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Navy Commander Credits Civilian and Military Women for Equality Victories Impacting Her Life and Career

By NSWCDD Corporate Communications Division | Sept. 3, 2020

DAHLGREN, Va. – Susan B. Anthony, Raye Montague and retired Rear Adm. Kathleen Paige.

They are among the women trailblazers who Cmdr. Sarah Rice credits with impacting her career in the U.S. Navy as a surface warfare officer who served aboard a surface combatant ship and currently serves as a project manager for Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) Program Executive Office for Integrated Warfare Systems.

Anthony, a pioneer in the women’s suffrage movement who fought for gender equality and civil rights, settled in Rochester, N.Y. – Rice’s hometown. Montague, the first person to design a U.S. Navy ship, served as the program manager of Ships for the NAVSEA Information Systems Improvement Program. Paige – a retired admiral who mentored Rice – was the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense program director.

Rice recounted the history and impact of the women’s suffrage movement on the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment while discussing the 2020 theme for national Women’s History Month: Chipping Away at Inequality - Honoring the Past, Securing the Future.

“I am able to do this because of the women and men who came before me, allowing me to be able to serve in uniform,” said Rice, keynote speaker at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) Women’s Equality Day observance as military, government civilians, and defense contractors watched, listened and asked questions via a livestream broadcast, Aug, 26. 

Three years ago, Montague - the Navy's 'hidden figure' - was the keynote speaker at the NSWCDD National Women's History Month observance. “I thought about all of things that happened to me in my career, all the doors that I had opened and glass ceilings that I broke,” said Montague at that event. “I didn’t realize that I was breaking glass ceilings back then. I was just doing what had to be done.”

Rice reminded her audience that “it took decades of agitation and protest to be able to enact that amendment of the constitution and we’re still struggling to fully realize equity and equality.”

Early suffragists spent years, in some cases entire lifespans, advocating for the right to vote. The first constitutional amendment to secure votes for women failed when introduced to Congress in 1878.

In 1919, the 19th Amendment was introduced to Congress, passing the House and Senate. It was ratified by 36 states by August of 1920, making women’s suffrage legal across the country.

While many women were able to head to the polls, the amendment “didn’t actually guarantee all women the right to vote at that time,” said Rice.

Women of color, immigrants and lower income women were often deterred from voting by laws and social pressure.

“Black women were kept from the polls. Indigenous women were kept from the polls and children of immigrants from other countries were kept from the polls,” said Rice.

Native American women were not considered U.S. citizens until 1924 and were not permitted to vote.

“It was the civil rights movements in the 1960s that really ensured greater access and I think it’s a battle that we’re still fighting today,” said Rice. “There were decades of work that led up to it and there are decades of work to continue in the future as well.”

A century after the ratification of the 19th Amendment, women are still advocating for their rights.

“I can’t stress enough that women have worked so hard to get the right to vote – and then to get the right for everyone to vote – before and after 1920,” said Rice. “It’s never been more crucial than now to exercise your right to vote in the fall so do all that you can in order to do that and to enable others to do that. It’s really our privilege to be able to vote in our democracy. In addition to voting, I think it’s important to exercise your voice. Your voice is valuable and your voice deserves to be heard.”

The national observance recognizing Women’s Equality Day was established by a joint resolution of Congress in 1971. Since then, the observance has grown to focus attention on the continued efforts toward gaining full equality for women.

“There are still victories we need to achieve,” said Rice. “There are still women achieving firsts today and I hope we can keep celebrating those until there are no firsts.”

In his welcoming remarks before introducing Rice, NSWCDD Commanding Officer Capt. Casey Plew listed several Navy women – civilian and military – who broke glass ceilings, including Lt. Madeline ‘Maddy’ Swegle, Adm. Michelle Howard, Capt. Sheila Patterson, Doreen Daniels and Dr. Gladys West.

Swegle became the Navy’s first Black woman to serve as a tactical air pilot when she was designated a naval aviator and received her Wings of Gold on July 31, 2020.

In 2014, Howard became the Navy’s first woman to serve as four-star admiral and vice chief of naval operations.

In 2007, Patterson became the first woman to lead NSWC Dahlgren Division as commanding officer.

After starting her career as a WAVES officer at Dahlgren during World War II, Daniels was the first woman promoted to GS-12, 13 and 14, becoming Dahlgren’s first woman branch head.

West – a mathematician who began her 42-year career at Dahlgren in 1956 – used mathematics to verify range and bombing tables. She also used mathematics to determine the exact location of satellites and worked on computer software that processed geoid heights, or the earth’s precise surface elevations. The work she did eventually led to the creation of the Global Positioning System. “I feel like I made a real good contribution to the accuracy of the Global Positioning System,” said Dr. West in a 2011 interview.

“There are countless examples of women who are shining examples of achievement and perseverance in our Navy and nation,” said Plew. “I am increasingly grateful for our diverse pool of talent here at Dahlgren and across the Navy. Observances like today’s virtual program – and what we do daily – fosters equality in an empowering and supportive workplace.”