Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Issuing the skirt... or skirting the issue

Who would have thought a simple skirt could make such a big difference?

One of my West Point classmates who is currently stationed at West Point has a new photo posted to his Facebook wall. There he is standing outside Washington Hall side by side with a proud, beaming plebe. Apparently, it was Sponsor Appreciation Night and unveiling of the class crest for the Class of 2014. The plebe was wearing a uniform combination that I do not remember: Dress Gray over White. It was a stunning uniform. My classmate informed me that this uniform is sometimes called upon for that time in between Dress Gray and White over Gray and is a bit more formal than Dress Gray in appearance. Thus, perfect for this occasion. What really impressed me, though, was that the female plebe in the photo was wearing a skirt with her Dress Gray over White.

When we were cadets, we had two skirt uniforms: Dress Mess, which included a long black skirt and looked a lot like what Julie on Love Boat might wear to dinner, and our Blazer uniform, which came with a gray skirt and was issued to us yearling year. As plebes, we were also issued gray skirts, which we could [hypothetically] wear to class or church or other events that did not involve formations or drill or parades. I say “hypothetically” because very few women I knew ever wore the skirt option. Why? Because wearing a skirt, especially as a plebe, would just make you stick out even more as a female cadet. And the last thing we wanted to do was stick out… even more.

It was hard to be a woman at West Point in the mid-80s. Don’t get me wrong, it is hard to be at West Point period, and each person’s journey is his or her own, and some are more difficult than others for a whole slew of possible reasons. But the fact of the matter is that in the mid-80s, women at West Point were still a novelty and their integration, although enforced by rules, regulations, and a law passed by Congress, was a far cry from acceptance.

Our time at West Point was nothing like that of the first class with women who braved a storm of abuse, misogyny, and harassment simply because they were women daring to cross the threshold into a previously all-male bastion of… maleness. The women in the Class of ‘80 are true heroes; their trial by fire helped pave the way for those of us who came after. Our class shared our reunion weekend this past October with the Class of ’80, and this was the first time many of us women from ‘85 could walk up to a woman from that first class and shake her hand and say thank you for all she had done.

We were the sixth class at West Point to have women. So, while we did not experience the hell of that first class, we were still somewhat “pioneers” in a wilderness where women were, if not unwelcome, definitely… suspect. We were decidedly unwelcome to some, and most of them let us know just how much so on a daily basis. We were suspect to many. Most male cadets, I think, in all fairness, really didn’t care if women were there, and some were very accepting, or at least tolerant.

“Cooperate and graduate!” was a credo our Beast Cadre yelled at us throughout the six weeks of Cadet Basic Training. Working together to get things done was encouraged, and with good reason. We were organized into squads during Beast. We drilled together, trained together, ate together, ran together, marched together, did Plebe duties together.

As female cadets, we just wanted to fit in like the rest of our classmates.

Still, it was hard to be a woman at West Point. It was one thing to be hazed as a plebe because you didn’t shine your shoes or polish your brass properly or square a corner well or cut a dessert nicely or remember your plebe knowledge verbatim, but it was quite another to be called names and harassed and messed with just because you were a woman. And when the name calling and harassment continued on into upperclass years, it could get discouraging. Many of my women classmates can recall, as firstie commanders leading their units in parades, being called names like “bitch,” “whore,” and “slut” by male alumni lined up to review the Corps as they marched by.

We found ourselves in a strange quandary. We were women. But we were not allowed to be women. We were certainly not men, but we weren’t really women, either. Our hair had to be cut short, no longer than above the bottom of our collars. We were not allowed to wear makeup or jewelry most of the time, although I think we were allowed to wear pierced earring studs with some uniforms. If we were told to wear Dress Mess or our Blazer uniforms (as upperclassmen), then we wore skirts because that was part of the uniform. Very rarely, though, did women choose to wear skirts as an option with their other uniforms, even when allowed.

It is a very strange thing indeed to be, for all intents and purposes, stripped of your gender and your femininity.

Just as male cadets were growing into men, female cadets were becoming women. Only in the past, “cadet” and “upperclassman” and “officer” were all synonyms for “men.” West Point was supposed to mold young men into soldiers, officers, gentlemen, and leaders of men. Now, there were women thrown into the hallowed mix. And often West Point just didn’t know how to handle them.

One day during Beast, I got stopped by a firstie in the sally port as I was heading back inside our barracks. He proceeded to haze me for wearing makeup. He was yelling at me, accusing me of wearing eye shadow! I was shocked. Not only was I not wearing makeup, I had not even brought any with me to West Point. And, frankly, the very last thing a new cadet would have time to do in the heat of Beast would be to apply makeup. And why on earth would we ever want to? We were running around in the sultry heat of summer drilling and training and sweating our asses off. At first the upperclassman did not believe me when I told him I was not wearing any makeup. Then, I was afraid he was going to question my honor and accuse me of lying. It just seemed so ludicrous to me. Luckily for me, I was so frazzled by his nonsensical hazing that I became flustered. Just then a female upperclassman passed by and I accidentally called the male cadet who was hazing me “Ma’am.” Well, that set him off on a whole other litany of abuse. How could I possibly call him “Ma’am”? Was I an idiot? Was I being belligerent? I had somehow assaulted his manhood and all thoughts of my makeup use were soon forgotten.

During 100th Night role reversal, plebes got to pretend to be firsties and firsties pretend to be plebes. Plebes thus got to “haze” firsties for a brief period of time and generally speaking, it was a highly amusing event, a chance to blow off steam and have some fun. There was one firstie in our company who was a real flame, and as plebes we were all looking forward to just retribution. However, he was also infamous for hating women being at West Point. Whenever a female plebe would try to haze him, he would flippantly respond, “When I was a plebe, it was 1979, and there were no women in the Class of ’79. So, you don’t exist!” I remember staring at him, feeling suddenly deflated. He was refusing to play the game with me simply because I was a female cadet. But then I thought to myself, “What an ass!” He wasn’t worth getting upset over. He wasn’t a haze because he had high standards and he was concerned about us learning how to become good cadets. He hazed us because he was an asshole. And he hazed female cadets more because he was a misogynistic asshole.

West Point was a mixed bag, though.

I can remember being stopped on the way back from class one day second semester plebe year by a firstie I did not know. “Miss, halt!”

“Yes, sir?” I turned to face him. What could I possibly have done wrong? All I was doing was pinging back from class, my books tucked neatly under one arm. I knew I had been moving out “fast enough.”

“Miss, what is that cologne you are wearing?”

Huh? I was confused. We were allowed to wear cologne. And mine was not really all that overpowering. I told him the name. And then braced for whatever verbal barrage was sure to follow.

Unbelievably, he grinned. “Ahhhh, thank you. It’s the same cologne my girlfriend wears, and I want to buy her some for her birthday. Carry on!”

Does issuing skirts make an institution more accepting of women?

No, clearly not.

Does the actual wearing of skirts indicate an institution that is more accepting of women?

That depends.

On whether the wearing of skirts is because it is a mandatory component of a uniform, like Dress Mess, or an option that some women choose to take advantage of because they feel comfortable doing so -- and want to.

If male cadets are accepting of women as fellow cadets and male NCOs and officers are accepting of women as soldiers and cadets and officers, then I think women feel more at ease expressing themselves in traditional “womanly” ways – be it wearing a skirt and hose and pumps or earrings – if that is something they want to do.

When women cadets feel comfortable wearing skirts and choose to wear them as an option, I see that as progress.

As a cow (or second classman), I spent a semester at the Air Force Academy and was stunned by how many of the female cadets there wore skirts to class. I told my Zoomie roommate, who often wore a skirt to class, that women rarely chose to wear skirts at West Point. She was surprised. Wearing a skirt if she wanted to, when allowed, seemed perfectly normal to her. She asked me why women cadets did not wear skirts at West Point. I shrugged. I’d never really thought about it before. We were afraid of sticking out as women, of being different, of being harassed. We just wanted to fit in, to belong. At Air Force, it seemed, women could be women and fit in and belong. Women seemed a lot more accepted in the Air Force than in the Army. I am not sure why that is: a different history, a different culture, a different mission, its newness as a branch of service?

I noticed in other photos from the USMA Sponsor Appreciation Night that that some female cadets had chosen to wear white skirts and some had chosen to wear white trousers with their Dress Gray over White. Just as women in business sometimes choose to wear suits with skirts and at other times suits with pants. These female plebes looked professional, military, and squared away, just as their male counterparts did. More importantly, they looked proud and happy.

And at ease with themselves.

Clearly, a woman is not going to wear a skirt into combat, so please don’t even broach such an absurd notion! A man would not wear Army Blues or Dress Gray over White into combat, either. But in a business-like or social setting, being able to wear a skirt is a nice option for a woman, just as it is in a similar civilian setting. And it is still professional and military.

One of my male classmates who is stationed at West Point recently told me that “women are becoming more and more feminine at West Point.” I think what he meant was that women feel increasingly comfortable expressing their femininity in appropriate ways at West Point. He certainly sees this shift as a good thing, healthy and positive. He then added that he had also just attended a Women’s Boxing Team exhibition, which was equally “awesome.” So the “warrior part” was great to see, too.

This idea of being both feminine and a warrior brings to mind Athena, the Greek scholar warrior, who could be beautiful, feminine, smart, and kick ass when need be.

The mission of West Point is "to educate, train, and inspire the Corps of Cadets so that each graduate is a commissioned leader of character committed to the values of Duty, Honor, Country and prepared for a career of professional excellence and service to the Nation as an officer in the United States Army." An officer corps that includes plenty of Athenas sounds like a win-win situation to me.