Silence Was Concurrence

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.

Regret.

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.

16 thoughts on “Silence Was Concurrence

  1. WOW. So the young men DO grow up:-). So do the women. We were all scared. I think you can forgive yourself especially after the writing of this article. If you have any daughters know that they have a dad with unique knowledge. Share it with them.

  2. I was surprised how emotional I became while reading this article. I was there in the late Eighties, and the term was rampant. We, of course, shrugged it off and tried to redefine the acronym and claim it as our own…or at least claim it as a badge of honor with a knowing eyebrow raised. My daughter asked me once if I had problems with any of the boys at the academy, and I told her I hadn’t. Overall it was a great experience for me. But the water WAS dirty. The fact that most of us swam well through it doesn’t change that fact. Thanks so much for acknowledging that in your beautifully written article.

  3. Wow! This is as good an answer as I have aver heard. Thank you for the sincerity and courage to speak up.

  4. Shannon Faulkner went to The Citadel. You lost me after that very easily checkable fact.

    We didn’t have women in our class year in our company, and as a result my interaction with women at the Naval Academy was really limited. I learned early on that in the “good-bad continuum” it was mostly bad to get involved with female Mids, and so I didn’t.

    To be honest, I never felt any animosity toward women at USNA, and like a lot of other midshipmen, I was almost entirely focused on making sure I graduated and escaped from the place. There really wasn’t a lot of time for me to worry too much about anything other than my own struggles. I did used to wonder why any woman would want to put herself through that place, and I questioned myself as to why I wanted to do it many times as well.

    When we were firsties, a group arrived from some congressional office and asked some of us what we thought would make life easier for women. My answer was simple and remains the same today as it was 36 years ago: “Make the percentage of women at least 20% of the Brigade if not more. Only then, when there are so many more women there will it seem ‘normal’.” With numbers less than 10% of our graduating class, women stuck out and received much more attention – good and bad – than most of the men did.

    • Thank you so much for sharing a glimpse into your experience and your honest thoughts. Thank you also for catching the VMI reference error, it is now correct.

  5. Thank you for this. It explains what a lot of my male classmates in 91 probably thought and felt as we females were struggling in that deeply misogynistic environment. It helps me understand and be less angry.

  6. I am so glad to read this. It gives me insight into what my male classmates (’91) were probably thinking, and helps me put aside my long-held anger at the situation we endured.

  7. Thank you for writing this excellent piece; I hope your views are the majority now and no longer the minority.

  8. I applaud Sean’s honesty. This reminds me of a conversation I had with a male classmate about 25 years after graduation. He was concerned about some of the scenarios in Sharon Disher’s book “First Class” and asked if he had been a jerk to me or the other women in our company. I was honest and said no, he wasn’t one of the bad guys, but he wasn’t there to help me when I needed him either. As Patti has commented, we all mature. Thank you to all the brave men and women who will admit we could have been better to each other and are willing to move forward.

  9. Truly inspiring insight and self-awareness, Sean. Thank you for your words because in reading them I found some peace–which means that perhaps the moment isn’t “gone.” There are echoes and reverberations and your essay has helped reshape then for me.

  10. Excellent piece of writing…here’s hoping that the views you express have been realized and adopted by the latest generation of mids.

  11. I read this today and I needed it because I just sat silent on a layover bus ride where I listened to a male colleague describe his failure to get a coveted position due to the hiring authority only hiring “blacks”. (Normally when I hear that statement in my profession it includes “and women” so I assume he demurred on that point due to my presence. My profession holds steady at 5% women and similarly low percentage of African-Americans) Nobody spoke up. Not me, not the other two guys. I can always speak up when I’m one on one with some one. I have rarely spoken up in a group and I was extremely provoked when I did`. I have not heard anyone else speak up in a group. There are PLENTY of opportunities to be part of the solution today. It is very, very difficult to do and I fail at it more than I should. And I, too, regret it every time. Keep working at it.

    • Thank you so much, Fran, for sharing your experience. We completely understand and agree that this is difficult work that we must and will do it together.

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