When Kristin Baker headed back to West Point last month, she knew she was among the handful of candidates for first captain, the U.S. Military Academy's highest cadet honor. Baker, who will graduate next spring, had just put in several long weeks as a speech writer at the Pentagon, but she wasn't surprised when, instead of a little R&R, she was handed a new challenge: leading the second segment of Beast Barracks, the grueling basic training for 1,356 new cadets. "Kristin was put to the test of fire," says Gen. Dave Palmer, the academy's superintendent. "She came through brilliantly."

And so on Aug. 3 Palmer gave Baker an even bigger test: He named her the first female captain of the cadet corps in West Point's 187-year history. (The academy first accepted women in 1976; 10 percent of the student body is now female.) This time the 5'4" Baker—who will direct a staff of 40 and oversee the academic and military performance of some 4,400 cadets-was startled. "I came here thinking I wanted to be in the top part of my class," she says, "but this is overwhelming."

The job of West Point's first captain, which has been held by the likes of Douglas MacArthur and William Westmoreland, is awarded on the basis of school achievements and leadership skills. In her three years at the academy, Baker, 21, a psychology major, has maintained a 3.36 average and competed in cross-country skiing and soccer. Says Col. James Hawthorne, the Point's director of public affairs: "The screening for first captain begins the day cadets walk into this place. Each one is constantly measured militarily, academically and athletically. Kristin's appointment has nothing to do with gender. This girl is a piece of work."

Baker is an Army brat, the daughter of Col. Robert Baker (West Point '66, and a post commander in Yuma, Ariz.) and his wife, Grace, a nurse. Born in North Dakota, Kristin grew up both in the States and abroad. At 17, while living in Virginia, she began to play soccer and set precedents. "I was the only girl on the team," she says. "But I never thought about it. I just wanted to play." In her senior year she contemplated going to West Point or studying to become a politician. "I was attracted by the self-discipline, the uniforms and the football games at West Point," she says. "I decided I could pursue politics down the road."

Going from civilian life to the rigors of military school was tough at first. "My dad didn't tell me anything," Baker says, laughing. "He said, 'Don't worry, Kristin, think of it as a game.' "

It is a game she has played well, and one that will be harder now. She must balance the duties of her new role, which include holding frequent staff meetings, with academics and a modicum of personal life—reading Danielle Steel novels and relaxing with her cadet boyfriend. And while most of her fellow cadets applaud her appointment, Kristin has come in for criticism too. "Some people are angry and think others were better qualified," says Sharon DeCrane, a junior. "We'll just have to see."

So far, Baker has displayed a leader's grace under pressure—and a flair, which will surely come in handy, for dealing with groups of men. On a visit to New York City to make the rounds of the network morning news shows, the first captain of West Point caught her heel and stumbled on the ABC building's steps. Several male bystanders rushed to her aid. Baker brushed herself off, then explained with aplomb: "I just planned that to get your attention."

—Susan Reed, Sue Carswell at West Point