It was a small moment back in April at the Athena’s Arena Conference celebrating 40 years of women at West Point, but it was significant in its insignificance. Two female alumni from the Class of ‘94 passed through a doorway while two female cadets held the door. Thanks were exchanged, and that was that. Later, when asked about the encounter, neither alumna thought much of it.
Back in 1976 when the first 119 female cadets arrived at the Academy, the young women took notice of each other, the male cadets certainly noticed, as did the entire nation. In the years that passed, female graduates have gone on to some of the highest positions in the Army, making history along the way, particularly in the last year.
Within months after the December announcement from the Pentagon that women could serve in combat positions, several West Point women stepped up. CPT Kristen Griest ’11, one of the first women to graduate Army Ranger School last year, was named the first female infantry officer in the Army. Soon after, seven women from the Class of 2016 joined a group of 22 to become officers on the front line. At their graduation, Vice President Joe Biden praised the class for its diversity.
“Having men and women together in the battlefield is an incredible asset, particularly when they’re asked to lead teams in parts of the world with fundamentally different expectations and norms,” the vice-president said.
Yet in his opening remarks at the Athena’s Arena Conference, LTG Robert L. Caslen Jr. ’75, Superintendent of West Point, said that the all-volunteer army of the past 40 years “created an army of what our nation gave, but it isn’t necessarily what our nation is.”
“If we’re going to be military that is diverse, the diversity not only represents what America is, but it also represents the greatness and goodness that comes out of the entire whole.”
He added that with the recent removal of the combat exclusion law, West Point has been striving to make sure it gets “ahead of the wave.” During his time at West Point, the Academy has increased qualified female candidates from 15 percent of cadets to today’s 22 percent.
The experience attending West Point is unique, but for women it is even more so. But with each successive year, female cadets report that it’s less about being woman at West Point than it is about being a West Pointer.
“There’s a common language, an experience that you’ll never be able to share with someone who hasn’t been there,” said LTG Nadja West ’82, the Army’s Surgeon General and West Point’s highest-ranking woman graduate. “At any other college campus, students can go their own way for four years. At West Point, you all have the same Buckner experience. You all eat in the same dining hall. There is a linkage you have that is hard to explain to anyone else. So when you meet another grad, you both know that. And your classmates? Well, they are your lifeblood.”
At the Athena’s Arena Conference, a number of historians compared notes on the progress of women at West Point. Among them was Steve Grove, PhD, the USMA historian from 1978 to 2008. As expected of an historian, Grove takes a contextualized view of the integration, stressing the ripple effects of the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s and the massive shift of women leaving the home to enter the workforce. He added that a volunteer Army replacing the draft at the end of an unpopular war also highlighted the need for expanded opportunities for women from a theretofore two percent ceiling.
All the military service academies opposed admitting women, said Grove. West Point leadership argued that their mission was to produce officers for combat—even though the Academy sent some of its male graduates to other branches. Regardless of the debate, many women have seen combat in an unofficial capacity since Margaret Corbin took up her husband’s arms at Fort Washington in 1776. Her remains now rest at West Point.
President Gerald Ford signed Public Law 94-106 in October 1975 that admitted women into the Academy, but the leadership was already preparing for their arrival. Six hundred and thirty-one were nominated, 119 were enrolled, and 62 graduated.
Central to their success was that the women be held to the same performance standards, which presented a conundrum to the male military establishment. The Academy needed to establish reasonable physical standards to test women, something that would be later termed comparable training, said Grove.
“That first basic training, Beast Barracks of 1976, would put the women through a proverbial baptism of fire where they had to demonstrate to hundreds of critical males that they deserved a place in the Corps.”
When the women cadets arrived at West Point on R-Day, July 7, 1976, the reverberations of an honor scandal spawned by cadets cheating on a take home exam placed the Academy under a media microscope. If being a plebe was tough, then being a female plebe in 1976 will go down in the annals as one of the toughest plebe years ever.
The moment the women arrived at the Academy, West Point’s metric-focused leadership began analyzing the integration. The late sociologist Nora Scott Kinzer, PhD, and COL (R) Alan “Al” Vitters ’68, PhD (then MAJ Vitters), co-authored a report initially titled the Assimilation Project. It eventually became known as Project Athena —sparking a legacy of systemic integration that continues to this day, thus “Athena’s Arena.”
While Kinzer took a quantitative approach, Vitters delved into the qualitative, interviewing dozens of cadets, faculty, officers, and staff.
“I wanted an overall macro view of what the women were experiencing and changes the Academy was making,” said Vitters. “There wasn’t a lot out there on women being integrated into any military academy.”
Vitters said that he and Kinzer incorporated the research work being conducted throughout the institution. An initial study assessing the physical abilities of high school age women, known as Project 60, as well as more recent reports from the Athletics Department, were both incorporated.
“If someone was looking at gender differences, then we wanted to know about it,” he said.
Vitters said the Project Athena report generated great interest in that it had implications beyond the Academy. His expertise in institutional change guaranteed distribution of the report to most faculty, staff, and officers, in the hopes of promoting further change and additional studies.
Vitters, who is now an Assistant Professor at St. Joseph’s College, arrived at the conference for just one day. He said was taken with continuation of “the good faith effort of the institution” to continue to study and implement change.
“Our fundamental conclusion in 1977 was that integration would work because of the grit, determination, and the ability of the women who enter,” said Vitters. “There are still issues, but the institution continues to monitor in good faith.”
“But just to see the standing ovation for the Class of 1980, was the best thing at the conference for me.”
Captain Yoon “Yoonie” Dunham ’07, an instructor in the Department of Behavioral Science and Leadership, provided a brief history of women at USMA at the conference. She said she sifted through what are now four volumes of Athena Reports. She said that reading the data gave her “a sense that you can do it too.”
“And there was none of that for the Class of 1980,” said Dunham. “Reading those studies has given me such a greater appreciation of what I am a part of.”
While the Athena Reports fostered integration on a systemic level, the curriculum has developed over the past four decades to foster diversity at the academic level.
One of the big surprises at the conference came when LTG Caslen announced the nomination of COL Cindy Jebb ’82, PhD, to be the next dean of the academic board, the first woman to hold the role in the Academy’s history.
The following day, Jebb said she was completely surprised by the announcement. As she stood on the Cullum Hall balcony overlooking the Hudson, she reflected on the role that curriculum can play in helping shape a diverse future for all cadets, not just women.
“We teach cadets how to think and not what to think,” she said. “A big part of learning comes from an environment that fosters meaningful dialogue among people with varied backgrounds and perspectives. This kind of engagement both inside and outside the classroom deepens empathy, which, in turn, develops an acute self-awareness. We are all students of the human condition and that is the foundation of who we are; our profession of arms is a human endeavor.”
She reiterated that the West Point curriculum remains steeped in the Thayer method with an eye toward outcomes.
“This is not some big social experiment,” she said. “It’s about Army effectiveness. It’s all about producing leaders of character who are critical thinkers.”
“What we have at West Point is an opportunity to have the discussion in an integrated environment, so that when we do have that conversation about women’s rights, as an example, it’s a conversation among all these emerging leaders, not just a segment of the cadets.”
She said that the issues of gender, race, culture, and religion are threaded throughout the core curriculum wherein cadets have opportunities to think deeply about these topics. She also stressed the importance of cultural immersion beyond a single issue, beyond the Academy, and beyond the U.S.
“When you’re in another culture you think of the commonality of humanity,” she said. “That also provides an opportunity to learn about yourself, and it breaks down that ‘we/they’ barrier.”
Health and Fitness
While much of the conference focused on the female experience at West Point, a panel on recruitment revealed how the Academy is a reflection of the nation at its best, as well as magnifier of trouble spots—namely the physical health of the nation’s young people.
Hon. Debra S. Wada, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, said that the old perception of the Army as a place for a young person to go as a last resort is far from today’s reality. Only 17 percent of those who apply actually qualify. She, along with other panelists, expressed a concern about the nation’s readiness to fill the ranks of the Army generally, let alone an elite institution like West Point.
As the U.S. Army’s Surgeon General, LTG West said that she too is concerned.
“We’re really focused on the challenges not just for the women, but for all of our youth,” she said, adding that a lot of the health issues stem from being overweight and obesity. “We’re competing with the other branches of the military, so it’s extremely concerning if we don’t have healthy adolescents.”
Another concern is the cutback of athletics programs nationwide. One of the surprising findings revealed at the conference was the impact Title IX had on broadening the talent pool for bringing young women to the Army, and by extension West Point. As the law mandated equal funding of school sports for young women, each passing year saw the talent pool of strong female athletes grow.
“Title IX provided more opportunities for young women to participate in athletics starting in elementary school,” noted Grove, the USMA historian. “For all sports the sooner you get started the better you can do. For the Class of 1980, they may have been far more physically fit upon graduation, but most couldn’t make up for not having years of exercise before admission.”
Today, West Point specifically seeks out women who excel in sports.
“We look for someone who has physical courage, as well as a candidate who is academically strong and is a demonstrated leader,” said COL Deborah McDonald ’85, West Point’s Director of Admission, adding that sports help foster the kind of physical strength, teamwork, and leadership that the Academy is looking for.
Athletic Director Boo Corrigan said that his department has continued to add sports that represent the “warrior ethos” of the Academy and assist in its goal of finding women who can handle West Point’s physical standards.
But the Army and West Point are still adjusting to women’s health needs. In her history recap, Captain Dunham, said the Athena researchers noted the weight gain of women at the Academy, to which the administration responded by setting up “diet tables” in the mess hall, a none-to-subtle approach that has long since been abandoned. As a way to ensure women look after their health, West said that female cadets need to keep an eye on their metabolic rate.
“Women’s caloric needs are much smaller than a man of equal height,” she said. “In the past everybody got what was at the table in the mess hall. The big guys didn’t get enough and the small guys got too much. So it’s important to understand your nutrition needs.”
She added that as women are predisposed to stress fractures, an iron supplement helps bone health for a skeleton that withstands the amount of weight that cadets are expected to lift. And while the amount of weight cadets are expected to lift shouldn’t change for women, the training techniques for properly lifting that weight probably should.
“We should be careful not to interchange the words training and standards,” said Wada. “You can change training to accommodate standards. That doesn’t change the standards.”
Getting the Message Out
Several experts said that the growth of high school sports for women has helped changed the perspective of the Army for potential candidates to one where they could conceivably meet the physical demands of the job. But there was also a concern expressed that the Army and West Point are often not considered when students want to pursue the so-called STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.
“We’re competing against top colleges and corporations for talent,” said Wada. “Infantry is important but it’s not the only thing they can do, the Army has doctors and scientists too.”
Several said that popular culture also plays a role in shaping perceptions.
“When I was a kid I watched this silly made-for-TV movie called ‘Women at West Point’ that followed women during their first year,” recalled McDonald. “I laugh when I think about it now, but it opened the aperture to this world. And that’s what inspired me. I wanted something different.”
West said that she wears her uniform purposefully to inspire other young women. “They need someone they can see so they know that they can do it too,” she said. “Girls need to be encouraged, and not just by other women. Some of my best role models were men.”
The inspiration doesn’t stop with the teens. Dunham, a mother of two, said the three women who recently completed Army Ranger School inspire. But she is particularly impressed with Major Lisa Jaster ’00, who is also a mother of two.
“Those women allowed my daughter to have opportunities,” said Dunham.
Like most West Point alumni, Jaster said that she relied on the support of her family and friends. But not everyone agreed with her decision to attend Ranger School. She recalled a Facebook exchange with two close friends who essentially said that being a mom should trump being a Ranger.
“It was the best thing to have that discussion, because I had to self-evaluate before I went to Ranger School as opposed to being in the woods and thinking, ‘I'm a bad mom and I shouldn't be here.’”
She faced what many deployed mothers face, missing a birthday here, swimming lessons there, and breakfast chatter.
“But every mother has to be her own type of mother,” she said. “Fortunately, I married a man who is very selfless, and he adores having children.”
As the conference drew to a close, all kinds of families were on display as the alumni gathered on the green to watch the parade and then sit for a portrait. One mom and dad who met at West Point exchanged duties holding their baby girl. There were same-sex couples and single women. There were parents who went to West Point and whose kids go there now.
General West couldn’t make it to the event, but she recently visited her son, who is a cadet.
“His squad leader was a woman cadet and it’s not really a big deal for him,” she said.
“Just going through those gates again, it gets you, it’s very humbling,” she said, and then paused to collect herself. “To think I’m part of that, it is really quite an honor.”
After two and a half days of no-holds-barred panel discussions that dealt with issues of race, sexual harassment, and combat integration—to name but a very few—the women were beginning to realize that the event was drawing to a close. Many had stayed up late with old classmates. The language overheard on Saturday was a lot saltier than Thursday evening’s more professional tone. The women were feeling at home.
The final event was a luncheon featuring the first three female Army Ranger School graduates: CPT Kristen Griest ’11, 1LT Shayne Lynne Haver ’12, and MAJ Jaster.
Jaster said that before she graduated from Ranger School she met with women from the Class of 1980. They told the Rangers what their accomplishment meant to them.
“It dawned on me all of the sudden that what we had done actually was so much bigger than I had ever thought,” Jaster told the crowd. “I had no idea what we had done for you, and for us, and for the generations that will come after us.”
“When you think about it, it’s not about the women, its not about the men, it’s about finally bringing us all together to move forward on the same line, as the Long Gray Line, together, and continue forward.”