In many respects, the experience of women in the military today parallels the history of women who, early in this century, first forged their ways into the legal and medical professions. Similarly, contemporary women who work as engineers or in other technical and traditionally male occupations know—perhaps not by name, but certainly by experience—what academics now call "chill." It is the often-inadvertent use of language that highlights and reinforces isolation and difference of the token group. And female engineers, like women in the military environment, know the power of numbers—of skewed gender ratios—that shape the behavior of minorities and majorities. In both settings, minorities have struggled with the riddle of acceptance: Is it won by subordinating differences or by acknowledging them? The challenge of integrating minorities does not distinguish the military from other settings in which women have struggled for acceptance. Rather, it is the intense around-the-clock relationship that makes the integration of women more volatile in the military than in other predominantly male work places. Proximity and isolation from civilian life are two elements; military culture, spawning what has recently been dubbed a "warrior mentality," 1 is another ingredient that thwarts easy assimilation of women.
Imagine yourself 18 years old, female, and entering a federal service academy, where rigorous academic curriculum joins military training, and where students in pairs spend half of their sophomore and junior years at sea on board commercial merchant vessels. You are one of 25 or 30 young women from around the country, entering a freshman class with 235 men. If you succeed, you will earn a Bachelor of Science degree and a Coast Guard license as a third mate or third assistant engineer—your passage into the maritime industry. Perhaps no field has a stronger male ethos and tradition.
At USMMA in 1997, a woman systems engineer graduated second in her class of 218 midshipmen. Although the Academy today is more receptive and supportive than it was in 1974, this accomplishment was no small feat and was linked to the changes at Kings Point over the last two decades. What are these changes? How can they offer guidance to today's institutions that seek to integrate women?
In 1983, there were only four women among 80 faculty members. There were no female senior administrators, and female students held none of the first-class leadership positions. The attrition rate of women was consistently 4050% (even higher in some years), and women traveled from class to class in the same academic sections, which typically had only one woman. Thus until evening, women spent no time with other women. Depending on the individual's personality, this isolation often translated into a failure to establish study partners. In difficult engineering programs, participation in study groups often means the difference between success and failure.
From 1983 to 1994, I served as USMMA's women's advisor. A decade ago, the women's advisor and a part-time counselor were the only two people officially advising students; no formal counseling department existed. I assumed that the women's advisor would be greeted enthusiastically, at least by the female students. I was surprised when the women regarded me with a considerable degree of wariness and suspicion. Did they want an advisor who had sailed or was in the military—or was the reaction less to me and more to the circumstances? The women at the Academy were involved in a struggle that other women who entered nontraditional professions also had experienced: How were women to integrate themselves?
It is mandatory for women to create bonds with the dominant group, bonds that depend on shared identity, common symbols, and behavior. Historically, the resolution of how to integrate and at the same time maintain a sense of "self" has divided minorities, whether defined by race, ethnicity, religion, or sex. Does proper strategy depend upon underplaying the divisive factor (in this case, gender), or is integration best achieved by acknowledging differences?
At Kings Point, we took a risk and opted for the latter tactic. We did not overlook differences. We ran a successful program in which female students and their advisor tackled big issues-sometimes contentiously and not always with full support from the women. But we sought to enhance the confidence of the minority group on the premise that women's self-esteem and competence would win them the recognition they sought for full integration. Our activities included lunch and dinner meetings, hearing from guest speakers and graduates, and membership in the Society of Women Engineers. But we had to walk a tightrope, because if it appeared that women students were beneficiaries of "special privileges"—getting something that the men did not get (for example, extensive media attention)—we would be harming women more than helping them.
We operated on the premise that there was no contradiction in simultaneously being a woman and a midshipman, but that the experience would be unique for each sex, and that the differences should be addressed and discussed. That meant we had to talk about sexual harassment, group behavior (which quite often meant offensive group behavior by the men), and classroom reticence among the women students. We believed that by acknowledging the differences and difficulties, we could break through some very real barriers.
Ten years ago at the Academy a classic prototype of "group behavior" existed, where the whole did not represent the sum of its parts. Because of skewed gender ratios, public conformity governed men's behavior, notwithstanding the private beliefs and characters of individuals. Dissent meant breaking ranks. Privately, male students might say that they would never want their sisters to attend the Academy because it was so difficult for women, but the men would not come to a public defense of female midshipmen, regardless of the obstacles the women encountered.
Kings Point still is not Utopia, but the experience of women and men today is a far cry from what it was in 1983. Today, there are eight full-time female faculty members; two serve as department heads. The registrar and assistant registrar are women. Women students regularly hold senior regimental posts. Female midshipmen no longer travel alone all day in the same section, but join at least three other women students in academic sections that no longer consist of the same students each and every class period. We boast a full counseling department and a string of peer counselors who keep their ears to the ground. We have a new regimental position of human relations officer and a grievance mechanism for students who allege discrimination, and we regularly run programs addressing leadership in a multicultural world. Faculty and students alike have engaged in discussion of "chill." Students—men and women—enroll voluntarily in conferences that address human-relations issues, and I believe that most students understand that these are not "women's issues" but human concerns, and that midshipmen's successes in future leadership depend on their ability to work in diverse groups. Most significantly, many male students now willingly come to the fore when they believe that their women peers are being treated unfairly.
So what might the service academies do to create positive coeducational climates? The schools should recognize the following points in reviewing existing programs and designing new ones:
- In becoming military officers, men should not give up their male identities; nor should women give up their "femaleness." There is no such thing as an androgynous officer.
- Although having a separate mentor for women may not be advisable in the 1990s, counselors with expertise in gender issues must monitor campus human relations, and there must be a grievance mechanism that permits all students to circumvent the chain of command when that is necessary.
- Leadership training must include human relations programs that prepare fledgling officers to lead diverse workforces. Students must understand that future leaders worth their mettle must know how to create collaborative mixed-sex and multicultural teams. Students must be convinced that these are not "women's" issues or "race" issues or "civil rights" issues, but instead are necessary components of good leadership.
- To the extent possible, leadership and human relations should be peer facilitated. The influence of upperclassmen on their juniors is considerable. When articulate and sincere upperclassmen speak to underclassmen about the importance of human relations to leadership success, the audience does not perceive another "lecture," but hears collegial guidance.
- As important as human relations are, too much such training emphasis can create a backlash. Students should know campus rules and be held to them. For obvious but often-ignored reasons, both sexes must be held equally accountable.
- Institutions must recruit women students assiduously. Numbers count. The "critical mass" theory is not simply academic jargon. Studies show that if gender ratios are more evenly balanced, interaction between the sexes will improve.
- Institutional research should monitor women's status and progress, because academic underperformance by women is too typical in institutions where women are outnumbered. Similarly, women students should be grouped with other women in academic sections, for research shows that women ask more questions and become more active learners when other women are present.
- Retention of female students is linked to the presence of women officers and faculty on campus. The schools must recruit and hire more women for teaching and administrative staffs. Female role models—although by now a hackneyed expression—are as important for the men students as they are for the women.
- Institutions should cultivate and support women's athletics. Team sports give women self-assurance and opportunities to talk to one another.
- Faculty should receive sensitivity training. They should be taught the concept of "chill" and encouraged to mentor female students as consistently as they mentor male students. (The Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute [DEOMI] is available to service academies with a cadre of qualified men and women who lead human relations training.)
- Administrators must recognize that what is good for women is good for men, and that institutional changes in response to the arrival of women usually make sense for all students.
- Finally, schools should not shrink from the creative tension that follows from the integration of women into military settings, because the tension often proves the catalyst for institutional growth.
Ultimately, in trying to create a safe harbor for women, we have made more havens for all of our students. Providing a humanistic institutional response to the women set precedents that proved to be elastic, applying to everyone. Perhaps the idea of a "haven" appears an anathema to military institutions, where Spartan rigor is said to develop strength of character and excellence necessary for military officers. Women's entry into federal service academies turned attention to the question of self-esteem and how it affects women's successful integration. Before women's admission, issues of student development were not paramount. We have discovered that however important self-esteem is for women's maturation at service academies, it is equally vital for male students. That is, women's entry raised issues we had ignored at the expense of our graduates' full success, because effective military leadership is built upon healthy self-esteem.
To avoid backlash, we have had to listen to our students and take our cues from them. Were we overemphasizing the topic of sexual harassment? Was it prudent to run separate training programs for the women? Were instructors fostering a climate of inclusion? Listening to students was alien to service academies before the entrance of women. In traditional military fashion, academies, including Kings Point, were accustomed to giving marching orders and winning compliance. While military protocol still governs students' lives, the regimental and academic systems have been altered significantly in the last two decades. Words like self-esteem and confidence, not familiar parlance in the old days of service academies, have entered our vocabulary because without these attributes, neither men nor women can succeed.
If The Citadel and VMI experiences mirror those of Kings Point, the schools should emerge from the integration process even stronger. I believe that the best thing that has happened to Kings Point is that it became coed in 1974. Women's presence on campus has made the Merchant Marine Academy an institution in which we ensure equity while recognizing human differences. We approach leadership differently and are preparing our students to meet the exigencies of the day. VMI and The Citadel will learn, as we have, that the integration of women into academy life demonstrates that tradition is best served—indeed preserved—only when institutions remain flexible and responsive to ever-changing social conditions.
1 Richard Rayner, “The Warrior Besieged,” The New York Times Magazine , 22 June 1997, pp. 24-29, 40, 49, 53, 55.
Dr. Brickman is Professor of History and Head of the Department of Humanities at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. During her tenure, she has devoted attention to issues involving women’s integration and human relations. She writes regularly on the history of medicine and on the performance of women in nontraditional areas.