Peta Hughes

I have always known Peta, to be a woman that waves the flag very passionately for feminism, and celebrating women and their accomplishments. I have known her, to be a loyal and devoted friend to the people around her. Peta is very aware of her emotions, and from conversations with her, she tries to live very closely to her core values. I knew that Peta had been in the navy but I didn’t know her role.

I saw a post on Facebook, celebrating the anniversary of the day, she was the first woman, in the Royal Australian Navy to fire a missile. I was so proud of her, and it solidified for me, her passion and commitment to feminism and celebrating women. Because, she had done something so significant, and bad ass in a male dominated profession. I couldn’t wait for our interview.

“I was on the HMAS Sydney, I was the second woman to do the job of fire control technician on frigates. Frigates at this point hadn’t long had women on board.”

“Really, all male crew into the early nineties? How?

“Because it was the whole warfare thing, women were not allowed to go to war, the job that I did was combat role, and I was on a frigate which is a war ship.”

“So why did you choose the job you did?”

“In 1993 when I joined there was three jobs available. They were recruiting for chefs, stewards. My mum and dad had been in the navy, and dad said, “you will be totally bored doing the chef and steward’s job. You could easily do this job of electronics technician.” I had absolutely no interest in technicians I just wanted to travel.”

“If it was all male, why start recruiting women to combat roles?”

“More opportunities where coming up and they had roles that needed to be filled. But you know the thought of sending a women off to war, I mean it’s tradition to protect the little woman and all that. War is the last bastion isn’t it.  Women can be nurses, teachers. Well I mean she can fire a missile too you know. I mean later on I went to east Timor and the Persian Gulf. I didn’t go during the war, I was in Kuwait after the war though.”

“The rank that I was, was a seaman that is bottom rung. I was 22 when I was posted on there, you know a ship is so rank orientated. You need to prove yourself. When I was at Cerberus in Melbourne – Port Phillip Bay, there was 10 female technicians, amongst 400 blokes. We really stood out, we couldn’t hide. When you look at this through a feminist microscope there is sexism and misogyny everywhere, patriarchy everywhere.”

“Ships are like a very, very small towns, people talk. As a naval woman early on in my career I learnt to keep my head down and just do my job. As a woman I was always a little bit afraid of being judged. I felt an enormous amount of pressure being in such a male dominated job.”

“There was aptitude testing to do this role, I passed those. I really liked that it was the crème de la crème of the techos. This was the job that happened to keep me at sea a lot as well, so I was able to do a lot of travel. Out of ten years I spent six on ships. Twelve months of that was in San Diego with my radar and missile course. There is the radar and there is a 3 inch and a 5 inch gun on the launcher and it tracks the target. I mean fire control, I was like oh yeah I want to do that. It was really, really fun, at the time we were so young and so arrogant.”

“So in relation to the missile, the girl ahead of me never go to fire it, all the boys had a turn, I was just lucky really when it came to my turn. I was working for the weapons electrical engineering officer, as a technician, we were operators and maintainers, I was a maintainer technician. But we operated the radar as well, and that is how I came to fire the missile. The gunnery officer directed us what to shoot at, where and when.”

“We had trained and trained and trained, I had my chief, my petty officer, the leading seaman we all worked together. Lots of testing of signals and safety stuff goes on. We would do a preparation called ballistics, so it would take in the weather, wind speed, the temperature anything that would alter where the missile was going to go. So what I fired was an anti-air missile,  it would be a drone remote control air-craft, towing a target, on a very long 2km line. The target was a computer as well. We didn’t want to blow up the target, the missile was designed to blow up near the target. But well I actually blew up the target.”

“I was always really good under pressure, we had been trained to be a machine, we did so much training, so many drills, it was constant, there was sleep deprivation, and there was more pressure. We were machines, our emotions were ignored.”

“My gunnery officer said to me “this is for navy news”. I said without hesitation, nope. I didn’t want to bring attention to myself, I didn’t want to be different to the guys.”

“Really this was such an important step for women in the navy”.

“Yep I know”

“It wasn’t celebrated!”

“Nope, maybe I was thinking it would divisive, I mean in order to survive you just have to get on board with things that are going on around you.”

“I was always good friends with the guys, I never got on board with all the sexist jokes or anything, but I was just quiet, got on with my job and was friends with most people. But above all I had the girls back. When I was on the Melbourne I was an able seaman, and the leading hand in the mess for two years, because I did a great job. And I always was like what happens in the mess stays in the mess. I was always like don’t be talkin’ shit about the sisters here, cause it will not be tolerated. We need to stick to together to be a force.”

“In communal living it is all about honesty and respect for others. If someone needs to be left alone, leave them alone. Wash your clothes, wear your deodorant. Cause someone will tell you, you stink.”

“The absolute best thing about the navy for me was the friends I made, I am still friends with a lot of them. The water was also a saving grace for me. All that water, looking out at the ocean on a starry night with the moon reflecting off the ocean, seeing the dolphins and the whales.”

“By the time I was finishing I couldn’t wait to get away, I was done. I had done my 10 years and I just thought I can’t wait to get away from the patriarchy. The navy has a really poor environmental record which really pissed me off. I had enough of going to sea, I mean they own you. They run everything, tell you when to eat, you just have to do what they say. Once you sign on the dotted line they own you.”

 

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