The last weekend in April, the West Point Association of Graduates will host Athena’s Arena, a conference commemorating 40 years of female cadets at the academy. 2016 marks not only the 40th year of women in the corps of West Point, but also my 13th year of being part of this storied community. In the face of these milestones, I realized, with some recrimination, that in all this time I’ve rarely interacted with the female cadets and soldiers on staff.
I wish I could blame this shortcoming on some kind of eldritch military intrigue, like women at West Point are kept apart by murky, oppressive forces — Illuminati in camo! — or I could point to rigid rules around fraternization. Unfortunately, the explanation is far more prosaic: We’re all so damn busy. More than once, at the West Point day-care center, I’ve met a female soldier who seems pretty great, and we chat amiably as I wash my toddler’s hands and set her down at the table for breakfast, then I only ever see the soldier at pick-up or as she races into the center at lunchtime to breastfeed her baby as fast as her AR 670-1 compliant tan suede boots will carry her. As a veteran’s wife, I’m not in the on-post social mix any more, so special effort is required, but the priority has become clear — I can’t keep being too busy to do the important things.
Much has been made of the division between civilian and military culture. And now I have to work against the cultural division that exists in the military milieu itself, between those in uniform and those who are not. There’s the busy factor to contend with, but also my own complicity in letting that division stand. I believe, as Adrienne Rich wrote, that the connections between women are the most potentially transforming force on the planet. There is much to be learned from women sharing the basic truth of their lives — how they spend their days, what obstacles they face, what they value, what they dream. As someone ever eager to keep hold of my cherished military association, and to bridge any gap on the distaff side of things, how could I meaningfully connect with these remarkable women? I could start by traversing the routes I know.
I reached out to a lieutenant colonel teaching in the English department who connected me with her female cadet mentee, a yearling, a.k.a. yuk, USMA Class of 2018. When the cadet met us in the Central Area in her gray and black “as for class” uniform, arm snapping up in perfect salute as she approached her superior, I was surprisingly anxious, worried that she’d view me, hair now snarling in the early spring wind, as one of The Olds — Methuselah’s slapdash cousin Becky.
We entered the cadet mess hall, an impressive Gothic-style structure that recalls both Chartres and Hogwarts, and took our seats for lunch served family-style, over 4,000 servings worth, presented in about five minutes. Today’s options: Lasagna, hummus, bread sticks, garlic bread, tabouleh, plastic-wrapped Linzer cookies to tuck in a coat pocket for later (Ah, the metabolism of youth). Cadets are allowed 20 minutes to eat. If my cadet host and I were to bond, we had to do it fast.
The first question the cadet asked me? “Ma’am, what do you like to read?”
The cadet, one of the less than 2 percent of the corps who is Asian and female (the corps is 81 percent male, 85 percent Caucasian), was a poised conversationalist — sardonic and candid, the diametric opposite of that grating, eager-beaver type, known, in old school Academy parlance as a “spring-butt.” As we talked, I marveled at how the pink ghetto in the Long Gray Line is getting smaller. Women are now welcomed into combat branches, Army-wide. Female Rangers, finally, are getting tabbed — and exalted. Still, there is a ways to go. Example: Military types don’t like to waste words, or even syllables. So, the commandant, who, under the superintendent, is responsible for the administration, discipline and military training of the cadets, is called “the Com.” Conversation with my cadet host revealed that around post, the academy’s first female commandant — a highly decorated brigadier general with an ironclad rep and impeccable credentials — is called “the Mom” instead of “the Com.” The rhyme makes the nickname obvious, but I wondered about the motivation behind it: Was it affection or micro-aggression? Or both?
I was encouraged to hear from the cadet that you will not, at today’s academy, hear sexist or homophobic slurs tossed about with impunity or without reprimand — a sign of the institution changing with the times. A dear friend, a proud West Point grad herself, circa early-1990s, once explained that, in her day, she felt that as a female cadet, one was cast within the corps’s small but vocal Neanderthal opposition as ‘a b—-, a slut and a derogatory word for gay women.’ I couldn’t help but think that her memories would be different were she a cadet today, when not only the commandant but the USCC Command Sergeant Major is also female, and the first female soldiers to graduate from Ranger school, Capt. Kristen Griest and 1st Lt. Shaye Haver, USMA class of 2011 and 2012, respectively, recently appeared in the cadet mess to a thunderous standing ovation from the entire corps.
After 20 minutes, lunch ended, and roughly 4,400 of America’s best and brightest rose to leave the mess, many having eaten without bothering to remove their black woolen short coat with their class year stitched on in gold felt. But the lieutenant colonel, the cadet and I lingered as the tables were cleared around us. The cavernous hall, with its vaulted ceiling and leaded stained glass windows, felt, in its way, like holy ground. This meeting only deepened my love for women in the military crucible, and underscored my respect for their dedication to not just selfless service but to being agents of change. Glass ceiling or brass ceiling, women have broken through so many barriers, yet there is still so much left to do.
Does 20 minutes change the world for women? No. But it is perhaps time enough to lay a foundation upon which to build a bridge between them. As a feminist and a patriot, I find myself idling at various intersections, waiting for any signal to make my way forward. Sometimes the opportunity arises. At other times, it must be created.
So, to my sisters across the civilian/military divide, hello from the other side.
Would you like to have lunch sometime?