Tailhook Scandal

Inappropriate behavior during the convention of an organization for naval aviators revealed the hostile environment that existed for women in the U.S. military and resulted in the resignation of the secretary of the Navy.

Summary of Event

Tailhook, the annual convention for members of the Tailhook Association, Tailhook Association a naval aviators’ organization (named for the arresting device that helps stop a Navy jet landing on an aircraft carrier at sea), was a well-known bacchanal. At these yearly meetings of the U.S. Navy’s elite “top guns,” drunkenness, pranks, and lewd behavior were de rigueur. Tailhook celebrated aviator “machismo” and skill. As the September, 1991, Tailhook convention approached, aviators expected the meeting, to be held at the Las Vegas Hilton, to be the bawdiest yet—a reward for their heroism in the recent Persian Gulf War. Tailhook scandal
Women;U.S. military
U.S. Navy;Tailhook scandal
Military, U.S.;women’s role[womens role]
[kw]Tailhook Scandal (June 24, 1992)
[kw]Scandal, Tailhook (June 24, 1992)
Tailhook scandal
Women;U.S. military
U.S. Navy;Tailhook scandal
Military, U.S.;women’s role[womens role]
[g]North America;June 24, 1992: Tailhook Scandal[08380]
[g]United States;June 24, 1992: Tailhook Scandal[08380]
[c]Women’s issues;June 24, 1992: Tailhook Scandal[08380]
[c]Crime and scandal;June 24, 1992: Tailhook Scandal[08380]
[c]Military history;June 24, 1992: Tailhook Scandal[08380]
Coughlin, Paula
Snyder, John W., Jr.
Garrett, H. Lawrence
Kelso, Frank B., II

Two incidents occurred at Tailhook in 1991 that reflected women’s status in the U.S. military. At a panel discussion that provided a forum for aviators to question admirals, a female aviator asked when women would be allowed to fly tactical or combat operations. The mostly male audience of aviators laughed and heckled the questioner, Lieutenant Monica Rivadeneira, Rivadeneira, Monica and the panel of admirals responded minimally without admonishing the audience. Women in the military and those who have studied women’s integration in the armed forces maintain that only when women are permitted to serve in combat will their male peers treat them with due respect. One indication of the disrespect accorded to women in the military during the 1990’s was the sexual harassment that many endured. Sexual harassment Sexual harassment;U.S. military of women in the armed forces has a long history, and Tailhook was only one in a series of events that drew nationwide attention to the issue in the early 1990’s.

On the evening of September 7, 1991, Lieutenant Paula Coughlin, an aide to Rear Admiral John W. Snyder, Jr., went to the third floor of the Las Vegas Hilton. What Coughlin saw and experienced there became the first part of the Tailhook scandal. Immediately after Coughlin exited the elevator, she saw fellow officers lining either side of the thirty-foot-long hotel corridor in the Tailhook formation known as the gauntlet. Aviators closed in on her, preventing her escape. Coughlin was shoved down the hall, fondled by her assaulters as she passed them. Calls of “admiral’s aide” preceded her, demonstrating that her assailants knew her identity and her rank. The aviators ignored her pleas for help, her angry shouts, and her attempts to fight back.

When Coughlin emerged from the gauntlet—bruised, covered with beer, and with her clothes disheveled and torn—she fled. The next day, she reported her experience to her commanding officer, noting that she had feared gang rape. Her complaint was dismissed with an offhand comment that one had to expect such things at Tailhook. After repeated attempts to get action from Snyder, Coughlin decided to go over his head.

Upon learning of the assaults, the secretary of the Navy, H. Lawrence Garrett, denounced the convention and ordered an investigation; he seemed to be intent on applying the Navy’s policy of “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment. In June of 1992, when Garrett responded to the report on Tailhook by the Naval Investigative Service Naval Investigative Service (NIS) with a call for complete accountability of squadron commanders at the Tailhook convention, NIS released a supplemental report that was Garrett’s undoing: It placed Garrett at Tailhook and said he had turned a blind eye to the sexual antics and violations of junior officers. After the Navy’s internal investigation failed to uncover any culprits and called into question the ability of the Navy to police itself, Garrett called on the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Defense (DOD) to do its own probe of Tailhook.

On June 24, 1992, Paula Coughlin went public, taking her story to the national media. Frustrated by the Navy’s failure to punish the perpetrators nine months after the event, Coughlin hoped to spur on the investigation by coming forward. Two days later, Garrett resigned, taking full responsibility for the Tailhook scandal. This was the Navy’s first real step toward accountability for Tailhook.

The DOD report of April, 1993, detailed the second scandalous revelation of Tailhook, the cover-up. The investigators found that eighty-three women (revised upward from the original NIS figure of twenty-six) had been involved and that excesses at Tailhook 1991 extended beyond the gauntlet. The hospitality suites on the third floor of the hotel had been the sites of further exploits, including indecent exposure and pornographic movies. The DOD report also disclosed that the sexual misconduct occurred with the knowledge of Navy higher-ups. The efforts at damage control and cover-up, in which naval officers closed ranks to protect those at all levels within the Navy and the Navy itself, made a mockery of the policy of zero tolerance for sexual harassment and demonstrated the pervasiveness of the attitudes toward women that were behind the Tailhook abuse.


Although the events that took place at the 1991 Tailhook convention stemmed in part from a masculine military culture that viewed sexual exploits as just rewards for the risks Navy fliers take on a daily basis, there was more to them than that. The U.S. military in the early 1990’s was at a crossroads, and the Tailhook episode was an example of deep resistance to changes in the gender composition of the armed forces. By 1991, many well-trained female pilots had hit the “glass ceiling” in the military, a limitation upheld by the Combat Exclusion Act of 1948. Military women were exerting steady pressure through various channels to overturn the law that banned women from combat and, by extension, from promotion and equal treatment.

In 1991, in the Persian Gulf War, Persian Gulf War (1991) women in the military again had served bravely and with valor, and in greater numbers and in greater danger than ever before. As a result, the topic of gender and military service was on the nation’s mind. In addition, the Department of Defense was reducing the size of the armed forces, shaping a national defense in line with the post-Cold War world. Men and women in all branches of the service wondered where they would fit in the new downsized military. With fewer positions available at all levels, many military men viewed their female counterparts as unwelcome competitors.

Tailhook therefore called attention to the plight of women in the military. As a result of the scandal, the Navy ended its support of the Tailhook Association after thirty-five years, and the congressional Armed Services Committee held a hearing on gender discrimination Gender discrimination in the military. Garrett created the Standing Committee on Women in the Navy and Marine Corps in June, 1992. In January, 1993, the Navy revised its policy on sexual harassment and made any violation of the code a punitive offense. The Navy established a definition of sexual harassment along the guidelines used in civilian society, noting both “sex for promotion” and “hostile environment” components. On April 28, 1993, the Navy opened competition for combat assignments, excluding ground fighting. Although 40 percent of the jobs were still closed to women, flying combat missions and going to sea—the most important aspects of naval service—were finally open to women.

Only one aviator was formally censured for his behavior at Tailhook. Rear Admiral Snyder was removed from command in 1991 for not responding to Coughlin’s complaint. Several of the most zealous participants at Tailhook benefited from the investigator general’s frustration with aviator stonewalling. In return for immunity, they testified, but they did not provide enough evidence against their peers to result in courts-martial. Admiral Frank B. Kelso II, acting secretary of the Navy, retired early because of his presence at Tailhook but kept his stars. Paula Coughlin resigned from the Navy when she found it impossible to do her job in a climate of ongoing hostility. She filed a civil suit against Hilton Hotels and won. Tailhook scandal
Women;U.S. military
U.S. Navy;Tailhook scandal
Military, U.S.;women’s role[womens role]

Further Reading

  • Chema, J. Richard. “Arresting ’Tailhook’: The Prosecution of Sexual Harassment in the Military.” Military Law Review 140 (Spring, 1993): 1-64. Argues that existing naval codes, if enforced, cover sexual harassment, and that no new guidelines are required.
  • Ebbert, Jean, and Marie-Beth Hall. Crossed Currents: Navy Women in a Century of Change. 3d ed. Washington, D.C.: Batsford Brassey, 1999. Comprehensive history of women’s participation in the U.S. Navy includes discussion of the first women clerks during World War I, the WAVES of World War II, and the women of the 1990’s who fought for the right to fly combat missions and serve at sea. Chapter 14 deals specifically with the Tailhook scandal.
  • Holm, Jeanne. Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution. Rev. ed. Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1992. Provides a thorough account of the integration of women into the U.S. military, from the founding of the country through the Persian Gulf War. Includes bibliography and informative appendixes.
  • McMichael, William H. The Mother of All Hooks: The Story of the U.S. Navy’s Tailhook Scandal. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1997. Journalist’s account of the scandal and its aftermath includes discussion of the culture of the military that contributed to the events and the failure to punish those responsible.
  • Office of the Inspector General. The Tailhook Report: The Official Inquiry into the Events of Tailhook ’91. 1993. Reprint. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003. Presents the findings of the DOD’s own investigation of the 1991 Tailhook convention and the events that followed.
  • Zimmerman, Jean. Tailspin: Women at War in the Wake of Tailhook. New York: Doubleday, 1995. Places Tailhook in the context of the changes within the military in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Discusses the changing role of women in combat operations and post-Cold War downsizing.

Women’s Military Roles Expand

U.S. Congress Admits Women to Armed Services Academies

BRAC Commission Is Established to Close U.S. Military Bases

Persian Gulf War