Wednesday, July 05, 2006

An aggressive reformer of the school's macho culture

USNA At Large,
  Disher strikes again.
  And, of course, the obligatory Manning is trotted out.
  As for the latest Rempt Preempt -- note that he has tuned himself down from the 25% goal to 20%.
    Sorry, Minor, not "moving on," John Howland

For Navy women, sailing has gotten smoother

By Jamie Stiehm and Bradley Olson
Baltimore Sun reporters

July 5, 2006

The young woman was almost there.
After a year of petty treatment and abuse from some men, one of the first 81 women to enter the U.S. Naval Academy was about to reach the top of a greased obelisk that represented the end of an arduous indoctrination process.
By lore, the midshipman who scales the Herndon Monument every year in the prized ritual will be the first admiral of the graduating class. But the woman who had almost made it, climbing on the shoulders of her fellow plebes at the end of their freshman year, was yanked down by some male classmates.
"It was disheartening," said Sharon Hanley Disher, who was among the first women admitted in 1976 and among the first 55 to graduate four years later. "If we had banded together as a team and put the lighter-weight gals at the top, we would have been able to do it faster. But a certain few were not playing that game.
"It was disheartening, but it was also motivating. It was a lot like those people on the first day you got there who told you: 'You're not going to be here when I graduate.' I said, 'Oh, yeah? Watch me.'"
Disher and several other members of that first class said they couldn't remember who was tugged from the pinnacle of the monument, but all remembered it as one of the many insults they would experience during four years at the Annapolis military college. The women entered the school July 6, 1976, after Congress mandated that the traditional male-only policy be scrapped.
Similar changes were under way throughout education: Title IX leveled the playing field for female and male sports programs in public schools and universities. Princeton and Yale, two of the last single-sex Ivy League universities, went coed, along with elite New England colleges such as Williams and Amherst.
But the rigors of breaking the gender barrier at the military college were especially hard on the first women midshipmen.
Hailed as 'heroes'
At their 25th class reunion last year, Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, the superintendent often credited with being an aggressive reformer of the school's macho culture, lauded the first women to wear Naval Academy class rings as "heroes" - a bouquet that brought tears to some eyes.
"That gave us dignity and respect. But for some, it was hard to go back there for the reunion," said Disher. "There were a lot of painful memories."
Thirty years ago, when the freshmen arrived for induction day - when heads are shorn, uniforms and rooms are assigned, and the crucible known as plebe summer begins - only 14 women were on the faculty. There were 17 male freshmen "plebes" for every one of the women, and once the rest of the midshipmen arrived in the fall, they were outnumbered by a margin of 50-to-1.
Their numbers were few, and their moves were watched. Their hair was cut to collar-length by barbers trained to shear men's heads like lambs. Their uniforms didn't fit well, and many of their male classmates made it clear that they weren't welcome, insisting that the school trains "line officers" for combat, not women who, under the law then in effect, couldn't serve on a Navy combat ship or plane.
In a demoralizing blow their senior year, James Webb, a war hero and novelist in the English department, cut a swath with an oft-quoted article in Washingtonian magazine, titled "Women Can't Fight."
But it wasn't all bad, said Capt. Katherine Shanebrook, who now heads the academy's division of mathematics and science. Now one of the highest-ranking officers at the school, serving in a position that would equate to dean at a civilian university, Shanebrook has mostly positive memories of her time at the academy.
"One thing I was really pleased about was the variety of things we got to do," she said, "whether it was hand-to-hand combat, swimming or sailing. We got to learn how to fence. We were introduced to so many different things in a short period of time, and I really enjoyed that."
Shanebrook came to the academy after three years as an enlisted corpsman, or Navy medic, in San Diego. After growing up in Pontiac, Ill., she joined the Navy to pursue a medical career and discovered it wasn't for her. Shanebrook was taking oceanography courses at a local community college when she found out that women could attend the Naval Academy.
She didn't see herself as a trailblazer, she just saw it as the right opportunity at the right time, she said.
Shanebrook's career in the Navy's oceanography and meteorology community took her to both poles of the Earth, working as a forecaster. Now back at the academy in a significant leadership position, she said the opportunities she received in the Navy were as good as what she might have found in the civilian world, if not better. The troubles the women Mids faced are all but gone, she said.
"Women have been here for 30 years," she said. "People here have not known it any other way. It's just not a big deal anymore. Women now go out to sea on our ships and fly out on our airplanes."
The daughter of a career Air Force officer, Disher said she and others weren't looking to be the center of glaring media and peer attention as the "firsts" to change the Navy - most were only 18 years old, after all, learning how to march in the hot sun and memorizing the bible of midshipman behavior, Reef Points, with the rest of the plebes.
Disher, 47, told their tale in First Class: Women Join the Ranks at the Naval Academy, a "fact-based novel" about her experiences as an engineering major at the academy. After 10 years in the Navy's civil engineer corps, she resigned her commission and now manages the Annapolis Pottery shop.
Her daughter and son entered the academy last week, in another first: twins whose parents are alumni. Her novel's sequel, she said with a wry smile, is up to her daughter Alison to write.
Without a clue
Disher dotted her book with vivid vignettes that paint a darker side of the first coed days, weeks and years on "the Yard," as the campus is called. Arriving with an eagerness to serve their country, the young women in the Class of 1980 were greeted with derision from many - though not all - in the brigade of midshipmen.
"What we [women] had in common was naivete," Disher said from her Annapolis home, where she lives with her husband, Navy Cmdr. Timothy Disher, and their younger son. "We had not a clue what was facing us."
She and her friends found out soon enough that many male midshipmen resented women - and not just for getting some of the best rooms and bathrooms in the so-called "ship" of Bancroft Hall, the brigade's living quarters. Some resented their mere presence.
The Webb article likely fueled that peer faction, said Lory Manning of the Women's Research and Education Institute in Arlington, Va. "It gave them permission to act out their feelings," said Manning.
Disher said the Navy's prohibition on women officers serving on ships at sea created discontent among her male and female classmates from the start.
While most of their male classmates spent summers on destroyers, carriers or submarines, the women stayed behind, some doing desk duty at the Pentagon.
Today, women can serve in combat positions on surface ships or jets, though they are still barred from duty aboard submarines or with the Navy SEALs. Disher said the ability to serve on a ship has fostered greater acceptance of women by men at the academy.
The academy continues, however, to struggle with the integration of women within its walls, after many high-profile incidents of rape and sexual harassment. Just last year, a Defense Department task force said the school's culture was "hostile" to women.
Rempt has made no secret that he would like to increase the percentage of female midshipmen to 20 percent, a figure that has almost been reached with the incoming Class of 2010. Last week, more than 270 women became plebes at the academy, the most in the school's history, bringing the total percentage of women in the brigade to 19.7 percent.
Manning said the academy culture toward women would change when they reach about 20 percent of the student body.
Thirty years later, opinion remains divided on high-ranking women.
"There still is opposition [to women] by the old guard," said W. Minor Carter, a Class of 1962 academy graduate and an Annapolis lawyer. "I think they're idiots. That ship has sailed. Accept it, and move on."


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