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Nobody Asked Me But…Learn to Accept Women at the Naval Academy

By Midshipman First Class Alton Stewart Jr., U.S. Navy

Anecdotal evidence can be quite telling, as well. In the 22 years since women first entered the Naval Academy, no woman has reached the top of the Herndon Monument during the Plebe Recognition Ceremony. This is because their classmates will not to allow women to reach the top. Although the women who join in and get their hands dirty are respected and accepted as team players, others are perceived as just pursuing the title of the first woman to climb Herndon —and are pulled down rather than pushed up.

This tradition of pulling down women is perpetuated by the upper-class midshipmen who pass it down to their plebes. Such a mind-set undermines the Academy's mission. All midshipmen know what goes on behind the scenes at Herndon. Indeed, even the administration has been officially aware of it since receiving the Report to the Superintendent on the Integration of Women in the Brigade of Midshipmen (1987). Yet it continues.

Just as some male midshipmen resent women who they perceive to be selfish, others are influenced by their notion that society is being overrun by feminists with their own agenda. Former Assistant Secretary of the Army Sara Lister's comments about the Marine Corps inflamed many of those feelings. Shannon Faulkner's debacle at the Citadel and news accounts alleging that the Navy rushed substandard women through the aviation pipeline in the name of political correctness also nurtured that type of resentment.

The view that the women aren't pulling their own weight must not be allowed to persist, because it will lead to more serious problems. The 1995 Quality of Life Survey showed that a majority of midshipmen do not have confidence in the midshipman officer selection process. Many males believe that a quota must be filled each year and that gender trumps quality. These misperceptions are detrimental to unit morale and place undue stress on the people holding "striper" positions.

The perception that women receive preferential treatment at the Naval Academy has existed since 1976. Many male midshipmen continue to believe that it is easier for women to be admitted to the Academy, despite evidence to the contrary. A 1990 study showed that only 1 in 13 female applicants was accepted to the Academy compared to 1 in 10 male applicants, and the average woman had a higher admissions multiple than the average man. But facts cannot always dislodge prejudice. A good example of this type of paranoia on the part of men was depicted in the movie G.I. Jane , where a woman was given the chance to become a member of a SEAL Team. When she received special treatment, unit morale was undermined and the team's cohesion and esprit de corps suffered. But when the men and the female trainee underwent the same challenges and hardships on equal ground, the men respected the woman and the team benefited. Although G.I. Jane was Hollywood, the same dynamic is at play at the Naval Academy. Positive unit relations can be achieved within the Brigade through more open lines of communication between male and female midshipmen. In a facilitated Integrity Development Seminar (IDS) setting, midshipmen could express their perceptions of each other in candid terms, and separate fact from fiction once and for all. Certainly, such discussions are preferable to gossip that creates a hostile environment, or:

  • Off-color jokes at squad tables
  • Showing pornographic movies in company wardrooms
  • Sending lewd, obscene, or suggestive e-mail messages
  • Displaying erotic posters
  • Referring to female midshipmen as WUBAs (an acronym for the winter working uniform, twisted into a pejorative term for female midshipmen) or "plebettes"
  • Referring to dating female midshipmen as going to the dark side
  • Calling poor male performers "girls"
  • Making requests for sexual favors or uninvited sexual advances

Although these examples of sexual harassment were documented almost a decade ago by the Women's Midshipmen Study Group, if the word "screensavers" were substituted for posters and the word "plebette" deleted, this list would be an exact representation of events happening in Bancroft Hall now. We must replace name-calling (or worse) with a civil exchange.

At present, many male midshipmen will speak freely only in hushed tones behind closed doors. Fear of retaliation is the reason many male-female professional relationships are tense. In contrast, many women feel quite free to discuss their opinions on a wide range of issues. To eliminate this wedge between shipmates at the Naval Academy, a forum should be established where open discussion between the genders can take place without any fear of retribution. We must have an outlet where we dispel the misconceptions of each other so that we can build a cohesive bond among all shipmates. An IDS session would give everyone the chance to express themselves, hear opposing points of view, and—most important—receive factual information about some nagging misconceptions. Such a session could help midshipmen understand each other and create a better living environment. This session may not solve all of the gender issues or change the thinking of the midshipmen, but such a forum could be a place where grievances could be aired, questions could be answered, and opinions could be voiced in an atmosphere where midshipmen already are comfortable.

An IDS session could be structured to provide midshipmen with the opportunity to make recommendations that would better enhance the assimilation of women in the brigade. Those recommendations could be submitted to the Women Midshipmen Study Group to be incorporated into their annual report to the Superintendent. IDS facilitators could have access to the previous years' reports and other resources to spark discussion among midshipmen as a way to see if any changes have been implemented. At present, it is possible to have IDS sessions which do not have any women in them at all, therefore, the discussion may be completely one-sided and become exhausted before the end of the session. This is where facilitators can use data on conduct cases that involved possible sexual harassment, or even information on date rape. These are issues we will face in the fleet as future officers, so we need to find ways to deal with them now.

The Naval Academy has struggled to integrate women into the Brigade for 22 years—just as the Navy is trying to integrate women into the fleet today. We have gone about as far as we can with the tools on hand. We should try a new approach toward integrating women into the Brigade of Midshipmen, to improve unit cohesion and the mission of producing leaders for the Navy of the 21st century. An open forum using the IDS method—where we can expose our prejudices to the light of day and eliminate them—is the best step to take next.

Midshipman Stewart is a member of the U.S. Naval Academy class of 1999.


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