Sunday, July 09, 2006

"If you don't like it, go home!"

USNA At Large,
  Yikes, looks like we are going to have a long hot summer of this stuff!
  For core combat leadership, John Howland
Long Haul to Acceptance
30 Years On, Gains and Trials for Women at Annapolis
By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 9, 2006; C01
The words were spoken 30 years ago, and yet they are as jarring as they were the day when Sharon Hanley arrived at the U.S. Naval Academy -- 17 years old and about to make history as one of the first female undergraduates.
"I don't like you here," she recalls an upperclassman telling her. "I don't like women at my school, and so I'm going to be on your butt every waking minute. . . . If my plan works, you're going to be long gone before I graduate. Is that clear?"
She remembers her shock and dismay, then her momentary confusion about how to answer. As a plebe, she was not allowed to object or comment.
"Yes, sir," was all she could say.
Now, on the 30th anniversary of the integration of women in the Naval Academy, Sharon Hanley Disher finds herself in history's view again, the first of the earliest female graduates to be followed to Annapolis by a daughter. She watched teary-eyed in the late June heat as her daughter and son, who are twins, stood solemnly in Navy whites for their swearing-in on the campus's tree-lined grounds.
They are part of an academy class that includes a record number of women -- 22.4 percent, compared with 6 percent in the beginning -- and comes together as the country is at war, with women serving on destroyers and in fighter planes.
But though much has improved since women first arrived -- and many female graduates express great loyalty to the storied 161-year-old institution -- a complex and sometimes troubling portrait of student life emerges from three recent studies sponsored by the Defense Department.
The most recent study found that in the 2004-05 school year, 59 percent of female midshipmen and 14 percent of men reported sexual harassment, defined as crude and offensive behavior, unwanted sexual attention or sexual coercion. Sexist behavior -- put-downs and offensive comments -- was reported by 93 percent of women and 50 percent of men.
What the academy experience is like for young women is coming into greater focus as Congress looks into the subject and as the quarterback on the academy's football team faces a court-martial trial starting tomorrow on a charge of raping a female midshipman.
All of this happens as three decades of gender integration are marked this month, with women recalling their unsettling early days in a college dedicated to the making of military men.
"The name of our game was survival," Disher said. The attitude was "boys will be boys and 'You're coming to an all-male school; what did you expect?' " At her home in Annapolis last week, Disher happened upon a C-SPAN broadcast of Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, the academy's superintendent, testifying before Congress.
"Sexual harassment and misconduct and assault should not be tolerated in the Navy-Marine Corps," he said, "and I can assure you that they are not tolerated at your Naval Academy."
To Disher, this was another sign of changed times. "You have to talk about the problem to fix it," she said.
Meagan Varley was 10 when she decided to become a fighter pilot. She had seen the movie "Top Gun" and set her heart on flying. Her father, a teacher, suggested the Naval Academy, and in 1998 she found herself on the Annapolis campus as part of a class that was 16 percent female.
"You're aware that the things you do are going to be watched more closely and that you could be stereotyped more easily," she said. But as time went on, she found that her sex "kind of faded into the background."
Flight school followed graduation, and now, four years later, she is a fighter pilot, having flown F-14 Tomcats and F/A-18F Super Hornets, opportunities not open to the first female graduates. "They really broke the way for the rest of us," she said.
In the early years, women had fewer job choices because, under law, they could not serve on combatant ships or aircraft. Those who did not want women at the academy often complained that they were taking men's slots but could not do men's jobs.
That complaint grew louder in 1979, when Washingtonian magazine published an article, "Women Can't Fight," by James Webb, a much-heralded academy graduate and Marine war hero who is now the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Virginia. He wrote then that the presence of women poisoned the academy's mission and that the academy's massive dormitory was "a horny woman's dream."
"The men went crazy; they loved it," recalled Disher, who wrote a book, "First Class," about women's experiences.
Webb has said recently that the article was published a long time ago and that as secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration he tripled the number of jobs that were open to women and ordered a crackdown on sexual harassment.
An array of jobs opened to women in the early 1990s, and after that, said Georgia Sadler, a retired Navy captain and the academy's first female faculty member, women "didn't feel so much like second-class citizens."
As more women enter the academy -- 273 this year, up from 81 in 1976 -- they have come closer to achieving a "critical mass" that ceases to be seen as a minority, said Mady Wechsler Segal of the Center for Research on Military Organizations at the University of Maryland. She put the tipping point at 25 to 35 percent.
Meghan O'Mara, Class of 2002, was never sexually harassed, but she said she "certainly had people who said inappropriate things" to her.
O'Mara, 26 and honorably discharged from the Navy, said more openness is needed, recalling the time one of her friends reported a rape. Academy officials, she said, "were definitely trying to make her keep quiet about it. . . . I don't think the environment makes a lot of women feel they can come forward and there will be a fair response."
That kind of concern touched off a 2003 scandal at the Air Force Academy, amid revelations of more than 140 reported rapes and sexual assaults over 10 years.
Since then, government studies have looked into harassment and sexual assault at the service academies. A recent Defense Department survey of midshipmen found that more than half of women who said they had been sexually assaulted did not report it. In all, 83 of 652 women -- more than 12 percent -- said they were victims of sexual assault between 1999 and 2004, the report said.
It also noted that women "do not report sexual harassment because they live and deal with it daily; it almost becomes normal. . . . They fear being ostracized and abandoned by their peers, both male and female."
One woman wrote that the academy was "one of the most emotionally devastating places I can imagine. Most of the women came here expecting mental and physical challenges. We thought we'd have to put up with overdoses of testosterone. What we did not expect was to be looked down upon for being women -- to be suddenly less than human in their eyes."
Before Congress, Rempt spoke of efforts to improve training and reporting. He cited an academy survey that found that 5 percent of women believe they would be resented by peers for reporting harassment, down from 50 percent five years ago.
In 2001, surrounded by hundreds of classmates, Candice Sarlese climbed up a lard-slicked granite monument, called Herndon, at the end of her plebe year. It is a tradition, and Sarlese had heard about women being pushed off. For her, it was different. A fellow midshipman turned to her and said, "Don't worry. I'm not going to let you fall."
Sarlese, 25 and now a first lieutenant in the Marines, said she believes some women "look for things. Some guys will make a joke, and they will take it as hurtful."
Over 30 years, relations between women and men have become better and more complex.
Sandee Irwin, part of the first class, recalls the insult of a midshipman two years her junior. "Why are you here, anyway?" he sniped.
Irwin took the young man aside and told him squarely: "You knew we were here when you signed your name on that piece of paper. If you don't like it, go home!"
Disher, the 1976 plebe, recalls blatant hostility after she joined the cheerleading team.
Worst of all was an Army-Navy football pep rally, in her second year on campus, she said. As Disher and the other cheerleaders came bouncing out onstage, the crowd stopped clapping.
"Get off the stage!" she heard. Then boos. "Get out of my school!"
A generation and more than 2,770 female graduates later, Disher had no reservations about sending her twins to the academy, where they will be part of the Class of 2010, with women such as Ashley Houston, 18.
"I think women are just as capable as men," said Chelsea Wright, 18, of Valley Forge, Pa., getting her hair cut to above the collar -- not far from where men were being shorn to the nub -- as she imagined herself on a Navy ship or jet, possibly in combat.
"I'm sure the level of respect has changed" over 30 years, ventured Margaret Boyle, 17, of Leonardtown.
The young man next to her in line nodded in agreement.
"I'd rather have them here than not," said John Howser, 17. "I've grown up with them."
© 2006 The Washington Post Company


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