy to bring that message to people from every zip code in our great nation.

As chief of naval operations, Zumwalt focused on war-fighting and warfighters. He showed that a leader can, in his own words, “modernize and humanize the Navy.”

But while Zumwalt spearheaded and advanced many Navy programs such as the Perry-class frigate, the Ohio-class submarine and the F-14 Tomcat fighter jet, he also dealt with many personnel challenges, most notably plummeting retention as the nation shifted from the draft to the all-volunteer force. He directed special attention to integrating historically marginalized groups more fully into the fleet.

In the early months of his tenure as CNO, Zumwalt sent 121 naval messages, known as Z-grams, which focused on improving sailors’ quality of life. These messages had an immediate impact.

Z-116, “Equal Rights and Opportunities for Women in the Navy,” initiated and directed the process of more fully integrating women into the Navy by opening more ratings and billets to enlisted women.

Zumwalt penned Z-Gram 116 to allow women “to contribute their extensive talents and to achieve full professional status” within the service.

In addition, this message allowed for the assignment of women to ships, opened the all-staff corps and restricted line communities to women, and improved pathways for women to progress to flag rank.

My personal path to joining the Navy in 1985 was made possible because Zumwalt had opened the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps to women.

He understood that incorporating the talent and expertise of American women was necessary.

I planned to be in the Navy for four years. I’m still here 38 years later because of our mission, and because of the great teams that I have been able to work with in a Navy that is now, in the words of Zumwalt’s daughter Mouzetta Zumwalt-Weathers, “as dad knew it could be.”

It is this Navy that I want you to talk about with teachers, administrators, librarians, coaches, community leaders and other influencers who engage regularly with our nation’s youth.

After my confirmation, Zumwalt’s daughters, Ann and Mouzetta, shared with me that my tenure as the first woman CNO brings their father’s vision full circle. I am awed and humbled by the weight and meaning of those words.

Vice Adm. Pat Tracey, the first woman three-star, said of Zumwalt, “His great gift was the ability to go beyond disruptive vision to know how to lay the railroad tracks for change that would have to play out over time.”

“Most visionaries don’t have the mental discipline to do that.”

While Zumwalt could not have known precisely when policy, law and custom would lift the barriers to women’s service had he not initiated that process, I and countless others would not be here today.

Just like men, women bring the critical skills and innovative ideas that we need to be the world’s most formidable fighting force: ready to deter, fight and win whenever the nation needs us to do so. In my service, I have focused my efforts on building teams that can fight and win our nation’s wars.

As CNO, my focus — like that of Zumwalt before me — centers on war-fighting, warfighters and the foundation that supports them.

The doors of service are open. In 2024, women lead destroyers, aircraft carriers, aviation squadrons, submarines, air wings, destroyer squadrons, explosive ordnance disposal mobile units, naval special warfare tactical communications commands, hospitals, supply depots, bases, shipyards, strike groups and fleets.

Women sailors no longer ask the question “What can I do?”

The advancements made by and for Navy women over the past 50 years have reframed the question to “What do I want to do?”

That is a message I want to resonate with anyone considering joining our Navy team.

I am motivated by all of the sailors I serve with every day. They are truly America’s finest.

My job is to ensure that they, their families and our civilians have the resources and tools they need to succeed and that they understand how important they are to accomplishing the work our nation counts on us to do every day. We simply could not achieve our mission without them.

I will leverage their amazing talent and expertise to ensure the U.S. Navy remains the most powerful in the world, advancing initiatives such as developing a hybrid fleet operated by sailors and civilians with world-class training and education; taking our Navy into the future by creating new designators for sailors to specialize in robotics; and building great people, leaders and teams.

All of these efforts acknowledge, as Zumwalt knew, that our war-fighters are our true strategic advantage.

In a conversation about her father, Ann Zumwalt told me, “He had faith that the American people would see the wisdom of allowing women to serve.”

I am grateful for Adm. Zumwalt’s vision for our Navy: to become a place where every sailor has the opportunity to bring their best every day and do their part to accomplish our mission.

I am counting on you all ― sailors, civilians, veterans and families ― to amplify this national call to naval service by sharing your story and talking about the value of serving something greater than yourself.

I am proud to serve as CNO 33 and honored to continue Zumwalt’s work to lead America’s Navy into the future.

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