by Sean Patrick Hughes, USNA ‘99
There’s a common analogy used to describe the many ways our world has been transparently constructed to the benefit of men at some difficult-to-discern disadvantage to women.
Fish never notice the water they’re swimming in.
We’re the fish, of course. The diminished agency and inequality of opportunity that women experience is the water we swim in. We’re so used to, and even dependent on, things that make it harder for women to find equal footing—family structure, employment dynamics, personal bias—that we don’t, or won’t, notice them. Only when we look back at the broad outcomes do we see the pattern manifest.
It’s a man’s world. Still. The data are undeniable.
While the intent of the analogy is to expose an important but nuanced reality, there’s a level of comfort in it that allows us to live a little a bit easier with the gap. Most of us are the good guys. These things are hard to see. They’re not really our fault. One can’t fault the fish for the water after all.
In honest moments, though, many men will admit it’s not that nuanced. And the water? It’s not that hard to notice. For me, Annapolis in the 90’s, when I went there, is a clear example.
I remember the day Shannon Faulkner, the first woman cadet at the Citadel, dropped out. Our company leadership made the watch announce it in the passageways. Cheers erupted.
I remember women midshipman who dared to make an announcement in King Hall, during lunch, drowned out by the cheers of thousands of Americas best and brightest future leaders.
I remember my teammates on the bus banging on the windows and hollering like crazed lunatics anytime a woman passed by.
This list is by no means exhaustive. But it’s a fair representation of common behavior I witnessed.
The water was pretty dirty.
Normally, this is the part of the narrative where the one weaving it identifies himself as one of the “good guys” who didn’t partake in that kind of nonsense. That I never really understood what the hell was wrong with everyone. That I was raised by a single mother in a family came from a long line of strong women who held the families of deadbeat fathers together. And that I had no problem with women authority figures. That I didn’t resent the one woman I asked out at the Naval Academy for turning me down because at another university with better than 9 to 1 odds in my favor, it would be me who wouldn’t give her the time of day. That I was so evolved I assigned the deficiency to me, not to her presence at my pristine warrior institution. Or that I swore no unit I ever led would tolerate any infringement on the dignity of those who chose to serve, no matter who they were. And that all not holding the same standard as us “good guys” are shameful.
Though true, that’s not what this essay is about.
A few weeks ago, an alum who attended the Academy at the same time I did reached out to ask if I’d be interested in responding to the question “What does the term WUBA mean to me?” for a website being launched by women alumnae of Annapolis. WUBA was the acronym used for the working uniform blue alpha at Annapolis. It was also the derogatory term used to describe the women themselves with an assortment of graphic replacements for the real terms that I won’t spend time on. If you’re curious enough about what they were, just ask someone who went there. If they tell you they don’t know what you’re talking about, they’re not being honest.
The term was prohibited and punishable by significant disciplinary action years before I attended, as was any behavior considered to be sexist, unfair or derogatory towards women. The term and the behavior accompanying it were regularly present though. I can say in good conscience it wasn’t a term I used. But I can also say that I can’t remember a time when I forcefully objected to its use. Which brings me to my answer. What does the term WUBA mean to me? It’s simple.
I was conscious of the attitude that many of my classmates had towards the few women who chose the path we did. The patterns were so clear that it was a sort of litmus test. The reality was that many, most maybe, but certainly a plurality of my male classmates, shared the same views I did. That anyone who could keep up should get the chance. And it was clear, in that hybrid environment of college and military professionalism, the women kept up and then some. And so there was a tendency for many of us to simply not think or say much about it at all. It was also clear that there were some who took such exception to women’s presence at a service academy, that they made their stance clear as often as possible. And all that was required for their message to dominate the environment was for the rest of us to tolerate it.
After I graduated, my time in service sent me all over the planet to see, first-hand, conflicts of politics, religion and ethnicity. One of the volumes of life lessons I learned was the durability of intolerance. The least tolerant voices survive. They are clear and concentrated in their purpose. They aren’t burdened with the complexity of nuance or differing perspectives. They carry a simple message.
Something doesn’t belong.
That message soars over the cacophony of thoughtful debate and empathy and caring. It’s clear and crisp. And dominant. And I’ve learned the only thing that counters it is a version of intolerance that insists the message of exclusion have no place in your presence.
Which brings me back to my answer. Regret.
In reality, the narrative that I learned not to tolerate bigotry or sexism in my life’s travels after Annapolis is a false one. I knew it then. I’ve always known it. It’s not that deep of an insight. And knowing it, I let too many opportunities to express it pass because I was afraid. I was afraid to express an opinion that I felt was unpopular at the time and risk ridicule by those more invested in the counter argument. And now, decades later when it is easier for my message to find a more supportive, less risky audience, when it is more popular, writing an essay expressing it doesn’t make up for my silence in the past. The moment is gone. My opportunity to be part of the solution has passed.
My regret is that simply not being one of the bad ones wasn’t good enough. My regret is that silence contributed to an environment where the women I served with had to alter their behavior for fear of overstepping bounds that should never have existed, in ways that it would take them years to unlearn.
We define ourselves by what we tolerate in real time and the causes for which we advocate when they do not serve our own interest. For a little while at least, I was defined by inaction when perhaps action might have helped.