Hard-Earned Respect: The First Women of West Point

By Schloesser, Kelly | Soldiers Magazine, November 2010 | Go to article overview

Hard-Earned Respect: The First Women of West Point


Schloesser, Kelly, Soldiers Magazine


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ON the morning of July 7, 1976, 119 women joined the Corps of Cadets, establishing the first class of females at The United States Military Academy at West Point. Of those, 62 women walked across Michie Stadium to graduate in May 1980, becoming second lieutenants in the Army, and making history in the process.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of their graduation--the culmination of the unique challenges they faced, the adversity they overcame, and the glass ceiling they shattered.

"I am very proud to be a West Point graduate and what it has done to shape me as a person and officer in the U.S. Army. Still, I don't think any of us realized (the gravity of) what we accomplished," said Brig. Gen. Anne F. Macdonald, former assistant commanding general, Police Development, NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan, of the class of 1980 women.

Today, they remain modest about their achievement, stressing that it wasn't just intense for them, but for all cadets--both men and women--transitioning into their new lives.

"Of the 119 women entering that day, I suspect all of us, along with the men, can say those days were life-changing," added retired Col. Debra M. Lewis, who served as the state inspector general for the Washington National Guard.

From day one, the women said they knew it wouldn't be easy. Macdonald called those first days "exciting, confusing and challenging."

Along with the pressure of converting from civilian to military life, the women in particular faced numerous setbacks, bizarre predicaments, and battled embarrassment and disrespect, said Lewis.

The female-specific uniforms alone caused controversy. A wardrobe malfunction on the first day caused several broken zippers. The pants had no pockets, which forced the women to carry personal items in unusual places. And unlike their male counterparts', their jackets didn't have tails; that would have attracted too much attention to their backsides.

"Although not funny then, in hindsight, we gained quite a sense of humor

as we later shared stories about how we creatively approached and successfully dealt with each situation," said Lewis.

Still, the women of the 1980 class faced issues more trying than uniform dilemmas, including resentment and chauvinism.

"As with anything that is new, there is sometimes hesitation and reluctance to change," Macdonald said. "Unfortunately, there was animosity toward us. Really, the reaction from the men ran the gamut: some were curious, some ignored us, some were helpful, and some were hostile and difficult."

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Shortly before their arrival, select senior leaders at the academy made public statements disagreeing with the congressional decision to allow women to attend service academies. The story garnered national attention. Although many cadets were reluctant to speak on the subject, it became obvious that the policy had its opponents within the student ranks at West Point as well.

"If I hear one more call for a meeting about the women or for the women or because of the women, I'm going to get sick," a 1980 Time magazine article, quoting a male cadet, read. The article went on to say that the cadet was not alone in his opinion, and the academy issued a formal statement supporting as much:

"Oversensitivity to the presence of women at West Point on the part of the staff and faculty has been disruptive, serving to alienate the men, foster separatism and delay the complete integration of the Corps of Cadets. …

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