Sisterhood gathering: 40 years of women at West Point

Women have been part of the United States Military Academy for 40 years. These days, urinals have been removed from the women’s latrines (bathrooms). Women cadets are allowed to have long hair. They wear skirts and earrings. There are locks on the barracks (dorm room) doors.

When women entered West Point as cadets for the first time, there were no guarantees they would survive the experience to graduate. While the Academy complied with Congress’ mandate to admit women, it felt like a grudging acquiescence. The reluctance, and in some cases outright hostility, of USMA’s leadership flowed down the chain of command. “Run the women out? Yes, Sir!”

In its defense, West Point faced turmoil in 1976; not only with the admission of women but repercussions from a massive cheating scandal. While admired for its rigor and standards, West Point also had a bit of a reputation: 200 [actually 174 years at that point] years of tradition unhampered by progress. Integrating women into the Corps of Cadets was viewed as a social experiment pushed on the Academy; without regard to objections including combat exclusion (women could not serve in combat then), lack of female physical strength and the Eve factor [women might distract and lead men astray]. Clearly, a West Point education had no purpose for women. Ha.

WPW bleacher

Male cadets used to grumble that where two or three women are gathered, a conspiracy was brewing. And so it has come to pass that their suspicions were realized. Women grads swarmed the Academy. Last weekend (April 28-30, 2016), a conference at West Point commemorated 40 years of women at the United States Military Academy. With a theme of Women Strong! Inspire, Lead, Empower, almost 500 women graduates and supporters gathered to honor fallen sisters, reconnect with classmates and friends, and celebrate the accomplishments of West Point Women graduates.

WPW memorialAthena’s Arena began with a memorial for 31 deceased women graduates at the Cadet Chapel; touching the hearts of all and reminding us of what really matters. Three ministers—women grads —led the service with stirring vocals provided by Sue Fulton ’80, Laura Westley ’01 and the Cadet Glee Club.

General Ann Dunwoody, retired Army four-star General, who served for 37 years, shared leadership lessons from her new book, “A Higher Standard: Leadership Strategies from America’s First Female Four-Star General.” One of her nuggets was, never walk by a mistake. The error you ignore becomes the new standard. Also, leadership is about capability, not gender. If you deal fairly with people and show them you can do the job, gender becomes irrelevant.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon reflected on, “Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield.” Cultural Support Teams (CSTs) were created in 2010 in a nod to Afghanistan’s patriarchal society. The CSTs were trained to talk to Afghan women, help defuse resentments and gain operational intelligence. The story hinges on the life and death of 1st Lt. Ashley White, while detailing the motivations and training of the women who volunteered for that mission. As the author related in an interview with the Washington Post, “The nature of wars is changing, and the people who fight them are changing.”

WPW rocket

Following a cadet parade, Brigadier General Diana Holland, USMA ‘90, the first woman Commandant of Cadets led a cheer with the first woman Dean-nominee, COL Cindy Jebb ’82 and other women leaders. When Cindy gets confirmed, women will fill two of the top three leadership posts at the Academy. The conference’s concluding session featured the three West Point women who earned Ranger tabs in 2015; yet more firsts.

The weekend brought women graduates together, celebrating milestones and honoring those who paved the way. Although some changes due to the integration of women have taken decades, progress continues; such as some women in the Class of 2016 branching combat arms for the first time. West Point is leading the way to a future where gender, race, nationality or color are descriptors, not qualities that define a person. As a line from the Alma Mater reminds, Guide us thy own [replaced original word: sons] aright. Here’s to open doors where my grandchildren are judged by effort and capability, not arbitrary standards; a world where different from is not less than.

© Joan S Grey, 5 May 2016

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One thought on “Sisterhood gathering: 40 years of women at West Point

  1. Thank you for this beautiful overview. I did not attend the conference, but look forward to doing so in future years. I’m so unbelievably proud that COL Jebb was named the next USMA Dean. Women like her truly did blaze a trail for women like me. She in an incredible officer and I learned so much from her while she was the volleyball OR. She always made time to meet with cadets whenever we needed guidance.


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