May 25, 2012: For the first time a female officer will command a major warship in the British Royal Navy. Commander Sarah West is taking command of the HMS Portland, a Type 23 class frigate (4,900 ton ships with a crew of 185). There are 13 of these ships in British service, the last one commissioned ten years ago.
Commander West is not the first British woman to command a warship. Several others have commanded smaller warships and one recently took command of a minesweeper squadron. For thousands of years, at least in the West, it was rare for women to command ships, especially warships. But that has changed as the demand for people smart and capable enough to handle increasingly complex ships has grown. There aren't enough capable men around to do it, so women are being attracted to jobs like this (military pilots, staff officers, and other specialist tasks).
British women have served in the Royal Navy since World War I as a separate force, the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS, or "wrens"). The U.S. Navy had a similar system, which gradually faded away by the 1970s. In Britain, the WRNS did not disappear until 1993. In the 1990s, women were completely integrated into the Royal Navy and allowed to serve on ships. Commander West joined in 1995, and always had a shot at ship command. Worldwide, women are increasingly serving in the armed forces. In most NATO countries between 5-10 percent of sailors are women, while in Britain it is 10 percent and in the United States 16 percent.
In a curious coincidence, the first American female naval officer (then commander Holly Graf) to command a major warship took charge of the USS Winston S. Churchill in 2002. Named after the famous World War II British Prime Minister (whose mother was American), the Churchill is the only ship that flies the British naval ensign as well as the American one (in honor of Churchill and his close relationship with the United States during World War II). Graf went on to take command of a cruiser (USS Cowpens) in 2008, but was relieved in 2010, because of complaints by officers that the captain yelled a lot and treated them cruelly. Turns out Graf had always been tough on her subordinates but that her superiors had always looked the other way (to avoid antagonizing politicians or the media), leaving Graf the impression that her rough manners were acceptable. In the end her only punishment, aside from having to explain herself in front of several boards of officers, was to be forcibly retired at her highest rank (captain).
The Royal Navy has a long history of occasionally punishing ship commanders for being too rough on their crews. One male British naval officer was recently relieved for actions similar to those of captain Graf. It's not known if commander West's demeanor towards her subordinates was closely scrutinized before she was given her frigate command.