Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Truth or Dare

There are two questions I really hate to get. The first is: “So, what was it like to be a woman at West Point?”

And the second, usually asked when someone finds out that my father went to West Point, is: “So, is that why you went to West Point?” This question tends to be more rhetorical than genuine. It is all-knowing and dismissive, like the person asking it is a licensed therapist and I am some stupid fucking idiot to whom this thought has never occurred. Would they ask a man that, if he went to West Point and they found out his father had gone to West Point, too? I am not sure. Maybe.

I hate the first question a lot more than the second. I hate it because it makes me feel like a circus sideshow freak. Something I try to avoid in daily life. I hate the second question because it is patronizing and condescending.

A woman went to West Point. Why? Why would she ever do that? Oh. Her father went there, don’t you know? Ah. I see now….

Great. I am glad you see. Because I sure as hell don’t.

I don’t talk about West Point a lot, or the fact that I went there. If West Point happens to come up in conversation or someone asks me where I went to college, I will tell them that I graduated from West Point. I don’t feel like I am trying to hide the fact. But I don’t go out of my way to bring it up or talk about it, either. I don’t feel a need to.

And there is probably a part of me that doesn’t want to set myself up for the invariable “So, what was it like to be a woman at West Point?”

While I think of myself as a West Point graduate, I do not think of myself as a woman West Point graduate. I do not think it is any big deal that I am a woman and that I went to West Point. I just think of myself as a West Pointer.

Yes, of course, I am aware that I am a woman and that I was in one of the first classes at West Point to have women. And that it was hard. It was hard being at West Point period. And it was hard being a woman at West Point.

I usually tell people that I would never put “enjoy” and “West Point” in the same sentence. West Point basically sucked. And I think it sucked for everyone who went there. West Point is not supposed to be fun. It is supposed to be hard and challenging and stressful. I made a lot of really close friends there, especially other women friends. And I value those friendships immensely.

My roman a clef about West Point was always going to start with the words: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” Only you know who beat me to the punch. Also, I would have written it: “It was the worst of times, it was the best of times,” because I think the “worst” part looms foremost in my mind.

I have very ambivalent feelings about my experience at West Point. But many grads, male and female, have a love/hate relationship with their gray granite alma mater.

I usually tell people that West Point is hard for everyone who goes there, man or woman. And I believe that. I also know that women cadets are harassed and mistreated simply because they are women. I do not know any woman grad personally who did not experience misogyny and sexual harassment at some level. And some women experienced them a lot more and a lot worse than others.

Yes, I experienced name-calling, hazing, and sexual harassment at West Point simply because I was a woman. I also experienced name-calling, hazing, and remedial training because I did something wrong or did not do what I was supposed to do. One of the problems with the military is that the powers to be tend to confuse misogyny and sexual harassment with hazing and military toughness, or to perceive them as merely a form of hazing or military toughness.

I think this is very dangerous.

Just as there is no place for racial or ethnic bigotry in the military, there is also no place for misogyny and sexual harassment. Just as it would be inappropriate and wrong to call a minority soldier by a racial epithet, so, too, is it wrong to call a female soldier a whore, a bitch, or a slut.

If a soldier does not perform up to standard or makes a mistake, he or she clearly needs correction or discipline or training. For his or her performance. Not for his race or ethnic background or gender.

Was it harder being a woman than a man at West Point?

I hesitate to make a generalization.

Certainly for many women, especially in the first few years that women were at West Point, I would say yes.

Do I think that I would have had it easier at West Point if I had been a man? Yes.

The military is a very male-oriented, male-dominated institution where machismo and physical prowess and brute strength are highly valued. The whole warrior ethos is thoroughly ingrained. Women are a minority in this fraternity. Fitting in is a constant struggle. But women today are clearly more accepted in the military than they were twenty or thirty years ago. Women at West Point are clearly more accepted than they were twenty or thirty years ago.

Juvenile, frat-style hazing has no place in the military or at a service academy. Neither do racial bigotry, religious intolerance, homophobia, misogyny, sexual harassment, or sexual assault. A true leader would never embrace or engender any of these mindsets or behaviors in others. It is my hope that West Point is slowly but surely moving beyond all of these injustices.

But I am not holding my breath.

So, did I go to West Point because my father went there?

My older brother didn’t go to West Point. Neither did my younger sister. And I can’t imagine that either of them ever really considered it. Which is fine.

Of the three of us, it would have been far more “usual” or “normal” for my brother to have gone to West Point because 1) he was a male; 2) at the time he went to college, only men could attend the service academies; and 3) no one had even thought of women going to West Point then.

It was not my brother who wanted to go to West Point, though.

I can remember swinging on our backyard swing set, sometime in the early seventies, when ERA was being debated and I was still young enough to swing on a swing set. My mother came outside to tell my father she had just read an article about women attending the service academies. Wouldn’t it be “neat” if my sister or I ended up going to West Point? she asked him.

I don’t remember his response. A grunt, a shrug of his shoulders. Or nothing. I can’t imagine him being positive: “Oh, yes, honey, wouldn’t that be fabulous if one of our daughters went to West Point? It would make me so proud!”

Don’t think so.

My father was very vocal when it came to women being at West Point. Plain and simple, he did not believe women should be allowed to attend West Point. He probably didn’t think women should be in the military at all. But if they were in the Army and there was a need for well-trained women officers, then he thought there should be a separate service academy just for women. Women did not belong at West Point, though. Period.

On that he was very clear.

Perhaps it was my mother’s enthusiasm about the new policy change that should have surprised me. My mother was the one who wanted me to go to Smith or Wellesley. Two opportunities she had never had. Not that she had had the opportunity to go to West Point, either.

I have nothing against Smith or Wellesley. In fact, I hold great respect for both institutions. But they are worlds apart from West Point. I am just not sure how my mother could say Smith, Wellesley, and West Point all in the same breath.

I don’t recall my father breathing the name of any college or university as “the one” to go to. He did say that he would never pay for me to go to Harvard; for some reason, he thought only elitist jackasses went to Harvard. Princeton was a “playground for rich boys,” although he knew some smart men who had gone there. He had some good friends who had gone to Yale, and they were genuinely intelligent, nice men. So if I insisted on going to an Ivy League school, he would let me go there. If I really wanted to. Which I didn’t.

He did not tell me not to go to West Point. He didn’t really say anything about West Point. Aside from the fact that he didn’t think women should be allowed to go there.

I will be the first to say that I was always trying to please my father. And never, ever felt that I did. My mother says that my father was always very proud of me. That may be, but I never felt it.

Whatever. He’s dead now, so I’ll never know for sure.

I can honestly say that as an eighteen year old, I really, truly wanted to go to West Point. In fact, I wanted to go there so badly that I didn’t feel a need to apply anywhere else. My college guidance counselor, unflappable man that he was, simply said that was out of the question. There was no way to guarantee acceptance at one of the service academies, regardless of how good my grades and test scores might be, because application to any of the service academies was a complex process that involved obtaining a nomination from one of my congressmen.

In my naïve fantasy world, I had no doubt whatsoever that I would be accepted to West Point. But I agreed to apply to other “backup schools,” even though I couldn’t imagine going anywhere but West Point.

And WHY did I want to go to West Point so badly?

When I was a sophomore in high school, I attended one of my dad’s West Point reunions. That was when I decided I wanted to go there. I was so impressed by the place – by its history, tradition, and sense of mission. The idea of serving my country appealed to me. The thought of doing something really, really, really tough and challenging and worthwhile was as alluring as a drug.

I wanted to be tested. I wanted to see what I was made of. I was looking for the ultimate challenge.

I had always gotten really good grades in school. I was always encouraged to study whatever I wanted to study, to pursue whatever interests I might have. I grew up thinking that I could be whatever I wanted to be when I grew up. At the same time, as a girl, I had quickly realized that smart girls needed to be modest and self-deprecating. It was not good, as a girl, if you came across as being “too smart.”

I had always loved school, had enjoyed learning and being challenged. Yet, I had never ever truly been challenged. And that was what I craved more than anything else.

I was afraid that if I chose a “regular” college or university, even one known for its academics, I would still never really be challenged. I had no desire whatsoever to go to a party school. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy partying or having a good time, because I did.

But I wanted to go somewhere where I would be tested to the core, in every way imaginable. Not just in academics.

And West Point seemed to fit the bill. It was not just about academics. It was about so much more. It was about being physically fit and constantly being challenged physically. It was about being a leader and being challenged in mind, body, and spirit on a daily basis. It was about the military and learning basic soldier skills and tactics and character. And it was about academics, and taking courses in the humanities, social sciences, mathematics, and hard sciences. No matter what I majored in, I was still going to get a Bachelor of Science degree because I would have to take so many math, science, and engineering courses. To someone who admired Thomas Jefferson and the concept of the Renaissance Man, this “all around” education appealed to me. When people told me they didn’t see how I could commit myself to something so strictly delineated as the military, I was shocked. On the contrary, I told them, I saw going to West Point as keeping things wide open: I would get to study ALL the disciplines and be physically, mentally, and emotionally challenged. And be doing something worthwhile.

Don’t forget this was during the height of the Cold War, too. I wanted to study Russian and learn about the Soviet Union and international relations. I wanted to be able to put everything I learned to good use and serve my country in a meaningful way. It was important to me that I find a career that would allow me to “make a difference.”

I wanted to run the gauntlet, embark on a hero’s journey, go on a quest for the Holy Grail. I was seeking the ultimate rite of passage. I wanted to be tested to the extreme in all possible areas. At the same time. To me, at that time, only West Point offered this possibility.

And I pursued it relentlessly.

I admired my father immensely. He was the oldest of seven children and came of age in the middle of the Great Depression. He grew up in a small town in rural Nebraska, and no one in his family had ever gone to college before. He was also really smart. He graduated from high school at fifteen.

He won a scholarship to a small men’s college in Indiana, but he still had to work hard at a variety of odd, low-paying jobs to help work his way through. He really wanted to go to one of the service academies – I think because they were free -- and kept applying to both West Point and Annapolis. Finally, after several years of going to school for a year and then working for a year, he won an appointment to West Point.

He did well there, earning stars his final year and graduating high in his class. He served in the Army Air Corps during World War II and then had an impressive career in the steel industry as an industrial engineer.

He was what a lot of men of his generation were – a self-made man. And I admired that tremendously.

It was what I wanted to do, too. I wanted to earn my own way through college, make it on my own. I didn’t want to be “beholden” to anyone. I wanted to prove that I could do it all by myself.

Ironically, because my father had been so successful, I grew up in a very privileged environment. We lived in an affluent suburb, my siblings and I went to private schools, and we belonged to not one, but two country clubs. We were not rich by any stretch of the imagination (especially compared with many of the other families who lived in our community), but we were definitely upper middle class in a way that only the WWII generation seemed to have been able to accomplish.

We did not live in a big, fancy house. We did not own expensive, flashy cars. We did not vacation in Florida or Aspen. The emphasis was on hard work and education and learning.

The child of two parents who came of age during the Depression, I was never hungry, never had to worry where my next meal was going to come from or how we would afford clothes for school. I enjoyed living in a safe, stable community where I was free to roam and explore. I attended a wonderful school with wonderful teachers and took part in a whole slew of sports and extracurricular activities. It was a given that I would go to college.

Was I spoiled?

I was definitely well-provided for. And very lucky. Fortunate to have been born into a family where the father had made so much of himself and done so well. And, afterall, isn’t that what my father had worked so hard to attain? To be able to provide a better life for his children?

I was definitely appreciative of everything I had and the wonderful education I had received. And I had thrived in this environment – doing really well in school; playing sports; participating in drama and journalism and student government; engaging in community service; and earning spending money as a babysitter.

But in order to see myself as a true success, I felt that I needed to work my way through college somehow. On my own. I wanted to be totally responsible for my college education. My parents never implied or expected me to do this; they had saved money for both my sister and me to go to college. But this desire drove me.

I also wanted my college experience to be really hard, really challenging. I wanted to prove my worthiness.

So, to me, West Point almost dropped out of the sky and into my lap. It seemed like a good deal and a great opportunity.

Did I go to West Point because my father went there? Yes and no.

I used to tell people: no, I did not go to West Point because my father went there.

But because he went there, I knew all about West Point and that certainly played a part in my decision. If women had not been suddenly allowed to attend the service academies right around the time I came of college age, obviously I would not have been able to go there.

If my father had not gone to West Point and I had not been familiar with it – and everything else in my life had been the same – I probably would never have even considered going there. I probably would have gone to the best school academically that I could have gotten into. Even if my father said he would refuse to pay the bill there.


Blogger BabelBabe said...

shouldn't it be "It was the Beast of times..." ?

8:40 AM  
Blogger delta said...

you're so funny...

10:34 PM  

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