When female midshipmen in the Naval Academy Class of 2016 stride out onto the field at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium for commencement in May, they'll be wearing trousers, not skirts, officials said Tuesday. It will be the first time men and women have worn essentially the same uniforms as they mark the end of their training in Annapolis.
Marine Col. Stephen Liszewski, the commandant of midshipmen at the elite training ground for future Navy and Marine Corps officers, announced the change to this year's graduating class Monday night. The 266 female seniors at the academy make up 24 percent of the Class of 2016.
Spokesman Cmdr. John Schofield said the new dress policy will reinforce the idea of "shipmate before self."
"The graduation and commissioning ceremony at the US Naval Academy is not about individuals," he said. "It's about the academy writ large. It's about the brigade writ large."
The rules come amid a major push by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to emphasize the equal role of women in the service. It has been 40 years since women were first admitted to the academy. The Class of 2016 will be the first to graduate into a military in which all Navy and Marine Corps jobs are open to both genders.
Mabus' equality campaign includes a review of job titles that include the word "man" — such as "midshipman" — to determine whether they should be made gender-neutral.
Academy officials said the change from skirts to pants was made in coordination with Navy leaders. They played down the symbolism of the shift Tuesday.
But Mabus has been clear about what he sees as the value of men and women wearing the same uniforms. In a speech at the academy last year, he said different uniforms "segregate" female officers.
"Rather than highlighting differences in our ranks, we will incorporate everyone as full participants," he told the Brigade of Midshipmen. "In the Navy and in the Marine Corps, we are trending towards uniforms that don't divide us as male or female, but rather unite us as Sailors or Marines."
The Navy has used the academy in recent years as a testing ground for new Navy outfits. At commencement last year, female midshipmen commissioning as Navy officers wore prototype high-collared jackets that are now scheduled to be rolled out to the fleet.
Women and men at the academy already wear the same working blues to class and the same parade dress uniforms.
Schofield said the shift in graduation attire is not the end of the skirt at the Naval Academy. Some opportunities for women to wear them will remain.
Female cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., have the choice of wearing a skirt or pants to graduation, a spokesman said. Male and female cadets at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., have long worn the same uniforms at graduation — as they do on all other occasions.
After years of study, the Pentagon announced in December that all combat roles in the military would be opened to women. The Naval Academy expects to start selecting candidates for previously all-male units such as the Navy SEALs soon.
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Mabus has been at the forefront of the efforts — only to see his decisions sometimes overruled. He said last year that female sailors would receive 18 weeks of maternity leave — among the most generous policies in the nation and triple the previous allowance. But it was cut back to 12 weeks when the Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter issued a single policy for all the services last month.
"Our calculation is quite simple," Carter said. "We want our people to be able to balance two of the most solemn commitments they can ever make: a commitment to serve their country and a commitment to start and support a family."
Carter also announced longer child care hours at military facilities and a requirement that posts where more than 50 women work have dedicated nursing rooms.
The changes were designed to encourage troops with young families to stay in military service.
The growing gender integration of the military has drawn some opposition. Members of elite commando units have expressed concern that admitting women will reduce their effectiveness, and bloggers and newspaper columnists have described changes to uniform policies as unnecessary.