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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 17, 2006

30 years of growth for academy's women

By Donna St. George
Washington Post

Margaret Boyle, 17, bottom left, of Leonardtown, Md., is sworn in as a plebe at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. The class of 2010 includes a record number of women 22.4 percent, compared with 6 percent 30 years ago, when the school first accepted women.

LINDA DAVIDSON | Washington Post

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Sharon Hanley Disher, one of the Naval Academy's first female graduates, recalls the hostility she encountered there in 1976.

LINDA DAVIDSON | Washington Post

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Women first attended the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1976. Here the plebes are shown still dressed partially in civilian attire.

U.S. Naval Academy

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The words were spoken 30 years ago, yet they are as jarring as they were the day when Sharon Hanley arrived at the U.S. Naval Academy 17 years old and about to make history as one of the first female undergraduates.

"I don't like you here," she recalls an upperclassman telling her. "I don't like women at my school, and so I'm going to be on your butt every waking minute. ... If my plan works, you're going to be long gone before I graduate. Is that clear?"

She remembers her shock and dismay, then her momentary confusion about how to answer. As a plebe, she was not allowed to object or comment.

"Yes, sir," was all she could say.

Now, on the 30th anniversary of the academy's integration of women, Sharon Hanley Disher finds herself in history's view again, the first of the earliest female graduates to be followed to Annapolis by a daughter. Late last month she watched as her twin daughter and son stood in Navy whites for their swearing-in.

Their academy class includes a record number of women 22.4 percent, compared with 6 percent in the beginning at a time when the country is at war, with women serving on destroyers and fighter planes.

But though much has improved since the first women arrived, and many female graduates express great loyalty to the storied 161-year-old institution, a complex and sometimes troubling portrait of student life emerges from three recent studies sponsored by the Defense Department.

The most recent found that in the 2004-05 school year, 59 percent of female midshipmen and 14 percent of men reported sexual harassment, defined as crude and offensive behavior, unwanted sexual attention or sexual coercion. Sexist behavior put-downs and offensive comments was reported by 93 percent of women and 50 percent of men.

What the academy experience is like for young women is coming into greater focus as Congress looks into the subject and as the quarterback on the academy's football team faces a court-martial trial this week on a charge of raping a female midshipman.

This month marks three decades of gender integration, with women recalling their unsettling early days in a college dedicated to the making of military men.

"The name of our game was survival," Disher said. The attitude was "boys will be boys and 'You're coming to an all-male school; what did you expect?' " Last week, Disher happened upon a C-SPAN broadcast of Vice Adm. Rodney Rempt, the academy's superintendent, testifying before Congress.

"Sexual harassment and misconduct and assault should not be tolerated in the Navy-Marine Corps," he said, "and I can assure you that they are not tolerated at your Naval Academy."

To Disher, this was another sign of changed times. "You have to talk about the problem to fix it," she said.

In the early years, women had fewer job choices because by law they could not serve on combatant ships or aircraft. Those who did not want women at the academy often complained that they were taking men's slots but could not do men's jobs.

That complaint grew louder in 1979, when Washingtonian magazine published an article, "Women Can't Fight," by academy graduate and Marine war hero James Webb. He wrote that the women's presence poisoned the academy's mission and that the academy's massive dormitory was "a horny woman's dream."

"The men went crazy; they loved it," recalled Disher, who wrote a book, "First Class," about women's experiences.

An array of jobs were opened to women in the early 1990s. After that, women "didn't feel so much like second-class citizens," said Georgia Sadler, a retired Navy captain and the academy's first female faculty member.

As more women enter the academy 273 this year, up from 81 in 1976 they have come closer to achieving a "critical mass" that ceases to be seen as a minority, said Mady Wechsler Segal of the Center for Research on Military Organizations at the University of Maryland. She put the tipping point at 25 percent to 35 percent.

Meghan O'Mara, class of 2002, was never sexually harassed but said she "certainly had people who said inappropriate things" to her.

O'Mara, 26 and honorably discharged from the Navy, said more openness is needed, recalling the time one of her friends reported a rape. Academy officials "were definitely trying to make her keep quiet about it," she said. "I don't think the environment makes a lot of women feel they can come forward and there will be a fair response."

That kind of concern touched off a 2003 scandal at the Air Force Academy amid revelations of more than 140 reported rapes and sexual assaults over 10 years.

Government studies have since looked into harassment and sexual assault at the service academies. A recent Defense Department survey of midshipmen found that more than half of women who said they had been sexually assaulted did not report it. In all, 83 of 652 women more than 12 percent said they were victims of sexual assault between 1999 and 2004, the report said.

It also noted that women "do not report sexual harassment because they live and deal with it daily; it almost becomes normal. ... They fear being ostracized and abandoned by their peers, both male and female."

Before Congress, Rempt spoke of efforts to improve training and reporting. He cited an academy survey that found that 5 percent of women believe they would be resented by peers for reporting harassment, down from 50 percent five years ago.

Over 30 years, relations between women and men have become better and more complex.

Disher, the 1976 plebe, recalls blatant hostility. But a generation and more than 2,770 women graduates later, Disher had no reservations about sending her children to the academy, where they will be part of the class of 2010, with women such as Ashley Houston, 18.

"It doesn't faze me," said Houston, standing in line on plebe induction day near a row of men who towered over her.

"I'm sure the level of respect has changed" over 30 years, ventured Margaret Boyle, 17, of Leonardtown, Md.