Patty Parks was raised in the U.S. Navy. She was born on the Navy’s birthday in a naval hospital in Tennessee in 1952. She was raised by women in the naval barracks when her mother was sick, she said. Her father, a Blue Water sailor, spent many years away while Parks grew up on naval bases. By her estimates, her father was away serving on a ship for a total of about 10 of her first 17 years of age.
“Even as a small child, I remembered the smell of the heavy oil of the ships,” Parks said. “I liked that smell. Most people smell those kinds of smells and they turn up their nose and run the other way, but I liked that smell.”
In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional for the military to not provide housing to women in service with dependents. The next year, Parks, who was 22 years old and a divorced, single parent, joined the Navy.
The military was at the forefront of societal change in allowing greater participation of women in the workforce, she said.
“That was a turning point in opportunities for women,” she said. ” If you looked in a newspaper, jobs were actually divided: Jobs for men, jobs for women. And the jobs for women were usually service oriented — either food service, maid service, secretarial service — they were not the kinds of jobs you would make a career out of. They did not include insurance. Rarely did they include any kind of pension. The kinds of things that were offered liberally to men were not offered to women.”
Much of Parks’ work in the armed services has been focused on the contributions of women. She was initially assigned to work on Navy computers, despite her hesitation and dislike of math. Later, after getting married and a stint away with her second child, Parks worked as a recruiter and trainer with the U.S. Navy Reserve, retiring in 2003.
Since then, Parks has joined Military Women Across the Nation, which she now leads as president. The group was formed more than 40 years ago to push against the stigma associated with women veterans who were generally looked down upon for not following gender norms, Parks said. The shame often led women to hide their involvement once they left the military, she said.
The group gave female veterans an outlet to connect with others and talk about their experiences, she said.
Organizations like Military Women Across the Nation are still essential today, even as women’s involvement in groups like the American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars, has increased, Parks said. There is important work to do so that the history of women in the military is not overlooked or forgotten, she said.
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