Dahlgren computer scientist Dawn Murphy went on a training exercise on a Navy ship 12 years ago.
Some Navy ships at that time had accommodations for women; that one did not.
“So I was quite nervous to find out where I was going to be staying,” with only men aboard, she said during Wednesday night’s community forum hosted by the Dahlgren Heritage Foundation.
“I ended up [alone] in the admiral’s quarters,” she said, to laughter from a crowd of about 200 in the auditorium at the University of Mary Washington Dahlgren Campus.
Murphy continued: “It was a great week [at sea.] I had my own [bathroom], my own room, but it was an adjustment.”
Murphy and three other women associated with the Navy base in King George County were there to kick off the foundation’s inaugural “Women in Science and Technology at Dahlgren” exhibit at the university.
Joining Murphy and Foundation Board President and moderator Ed Jones on the podium were Gladys West, a retired computer programmer and data analyst; Ann Swope, who worked on environmental programs and is now chief of staff at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division; and Cynthia Holland, a lead engineer at NSWCDD’s electromagnetic railgun project. Jones is also editor of The Free Lance–Star.
West worked on a variety of projects at the base over a long career. Her work contributed to the development of modern global positioning systems.
She said that, as a black woman, she faced gender and race issues when she started in the 1950s.
“I remember very clearly: You were in a state in which a lot was not spoken. But you knew there were limitations on where you could eat, sleep.
“It affected you when you would go to other places. You did not want to expose yourself or the organization to embarrassment.”
At one point, Jones asked the panelists for their reactions to one woman’s statement in an oral history: “What counts at Dahlgren is what you can bring to the table, regardless of gender.”
Said Holland, “I came here with a very young child, and was pregnant with a second child. I found my co-workers and management very supportive.
“What was exciting to me is that I was able to be a really good engineer, but also a really good mommy.”
All four women are featured in exhibit panels adorning the university’s entrance hall in the building off U.S. 301. One of the images shows Murphy on a combat system ship qualification trial in Kauai, Hawaii, in 1986.
Dahlgren’s history through the decades, since its founding as the Naval Proving Ground in 1918, is also featured in the exhibit.
Many women have excelled at formerly male-dominated technical careers at Dahlgren. For example, Elizabeth D’Andrea, who now works at the Office of Naval Research in Washington, served as manager of the railgun program.
Sheila Patterson, with a technical degree from the U.S. Naval Academy, became the first woman commander of NSWCDD in 2007. Laura DeSimone, formerly of Dahlgren, chaired a board that reviews all weapons for the Navy and Marine Corps before they are deployed.
The exhibit is the inaugural display for the Dahlgren Heritage Museum, which is scheduled to open this year in the former Potomac Gateway Welcome Center along U.S. 301. The site is under renovation. Plans call for the museum to eventually move to a more permanent location.
“I declare the [museum] open for business,” Jones told the supporters and donors, adding that there are plans for a “very special exhibit in the very near future.”
Karen Farley, the museum’s executive director, said Thursday that the museum in coming months will unveil a series of exhibits, such as the one this week, rather than have one big opening.
To date, the museum has collected about $140,000 in cash and in-kind donations. It hopes to raise $1.5 million—enough to prepare and operate the museum for the first three to five years.
Jones made a separate pitch for help to fund a gun display at the museum. The foundation wants to secure two Navy guns now stored at the base—an 8-inch Mark 15 gun, and a 6-inch Mark 8.
It will cost about $75,000 to move the guns. Jones said the display will make an impression.
“When you’re coming off that [bridge] and looking down the barrel—that’s gonna get your attention.”