Over the past 18 months, the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) has highlighted female Navy trailblazers. We have shared their stories because these women are important members of the Navy family. They have served as valuable role models for the next generation of Navy civilians and sailors. NHHC is committed to ensuring their stories are remembered and preserved.
Capt. Jordine Von Wantoch made Navy history by becoming the first woman to continue serving on active duty and have a normal career after becoming pregnant. Capt. Von Wantoch used existing laws and changing cultural norms to smash a previously impenetrable glass ceiling. Her personal papers outlining how she convinced Navy leaders to stay on active duty are housed in the Naval History and Heritage Command archives.
A coal miner’s daughter, Von Wantoch grew up in Niagara Falls, New York. She graduated with a Bachelor of Art in English from the State University of New York at Albany, earned a master’s degree in English and Literature at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and subsequently became a high school English teacher.
In 1956, Von Wantoch joined the Navy, according to her daughter, because it offered the opportunity to travel and serve her country. She met her future husband Harvey Von Wantoch, a fellow Navy officer, while stationed in Norfolk.
In early 1970 with 14 years on active duty, the then 39-year-old Lt. Cmdr. Von Wantoch became pregnant. Per Navy policies pregnant women were required to leave the service, but Von Wantoch wanted to stay and began researching how to make that happen.
The first step was finding out if the Navy had granted previous waivers. In an April 9, 1989 letter to Jean Ebbert, Von Wantoch shared that she was the third woman to stay on active duty after having a baby but the first one to stay for a regular career. Per Von Wantoch’s research, a Chief Petty Officer with more than 19 years of service was allowed to remain until she qualified for retirement at 20 years. The second woman was a Supply Corps officer with 18 years who was allowed to complete her last tour and retire.
Von Wantoch’s case was different as she only had 14 years in when she became pregnant. She wasn’t on her last tour, and she needed an additional six years for retirement. That’s when Von Wantoch focused on the law allowing Lieutenant Commanders to serve until retirement. The law was written for men and she argued that it also applied to her as well.
The formal waiver application to stay on active duty was submitted June 3, 1970. Von Wantoch shared that “(a)lthough starting a family was not planned at this time, I am delighted with the prospect of becoming a mother.” Later in the application, she adds “(a)rrangements will be made to provide complete care for my child, of a caliber at least equal to that which I can give, during the times when I am on duty.”
Unlike pregnant Navy sailor today, Von Wantoch also had to provide justifications for her waiver request so she highlighted changing cultural norms: “(o)f recent years there has been a shift away from traditional thinking in regard to the place of women in our society, and legislation has upheld the rights of women in relation to work opportunities.” Von Wantoch ended the waiver request asking for sufficient leave for birth and recovery period, specifically two months beyond the birth of her daughter. Her leave balance was 67.5 days.
The Secretary of the Navy granted von Wantoch’s waiver, but the waiver came with specific conditions. First, Von Wantoch was required to take five months leave to be charged against her leave balance and as unpaid leave. Second, Von Wantoch was required to submit an irrevocable request for voluntary requirement effective as soon as she was eligible for retirement. The conditions were included in Von Wantoch’s official record.
Von Wantoch’s daughter was born on Oct. 8, 1970 and, with the help of her command, Von Wantoch successfully advocated to return to active duty service early. The Navy then changed its policies, allowing pregnant women to remain on active duty, but the second condition of early retirement still remained in Von Wantoch’s record.
BUPERs agreed to withdraw Von Wantoch’s early retirement application, but it couldn’t change her official record, so Von Wantoch sought help from the Board for Correction of Naval Records. The board agreed to help her stating that the forced retirement request was “generated in response to the desires of the Chief of Naval Personnel at a time when Petitioner was under great emotional strain, and were not a reflection of the true attitude of Petitioners towards a naval career.”
Von Wantoch served on active duty for 30 years, retiring on June 30, 1986. She died in 2020 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Thank you, Captain Von Wantoch for your leadership and service to the United States.