The Women in the Arena

by Tony Licari, ’98

It should seem odd that a man is writing an article for a Sisterhood blog.  I am not a woman.  I have no sisters or daughters.  And I certainly do not claim any special knowledge or expertise of women.  However, I do know a lot about being someone who did not think women were equal to men.  I also remember a lot about my journey from Jerkmanistan to accepting women as equals.  The path was littered with confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance and a lot of bad faith on my part.  There was no road to Damascus moment that I can recall either.  It was a maturing process.  A series of observations and teachable moments from my female peers led me to the only logical conclusion – women were different but every bit my equal.

On 1 July 1994, I was an arrogant 17 year old kid when I reported to the U.S. Naval Academy.  I thought I knew everything.  I KNEW that women were not as good as men and should not be at the U.S. Naval Academy but Congress passed a law or something so that was that.  Plebe Summer gave me the first indication that perhaps my worldview was lacking.  Jen Dowell and Amy Kellstrand were my classmates and squadmates.  They were both very bright, athletic and mature.  More importantly, they were better performers than me.  For someone who thought he was all that and a bag of chips, that was not easy to admit.  Jen had a ridiculous ability to memorize plebe rates and spit them out despite the amount of flak she was catching from a detailer.  If I had the money, I would have paid her to take all my chow calls.  Amy was a killer at uniform races and PT.  Also, her Massachusetts accent was entertaining as hell.  “Come onnnnnn Li-care-ee” sounds downright hilarious when you are hopelessly jamming your head through one of the sleeves of your whitework’s jumper.  Needless to say, I started to question my beliefs and assumptions.

A few years later, I had a firstie in my company named Amy McGrath.  She’s pretty famous now.  You can look her up.  Amy was an athlete and always seemed to balance a million things well.  I think we were squadmates too but I don’t really remember.  One night at Blue & Gold, some of the plebes in my squad were teasing a high-performing female plebe for having “short-term dated” another plebe that weekend.  Everyone seemed to think it was a funny and good-natured at the time including me.  It wasn’t.  The female plebe was deeply embarrassed and felt ashamed by the whole episode.  I didn’t realize it until Amy stopped by my room and told me about it.  She calmly yet directly explained that I could never allow something like that to happen again.  She wasn’t over the top about it but she did express her disappointment.  She also explained to me how women view comments by men and that their public reaction may not be the same as how they are really feeling.  I learned a lot from that incident.  I was ashamed that I didn’t say anything but now I do when I’m confronted with similar circumstances.

During the past 20 years of my career, evidence piled up which obliterated any remaining skepticism I had toward women in the Armed Forces.  I watched Jenn Marino flying President Obama around in Marine One and biking across country for fallen service members; it was awesome yet unsurprising for anyone who knows her.  Being in Carrie Howe’s platoon at TBS and seeing her outperform some great officers — and even take time to help me out — was humbling.  I know that reading Shipmate over the past few years has been a lot of fun.  Tina Dalmau (Demarest) commanded the Carter Hall.  Andria Slough commanded the Porter.  Marcelle Mollet commanded the intelligence detachment in New Orleans.  Kate McCreery Glynn graduated from Harvard.  Gaby Blocher (Bolton) graduated from Columbia.  Melissa Martin ran for Florida State Senate.  Jeannette Gaudry Haynie earned her PhD.  Those are just a few examples and there are many more just in the Class of 1998.  If that is not enough to change your mind, then it is likely that nothing will.

I don’t want to give anyone the impression that I am some super-woke feminist dude.  I’m not.  I’d probably be just as uncomfortable in a gender studies class as I would be at Beat Navy pep rally.  I never felt diversity classes and training did anything for me, but witnessing my female classmates achieve great heights definitely did.  To paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, the women in the arena changed my mind.  Are women different than men?  Of course.  Regardless of that fact, they have earned the right to compete at every level for every job.

Cassandra Clare once wrote that “Growing up happens when you start having things you look back on and wish you could change.”  I am thankful that I had enough good sense and humility to mature over the years.  Like many of us, I have not lived a perfect life and at times I have fallen short of the highest traditions of U.S. Naval Service.  I am just glad that I got this right after years of being wrong.  As I get older, I want less things to look back on and change.

9 thoughts on “The Women in the Arena

  1. Tony, I’m curious where your initial thoughts were formulated in boyhood? I’m raising two sons and would love to avoid teaching them cognitive bias. Thanks, Jillene

    • Jillene, yes I think that was the case. Pop culture too. I was a military school kid with very little exposure to high performing women.

  2. Great article and perspective. To the women walking in their truth and unabashedly living their dreams – people are watching. Men and women alike. Thankful he is mature, insightful and took the time to notice and speak. You too make a difference!!!

  3. Jillene, yes I think that was the case. Pop culture too. I was a military school kid with very little exposure to high performing women.

  4. So Tony — What’s wrong with being a “super-woke feminist dude”? I say embrace it! You are! You should be! All men should be! (I really enjoyed reading your post, and I am proud to know personally a few of the women you mentioned. Superstars all around–just like all the Class of ’98 women for starting this up. Thank you, ladies!) -MJ Pallotta, ’94

  5. Tony,

    It’s taken me a bit longer than you to develop into a man who understands the difference between the world as it should be, and the world as it is. I, like you, was raised with the standard masculine shtick and it took me quite some time to shake it. I have to say my experiences greatly parallel your own, and I’ve become a better member of the human race as I learned to recognize the biases that are so prevalent. My wife, a mustang in the Navy, greatly influences this in me.

    I just want to say thank you. Thank you for having the courage to put words to paper. I think one day, because of work like this, we’ll eventually solve this.

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