In early 1949 Connecticut Representative Chase Going Woodhouse received a curious invitation at her Washington office. The Secretary of Defense had invited Members of Congress to spend the night on the aircraft carrier USS Midway to observe the navy’s training exercises as the legislators considered the future of military aviation. The problem was that Woodhouse was one of 10 women serving in the 81st Congress (1949–1951) and navy regulations prohibited women from spending the night on a warship. “I knew perfectly well that [the invitation was for] Congressman Chase Woodhouse, not Mrs. Woodhouse,” she would later recall, “but I thought it would be just good fun” to accept the offer.
Sensing an opportunity to knock down at least one stubborn gender barrier, Woodhouse immediately phoned other Congresswomen with phonetically androgynous names, curious to know if they had received invitations from the navy as well. “No,” Frances Bolton of Ohio quipped, “they knew perfectly well that I spell my name Frances with an ‘e’.” Next on Woodhouse’s call list was Reva Bosone of Utah—Judge Bosone to her colleagues, a nod to her service as Salt Lake City’s first female municipal judge. Bosone had received the same invitation from the navy and planned to decline, informing the secretary of his mistake. “Don’t you dare,” Woodhouse admonished. “After all, aren’t you a congressman?” To which Bosone replied, “You bet your life I am, and I work twice as hard as most of the men.” The Congresswomen promptly dispatched a messenger with their acceptances.
At the time, women across the country faced a daily onslaught of workplace discrimination. Sometimes it was blatant, other times it was subtle. Regardless, it was pervasive.
Women had entered the labor market by the thousands during World War II as America’s economy mobilized to fight World War II. Now that the war was over, women in virtually every industry weren’t about to willingly relinquish their hard-won employment gains. So in ways both large and small, female workers fought back against discriminatory and sexist policies meant to cheapen their contributions.
In many respects, the situation in Congress and the larger federal government wasn’t all that different from workplaces elsewhere in America. And Congresswomen, like women everywhere, pushed for equal access and equal treatment. When Woodhouse immediately agreed to attend and convinced Bosone to do likewise, they forced the military’s hand. Under a spotlight not directed at their male counterparts, the two women Members took control, asserted their rights as Congresswomen, and used humor to overcome awkward situations.
Less than an hour after she accepted the invitation, Woodhouse received a response. Her daughter—working as Woodhouse’s secretary—fielded a frantic phone call from the Secretary of Defense’s office. “Margaret!” the young man on the other end cried, “What is your mother doing?” The caller gasped, “The secretary is standing on his head, and we’re standing on our heads around him.” “I suggest that you get up and get yourself a drink,” Margaret deadpanned, “you’ll feel better.” But she also affirmed that Woodhouse and Bosone planned to attend—after all, they were invited—and, since the invitation implored the Members to bring along the press, the Congresswomen invited May Craig, a former war correspondent now covering politics for the Maine-based Guy Gannett newspaper chain.
The national press had a field day with the news that the three women planned to attend the overnight visit. It was a “Navy error” that they received the invite and several newspapers emphasized “to the Navy’s acute embarrassment, they accepted.” The New York Times reminded the Secretary of Defense that he needed to hold up his end of the invitation or risk his budget: “In these days of short appropriations . . . nobody goes around insulting Congressmen—or Congresswomen.” Though neither Member served on committees of consequence for the navy—Woodhouse was on the Banking and Currency Committee, Bosone served on Public Lands, and both were on the House Administration panel—the optics were important. And the press was watching.
The navy’s designated tour guide, retired Admiral William F. Halsey, greeted the 84 VIP guests in Norfolk, Virginia, on April 30, to escort them to the Midway: these included 26 male Representatives, one senator, 14 sons of Members, male reporters . . . and Bosone, Woodhouse, and Craig. Halsey personally escorted them in the rowboat that conveyed them from shore to ship remarking, “I think you girls are great”—a patronizing comment made more so by the fact that all three were older than 50. Woodhouse scoffed at Admiral Halsey’s admiration. She was unflappable, using her own sense of humor to control the trip’s narrative. While there seemed to be skepticism over the women’s ability to navigate the ship’s physically demanding ladders, press reports were quick to note their light-footedness aboard the vessel.
The women were quartered in the vessel’s finest cabins: those reserved for the ship’s captain and visiting admirals. The Congressmen, on the other hand, apparently bunked with the crew. But the women were able to interact with the ships’ enlisted men: Woodhouse “talked to a lot of the boys,” she jovially noted. Of the young sailor posted guard outside their quarters the entire visit, “I was so impressed with that young man,” Woodhouse joked with Admiral Halsey. “Was he protecting us or was he protecting the crew?”
The New York Times described all three women as being “a little indignant that their presence on the flat-top’s week-end cruise had caused such a hullabaloo,” but the trio declared the trip informative. Donning oversized sheepskin coats and caps meant for much larger sailors, Woodhouse and Bosone were the only Members quoted in the national press about their experiences. Woodhouse was impressed by the “completely synthesized precision,” with which the Midway’s crewmen carried out their duties. Calling on her experience as an economics professor, she noted that education institutions could learn from the navy’s training methods. Bosone observed that seeing the crew at work at close range helped her balance arguments “relative to the merits of the military establishments and the consideration of cost to the taxpayers.”
On May 1, the New York Times reported that the Midway “disembarked its feminine cargo,” ending the navy’s “headache.” And though this incident was marked by humor and hyperbole—in the early stages of the Cold War, three women were hardly the navy’s worst headache—Woodhouse, Bosone, and Craig had taken a major step in women’s involvement in American maritime life. But progress remained slow. It would be nearly two decades before newly-elected President Richard M. Nixon named future Maryland Congresswoman Helen Bentley chair of the Federal Maritime Commission. Heading the commission from 1969 to 1975, she was the highest ranking woman in the executive branch, calling attention to the country’s aging and declining merchant fleet. In 1978, the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia overturned a ban on women serving on navy ships in Owen v. Brown—opening the path of service to female sailors.
But in 1949, Woodhouse, Bosone, and Craig departed the Midway, noting they had formed an exclusive club of three: the only women to sleep on a U.S. Navy warship. Admiral Halsey reportedly confirmed this fact, then, after a pause, the admiral qualified, “legally.”
Sources: Baltimore Sun, 1 May 1949, 2 May 1949; Washington Post, 2 May 1949; Atlanta Constitution, 2 May 1949; New York Times, 2 May 1949; Los Angeles Times, 2 May 1949; 3 May 1949; Boston Globe, 3 May 1949; Chase Going Woodhouse, Oral History Interview, U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress, Manuscript Room, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; May Craig Papers, 1929–1975, Manuscript Room, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; USS Midway Museum, http://www.midway.org/; Owens v. Brown, 455 F. Supp. 291 (1978).
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