The First Women Graduates of West Point Say with Pride: It Was Tough but We Survived
Four years ago the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. admitted its first 119 female cadets. Fifty-seven eventually dropped out. Resented, underra ted and treated less as individuals than as the vanguard of a threatening movement, the academy's pioneer women often felt like resident aliens. They were warned against PDAs (public displays of affection) and any expectations of privacy. The unwritten rules governing them were even harsher; their civilian dates were subtly intimidated by West Pointers, as were the more liberal cadets who asked them out.
Next month 62 women seniors will receive their second lieutenant's bars. On these pages seven of them describe life at the Point for the precedent-setting class of 1980. Like their female classmates, almost half of them are planning to marry fellow cadets or recent academy graduates; most of them accentuate the positive about West Point and say things are much better for women entering now; all of them are survivors of a historic social experiment. They spoke to PEOPLE reporter Joy Wansley.
'There's no time to feel'
Kate Gerard, 21 (above right), of Carlisle Barracks, Pa. is the 1980 brigade executive officer, the third-highest-ranking cadet in the entire corps (and the top woman senior). The daughter of an Army colonel, she will enter the Corps of Engineers at Fort Bragg, N.C. this summer:
"I would do West Point again. There have just been so many things I couldn't have accomplished without it. But there were a lot of heartaches and headaches. Physically, West Point was kind of ready for us—they had changed the latrines, you know—but you can never get really prepared until you go through it. The guys just couldn't accept us—we were invading their academy. One of my sisters is a plebe this year. She has come to me a few times in tears, saying, 'All I want to do is go home.' I don't know what to say to her.
"I've avoided serious romantic involvement since I've been here. The academy isn't conducive to forming intimate relationships, what with all the rules and regulations. I don't believe in this graduating-in-May-and-getting-married-in-June thing. I think we need to go out on our own first. In a way we were really protected here." Kathy Ann Wildey, 21 (above left), of Spokane, Wash, disagrees with Kate, her roommate. Next year she will marry classmate Rick Funk. They have both been assigned to Germany:
"Having a courtship up here was nice. We're both going to school, we study together at night, and we take off on the weekends and have fun.
"What bothers me most is the lack of privacy. There's never any time to feel the way you want to feel, to be really happy or really sad. There's no privacy ever. There's also a lot of peer pressure, which can be good and bad. Sometimes that pressure is used to convince one of us 'Oh, you can take three more beers.' Sometimes it's used in the field to make us act very tough and macho—especially when we're with the guys.
"Certain things still scare me. The biggest is war. What will happen if I go to war? I'll probably be killed. The first summer we learned a code of conduct in case we're captured, and they showed us motivational films—I came out of Patton saying, if that's what they want me to be like, forget it. I thought he was totally insane. That's something that scares me about West Point."?
'I wouldn't do it over'
Brynnen Sheets, 22, of Oklahoma City, Okla. (on field maneuvers, below) will be posted to military intelligence school at Fort Huachuca, Ariz, after graduation. Her fiancé, USMA '79, is an infantry officer in Stuttgart, Germany:
"I would go to West Point again if I wasn't in the first class of women, but if I were going to be in the first class again, I wouldn't. It was too hard. It's difficult to explain what all of us went through, unless you're standing on our side of the fence. I think West Point is now starting to realize that the social growth is not great.
"I've been engaged since last May. We plan to marry at the academy, 6 p.m. Graduation Day. I'm wearing a wedding dress and he'll be in blues. I couldn't see wearing a uniform to get married in. My fiancé" didn't want to wear his uniform either, but I managed to talk him into it.
"My fiancé loved it here, and when I try to explain to him how bad it was for me, it just flies by him. That is one of the tough, sticky points in our relationship. It's so hard to get across to someone—even someone as close as he is to me—what it was like. I wish I knew what caused that barrier."
'I'm not any less feminine'
Anne Fields (above), 22, of Fort Knox, Ky. is the daughter of an Army colonel and a member of the academy swimming team. In June she will report to aviation school at Fort Rucker, Ala. By then she predicts she will also have broken up with her cadet boyfriend, who is being sent to Korea:
"The things I like most about West Point are the education and the discipline, and how I've changed. Physically, I've made an almost 180° turn, from a weakling in high school to almost an athlete now. I know that at a civilian college I would not have had the discipline.
"When I first came it was difficult, but it has changed, and it is changing. A lot of experimentation went on with us. They weren't sure of what we could and couldn't do, so we were tested to the limit. Women can't run as fast as guys. Men can do more pull-ups; men are stronger. Our femininity has been unfairly slighted many times along the way; we're criticized for looking big or masculine. But we are no different from other women. I don't think I'm any less feminine today than I was when I came in.
"I don't think women should be assigned to combat duty, but that's not because I think women can't do it—I just don't want to be shot at."
'You must think about war'
Andrea Hollen, 21, of Altoona, Pa. is the academy's first woman Rhodes scholar. After two years at Oxford studying modern history and languages, she will report to the Signal Corps (above, she demonstrates a saber salute):
"The other day my mother told me, 'When I had a little girl, I thought I wouldn't have to worry about her going off to war.' She was almost right. I was all registered for premed at Georgetown—ready to be a wild young person—when West Point accepted me. When I got here, the most difficult adjustment was really facing up to the fact that I had to think about national security issues. It really hits you during bayonet training in plebe year, when you're screaming 'Kill, kill.' It forces you to ask about the morality of war—that's difficult.
"West Point also really zaps the role-playing between men and women. You work with men day after day, and you're not at your most glamorous caked with camouflage. There are still some men here who think we are at West Point as part of a Communist plot to undermine the family—well, almost. But many accept the fact that we are not total incompetents. I didn't come with any crusading attitude about being a woman—a good thing, since if you learn anything after four years it is that, yes, men are stronger than women. But I have come to accept my role as part of a social experiment. I hope that one day I'll be part of a conclusive body of evidence that says something intelligent about women in combat."
'I wanted the hell out'
Pat Walker, 23, of Detroit was already an Army PFC when her commanding officer persuaded her to try for West Point. She did, and after Army prep school became the first black woman to come up from the ranks to the academy (where she is a member of the gymnastics team):
"There was a real culture shock for me. It was different from being in the Army. The discipline was no problem, but in basic training I had people from the same type of background. Here I didn't. It was such a relief to find another black girl. We both said, 'We're not going to quit, nobody's going to make us leave.' There were so many times I just wanted to get the hell out.
"I would come to West Point again—but with a different attitude. I was pretty radical when I arrived. I shouldn't say this, but I didn't like white people screaming at me. After all, I didn't let black people scream at me. I didn't talk to my white roommate for three weeks. I kept saying to myself, 'What am I doing here?'
"Well, a couple of weeks ago I was given the key to the city of Detroit. I was so excited; I was on TV. I've experienced West Point now, and I've internalized the values and ideals. I really like what this place stands for, and I like being a part of it."
'It's hard to go all out'
Clare Kirby, 21, is the daughter of Col. Gerald Kirby, head of West Point's Geography and Computer Science Department. She has lived at West Point since 1967. Like her father (above, sharing his skill with a surveyor's instrument), Clare will serve in the Corps of Engineers:
"Living here as a dependent was very different. When I first heard they would be admitting women I thought, 'What a mistake; this will be the biggest letdown West Point has ever experienced.' There's still a bit of resentment, but I'm really surprised at how much more we're accepted now than when we first came.
"I'm not sure about an Army career. I'll probably marry the guy I'm dating now—he's in my class—but we're very restricted on where we can go after graduation. There is only one base in Europe where we could both get the kind of job we want. If we want children, I think an Army career could be a problem. What if we were both in the field, or in different locations? The Army is going to accommodate couples more and work to keep them happy.
"The level of awareness is already much higher. The hardest thing for me to accept about West Point was conditioning my mind not to hold back, say, at physical things, when I was doing better than a man. It's not that my family was all that male-dominated, but I hesitated a second. It also gets tiring always having to prove that I can do this or that. I want to say, 'Just take it for granted that I can.' Maybe now that we've paved the way for the women coming up, they will."
On Newsstands Now
- Amy Robach: 'I'm Lucky to Be Alive'
- Paul Walker: Inside His Tragic Death
- Julia Roberts: Choosing Family Over Hollywood
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine