The United States Navy is joining the Marines, Army and Air Force in ending its ban on dreadlocks for female sailors. The naval branch announced the reversal Tuesday in a live broadcast on its Facebook page.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm.John Richardson says the change won’t just make the Navy more formidable, but also more inclusive.
The Navy enlisted a six-person working group to recommend changes to grooming standards, based on feedback from their peers. As part of the decision, ponytails, buns and other styles will also be permissible for women in uniform so long as they don’t interfere with a sailor’s operational or safety needs. Male sailors are still required to keep their hair short.
Petty Officer 1st ClassJacqualynn Leak, a member of the working group, has worn dreadlocks since 2014. She led efforts to reverse the ban and says her fight involved years of research on the cultural and health aspects of wearing locs. She also surveyed dozens of female sailors affected by the ban.
“I wanted to make an argument so compelling that every reason my chain of command could give me for why dreadlocks were banned could easily be rebutted with facts,” she said.
Before, Leak opted to cover her shoulder-length dreadlocks by wearing a wig, which she says became more difficult as her hair grew. Options were even more limited for other female sailors. Some were forced to choose between cutting off their dreadlocks in favor of chemically straightened hair, or facing harsh punishment.
While challenges to military rules on hairstyles aren’t new, controversy surrounding black hair reached a peak around the time of Sims’ discharge. As word spread, revisions to Army grooming regulations were leaked, revealing proposed changes to ban hairstyles common among women of color. The proposed policy, called AR 670-1, would have banned all natural hairstyles, including twists, braids, cornrows and Afros.
Many criticized the regulations as specifically targeting black women. Once it had been made public, the policy faced immediate backlash, culminating in an open letter from the Congressional Black Caucus and an official review ordered by the Pentagon. The decision was ultimately reversed.
But that reversal didn’t include dreadlocks. First Lt. Whennah Andrews of the U.S. Army National Guard has been fighting for servicewomen’s right to wear them ever since. Together with fellow soldiers, Andrews began a campaign to challenge misconceptions many within the military have about dreadlocks’ cleanliness, cultural relevance and ease of use.
Leak enlisted Andrews for guidance when deciding to take on the Navy. Andrews says the Navy’s announcement is the final triumph signaling a victory for military diversity.
“When news broke that the Army lifted the ban on locs, I thought to myself, ‘It’s not a complete win until all of the branches authorize them,’” she said. “The unique challenges African-American servicewomen faced with trying to adhere to grooming policies were universal across the Department of Defense.”
This week’s decision makes the Navy the last branch of the military to drop grooming regulations that prohibit dreadlocks. The Marines first approved locs for women in 2015, and the Air Force announced late last year that dreadlocks would become an approved hairstyle after a review by its uniform board. The Army authorized dreadlocks for women earlier this year after having previously banned them since 2005.
The District of Columbia National Guard celebrated the graduation of its first African-American female pilot.
First Lt. Demetria Elosiebo earned her Army aviator wings in February after completing Initial Entry Rotary Wing Flight School at Fort Rucker, Alabama. “This is an extraordinary, historical event for us,” said Maj. Gen. Errol R. Schwartz, commanding general of the D.C. National Guard. “We’re extremely proud of Lt. Elosiebo. She’s a fine officer, and now, an Army aviator.”
Schwartz said every pilot who graduates from Fort Rucker’s rigorous aviator training course – male or female, regardless of their race or ethnicity – has accomplished something special. He added that the military has moved well past the days when such accomplishments were unusual. “The diversity of our armed forces is what makes us strong,” Schwartz said.
While completing the course is no cake walk, Elosiebo had a leg up on most other students at Fort Rucker. In her civilian career, she previously earned her FAA commercial pilots license and became a certified flight instructor.
Elosiebo follows in the path of the famous Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American fighter pilots. Before World War II, black pilots were barred from earning their wings in the Army Air Corps. The Pentagon’s rationale was that African-Americans could not be taught to fly. But after being forced to go through pilot training three times before being sent to the fight, they became the best of the best. In the bomber escort missions they flew in Europe, they never lost a bomber.
Elosiebo has a strong connection to the Tuskegee Airmen. She received one of her many scholarships from one of their association chapters, and they supported her when she began pursuing her private pilot’s license at age 19. In addition, she has worked with, and been mentored by these living legends, including Herbert Jones, who formed the first African-American-owned airline in the U.S.
On Friday, Gen. Lloyd Austin became the first African-American leader of the U.S. Central Command, which has a wide-ranging area of responsibility for 20 countries in the Middle East and southwest Asia. It’s not the first time in his 37-year career that he’s broken barriers for black members of the Army. He was also the first African American to serve in his previous position as the vice chief of staff.