Like many of the other 1500 students who entered the United States Military Academy with me in July 1976, I was drawn to an educational opportunity at a prestigious college subsidized by US taxpayers. I had first visited West Point with a high school friend whose brother was a cadet. The school impressed me; the circumstances infuriated me. West Point and the other US service academies were only open to men. Coming from an all-girls high school and as the only sister of three brothers, I chafed against limits because of gender. “That’s not fair!” I couldn’t go to college without financial aid, so free education was imperative, even if free meant incurring a five-year service obligation. With this background, reading Christian Smith’s “Introduction” to The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Public Life elicited an “ah-ha” moment. While the author uses his expertise in sociology to deconstruct the rise of secularism, his model can serve as a paradigm to understand the process related to breaching the gender barrier at West Point.
In his book, Smith outlines the methodology: “Before the revolution, there existed an established regime whose institutional privilege and dominance provoked increasing grievances among excluded groups” (Smith, 2). Often, those who are “privilege[d]” (2) aren’t even aware that the status quo might not sit well with everyone because it suits them: This is the way it’s always been. It works for me. Why change? As Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” For something to change, people needed to force the issue.
The next step may be both lengthy and covert: “In response, these aggrieved groups mobilized movements to depose the established regime from its positions of control” (2). As Smith points out:
No revolution succeeds merely by the efforts of famous individual leaders, or even by the intentional actions of rebel groups, however important they may be; success requires multilayered complexities of partisans, allies, facilitating resources, mobilizing organizations, structured political opportunities, and so on… (4)
A bill does not become law without proponents operating behind the scenes. Many unidentified supporters backed revising admission standards to service academies, resulting in President Gerald Ford signing Public Law 94-106 on 7 Oct 1975 authorizing the appointment of women to the three largest military academies.
The next phase of Smith’s change methodology details: “Aided by a set of facilitating forces and events, these insurgent activists managed to … to transform the established regime … and the institution which it had previously dominated” (2). That makes it sound simple. Sidney Berry, a three-star general who was the superintendent [college president] of West Point, publicly proclaimed his objections to the decision to admit women, which were interpreted by his subordinates as “Run the women out.” I didn’t anticipate how admitting the first women in West Point’s 174 year history would enrage leadership and cadets alike, nor could I imagine the subtle and blatant ways incumbents had for expressing their animosity. What I saw as opportunity, the dominant paradigm viewed as invasion, a differing perspective. In the eyes of the West Point establishment, women cadets were barbarians at the gate, trying to overthrow years of tradition and lower the Academy’s standards.
While Smith correctly concludes: “In the process of transferring power and control from the old to the new regime, this insurgency effected a profound cultural revolution which transformed cultural codes and structures of thought, expectations, and practices,” (2) what the author doesn’t indicate is how long the process takes. A culture changes slowly. After 40 years, women now comprise about 25% of West Point classes and discrimination against female cadets, if it exists, is more insidious. For some male graduates, it was not until they were fathers whose daughters were West Point cadets that they realized why women deserved equal access to opportunities like attending the Military Academy. In recent years, Congress has modified restrictions on women serving in combat and opened almost all military occupational specialties and specialized schools, with standards based on strength and ability rather than gender. In testimony, the ACLU has declared: “Men do not have a monopoly on patriotism, physical ability, desire for adventure, or willingness to risk their lives. Until both the responsibilities and the rights of citizenship are shared on a gender-neutral basis, women will continue to be considered less than full-fledged citizens.”
Frederick Douglass believed “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” While I didn’t think of entering West Point as revolutionary, I see that Smith’s model describes what occurred. The admission of women cadets challenged prevailing assumptions and involved a power struggle whereby insurgents gained entrance against the desires of those who tried to repel them; using the argument they were protecting a venerable institution. Although it has taken decades, the school and culture have evolved and the transformation continues.
Someone recently asked if I’d do it again. A better question is, “Would I want my granddaughters to attend?” While that possibility is over 10 years away, with recent changes such as having women in two of the top three leadership positions at West Point, my answer would be “yes.”
This essay was written as a reflection for Religion, Education and Democracy at Harvard University Extension School.
© Joan S Grey, 3 June 2016
IndexCardCure™: reflecting on life
Work Cited: Smith, Christian. The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Public Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. Print.