West Point, N.Y. — "I think doing your best at something has nothing to do with gender," says West Point Cadet Sonya Nikituk. "Maybe being aggressive and excelling at things are masculine traits. But when someone tries, I don't care what sex they are."
Cadet Nikituk, from St. Paul, Minn., is a member of the first class to include women in the United States Military Academy's 178-year history. The integration of women into the "long gray line" has been tough, but it has been done. On May 28, 62 women will graduate with 859 men.
In addition to the women at West Point, 55 women will graduate this spring with nearly 800 men at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and 98 female cadets will join 803 men in graduation at the Air Force Academy in Colorado. Fourteen women graduated from the Coast Guard Academy May 21.
When women arrived at West Point four years ago, they met a wall of resistance. Although some of it still exists, Cadet Nikituk has seen a change in the men's attitude since her freshman year when one male upperclassman told the women in her company that his goal for the year was to run them all out. None of the company's women left that year, and only one left before graduating. What about the young man?
"We are sending him an invitation to graduation," says Cadet Nikituk with a grin.
Since the first difficult year several graduates have come back and apologized to the women for their behavior. Female cadets cite more professional treatment from the male cadets as an important factor in acceptance. And they are finding that instead of begrudging the women for taking a spot in their formerly all-male preserve, many men admire the women for their competence and perseverance.
As hundreds of gray-uniformed cadets line up for lunch formation in front of the gray buildings, they look like a black and white photograph against the lush green foliage of spring on the hills behind. Cadet Kathy Silvia of North Reading, Mass., slips into place. Does she ever with she had taken a more orthodox course in life?
"I look at women at other colleges and I see there are a few things I prefer here that they don't have, and vice versa," she says. Perhaps, being female at West Point, she has stood out too much, an she says the academy wasn't really prepared for women when they first came. But she lists the education, the high teacher-to-student ratio, and the incomparable athletic facilities as benefits that she prefers.
Her classmate Cadet Nikituk doesn't envy other women her age.
"I'd be bored at another college," she says. "And I have a job for the next five years." After that, if she doesn't stay in the Army, she thinks that with her background she will be "extremely marketable." Her biggest gain from West Point has been increased self-confidence, she says.
"I have done so many things I never would have considered," says Cadet Nikituk, who plays on the varsity women's tennis team. The biggest drawback?
"Being accused unfairly for things I didn't say," she says. "When a guy says something wrong, they ask 'What's his problem?' Women are held responsible for what every female here says."
Cadet Bret Dalton, who is class president, has been assigned to Berlin, Germany, after graduation, where he will be a platoon leader. He defends his female classmates.
"The women here are not upstairs," he says. "They are no different than the girls I knew in high school, except they are a lot more athletic. They want to be in the military like me, and that is the common link."
He says he doesn't like talk about "we" and "they" since all cadets are training to become leaders for the Army. Previous classes had been staunchly all male. When Cadet Dalton applied to West Point, he was told that women were being allowed into the academy and was asked if he had any second thoughts.
"I said no, but when I got here I started thinking maybe I should," he remembers. He says plebes coming out of high school today have little or no negative thoughts about women at the academy, however.
The class president maintains that West Point students are not cut off from the rest of society. When a visitor is surprised to hear the music of Jethro Tull playing in a lounge area at the venerable academy, he grimaces.
"We are just like any other college kids," he says. "Maybe we have a little better sense of direction and we have a job for the next five years, but we are just working through our problems."
Both men and woman cadets say they are tired of the spotlight that has been focused on the women for the past four years.
"There is a joke going around that men are graduating this year, too," says one cadet.
All go through the same academic and physical training with only minimal adjustments to conform to the physiological differences between men and women. During running exercises, women are allowed more time to complete a course. And there are exceptions in exercises involving upper body strength, such as pullups.
But the differences in physical training are not "alarming or arresting," says Maj. Jerome Adams, who co-directs Project Anthena, a study of the integration of women at West Point.
"In the Olympics, both men and women run the 100 meters," he says. "Nobody expects women to compete with the men."
That acceptance doesn't always transfer readily to West Point. The attitude among some has been that all cadets must go through the same training.
"It's as if the male cadet thinks the most important thing is physical performance," says Major Adams. "If a woman can't run,then she can't head [ according to some male cadets]. They are giving a disproportionate weight to such considerations."
Women receive the same military training. They attend all the specialty schools and take combat training, except Ranger training in combat unit tactics. The Army prohibits assignment of women to units that could actually be involved in direct combat, but women are assigned as support personnel to air defense artillery and field artillery, and more than half of the females in this year's class have been assigned to combat branches after graduation, usually at their own request.
"When the women go out and serve, they will have a good appreciation for what the infantrymen are going through," says Maj. Terry Monrad of West Point's public affairs office.
Cadet Silvia has been assigned to the field artillery branch, where she expects to find even more of the scrutiny she has been under the past few years at West Point.
"We're already in the fishbowl," she says. "It will probably be worse. There will be 21 females in field artillery in the Army, and seven are graduating from here."
How does she survive the attention of sometimes resentful men and a curious public?
"Low profile, that's my motto," says the cadet.
In order to help female cadets work through the challenges of an integrated academy, West Point formed the Molly Corbin Seminar as a support group. It is the only group specifically designed with the women cadets in mind. Speakers come from several fields and include academicians, career Army women, and feminists such as Betty Friedan. Both male and female cadets attend.
Some women aren't very active with the Corbin group, perhaps because it is associated with "radical" ideas, suggests one West Point faculty member. Capt. Barbara Lee gives another reason why female cadets don't go out of their way to align themselves with feminism.
"I don't mind being called a feminist, but most men have a visceral reaction to it," she says. "To survive here you have to wear a dual hat. The women have to adopt masculine values, because those are related to competency."
Women are constantly reminded of their gender through ribbing. During lunchtime announcements in the mess hall, a voice says "Anyone interested in forming a women's Rugby team. . . ." The rest of the message is drowned out in the laughter of the male cadets. Cadet Silvia does not look amused.
"They don't always know what to do with us," she says.
The attrition rate for women in the class of 1980 was nearly 10 percent more than the men, with nearly 48 percent of the women leaving the academy. One woman left because of pregnancy, but for the most part, male and female cadets list identical reasons for opting out: the strict regimentation, distorted expectations, having it better in the outside world. In subsequent classes, the dropout rate between men and women has narrowed significantly. There is only a 1 percent dropout difference between men and women in the class of 1983.
One concern of West Point officials has been that there are few role models for the female cadets. To remedy this, the Army has provided 11 additional spaces for the assignment of women, both officers and civilians, to the staff and faculty.
"Since day one I had nothing to compare my experience to," says Cadet Silvia."I didn't look for female role models. Guys had a certain high performance, and I wanted to get up to snuff with theirs."
But female cadets do wish there were more role models on how to combine their Army career with marriage. Nearly half of the women in the class of 1980 are formally engaged, all to West Point graduates or current classmates. (Male classmates also have a high marriage rate.) Army couples are not guaranteed joint assignments.
Although the regular academic regimen at West Point has not been changed with the addition of women, officials have added a "human sexuality program" to teach about sexuality in relation to family, religious, organizational, and societal settings.
Project Athena, the report on the admission of women to West Point, states that since the integration of women into each class is now complete, the next goal is their "full assimilation."