By Mary Sinanidis
The Hellenic RSL is a welcoming place for all ex-servicepeople regardless of gender. It boasts of many female affiliate members, but only has one ex-servicewoman in its ranks.
Anthelia Tzanis is used to being the “only woman.” In 1991, she and three other female students were the first to join the Hellenic Naval Academy after being recruited from her studies at the prestigious Athens University of Economic and Business.
Her parents, migrants who had returned to Greece from Footscray in Victoria, Australia when Anthelia was aged six, encouraged her.
“My father had served as an Evzone in his youth and had always wanted a boy to serve their country, so he was very happy,” Ms Tzanis remembers. “My mother just gave me this advice: ‘Don’t try to find any justice there’.”
Motivated by the opportunity to have a rewarding career, Ms Tzanis welcomed the challenge.
She says she will never forget her first day at the academy.
“We were four young women among 400 men in a 100-year-old conservative academy that had never had female students before, and the other officers did not want to break with tradition,” she says.
“Around 20 of them yelled at us upon entry, ‘What are you doing here? Are you here because you wanted to play in the (Aliki Vougiouklaki) movie Aliki in the Navy?’”
The men would sneak into the women’s room at night and search through their drawers pulling out their underwear. Despite this, Ms Tzanis did not give up.
“If anything, it strengthened my resolve to be a pioneer, and tightened my relationship with the other women going through the training,” she says. “I didn’t think of quitting.”
Her husband, Ioannis Michanetzis, was a fellow officer at the same academy. Initially, he agreed that the Navy was no place for women.
“We wanted to make them prove that they could do it,” Mr Michanetzis says. “As time went on, we could see their strength and, slowly, the other officers became more accepting.”
Ms Tzanis corrects him.
“Half started to accept us, but the rest continued to make our life hard,” she says.
“In all my career I have had to prove my value.
“But I was able to succeed. I was sent to London, and I travelled the world through various committees purchasing frigates in France, and other ports around the world including the Netherlands, Brussels, Rome and for my post-grad I was chosen by the Navy to study in the United States.”
These days, many Greek women train at the Hellenic Naval Academy and that’s all thanks to Ms Tzanis and her fellow students.
“In those days, they didn’t even let us go on a boat as they wanted to test the waters with us,” she says.
Ms Tzanis may not have been sent to battle in those first days but she most definitely fought hard for gender equity.