Why they Persevered
By Shannon Martin ’98
On 28 May 1980, the first class of women graduated from the Naval Academy. It’s complicated being the first one to do anything, maybe especially to blaze the trail of a minority at a Service Academy. In the summer of 1976, 81 women joined the ranks of Midshipmen. Four years later 55 of them graduated and commissioned in the Navy and Marine Corps. We often say that Midshipmen live in a fishbowl, but these women lived in a petri dish, constantly under a microscope. The press, politicians, military leadership and the nation were interested in their experiences, successes and failures. Their public comments were parsed and often twisted in ways that would be difficult for a much more experienced adult to handle. One individual’s public comment could affect all of the women in some way. One respondent stated, “After Christmas break my plebe year, my roommates and I were screamed at by three upperclassmen because of comments in a newspaper given by one of our female classmates.”
A few months ago, when the Sisterhood of Mother B asked these women to fill out a questionnaire, it is no surprise that some chose not to participate. Many never replied. Others replied to say that they had no interest in reopening that chapter – that they still had nightmares about their time at the Academy. Some wondered if others felt the same (many do). Still others answered reluctantly, wanting to share their journey with the Sisterhood so that we could understand and maybe, so that they could heal, but worried their words would once again be twisted or misconstrued. There were those that answered stridently and with passion, glad for the opportunity to speak their truth. We are thankful for all of them – the women who made our journey possible.
This is the first in a series of articles that will take a closer look at the answers to this survey and some of the conversations that ensued over email because of it. The questionnaire involved more than 20 questions covering time at the Naval Academy, in the Fleet and beyond. Thirteen women from the Class of 1980 have filled out the questionnaire for public release so far – all of them graduates, all of them Navy. We wanted to explore and share these experiences with the Sisterhood and the body of alumni at large. In honor of the anniversary of the Class of ’80’s commissioning and the recent commissioning of the Class of ’19, this first article explores why they stayed and what they would tell their younger selves if they could take a trip back to their time as Midshipmen.
Fear, Commitment and Grit
Why did they stay in the openly hostile environment of Bancroft Hall? In some ways, the reasons might sound familiar to later classes. We all had a classmate who had no choice – there was no money for college or other options back home. We knew someone who faced familial and social pressure to stay and who felt they lacked the guts to disappoint mom and dad. There are the patriots who always wanted to serve and knew their whole life that the Naval Academy and the Navy were what they wanted to pursue. Living life in the petri dish both instilled a determination to finish and sometimes increased the feeling of being trapped in the conundrum of wanting to leave, but knowing many would view this as failure of the entire experiment.
Jill Votaw, Marjorie Morley, Peggy Feldmann and Tina D’Ercole credit their goals to serve their country for their success at the Naval Academy—Each had a life-long dream that included the Naval Academy, and nothing was going to stand in their way. Kathy Clore and USNAAA Women’s SIG President, Barbette Lowndes, expressed the concern that they either didn’t want their parents to have to pay for school or knew their parents could not afford other opportunities. However, both of them also expressed the desire to succeed. Barbette called it “SSS – too scared, too stubborn, too stupid to quit.” Others also felt the fear of leaving, Elizabeth Rowe expresses this so well, “Once I was there, I felt I had no choice. The more attention I got, the less options I felt. Looking back, that seems so silly, but at that age, it felt insurmountable.”
One woman considered resignation for reasons Midshipmen throughout the years have considered leaving. “I actually resigned and did most of my out-processing during the summer after my second year. I did it for a number of reasons, most of which boiled down to not having a clue what they would do with our class for service selection. That uncertainty, coupled with my resolve to get married and have a family and my lack of a vision about how that would possibly work made resignation seem like the only option. (Also – remember this was 1978 – not a lot of role models around). My parents urged me to stay, and of course, I talked to many folks ‘on the way out.’ Eventually I changed my mind and withdrew my papers.”
But she stayed for the most common reason of all, to prove that she could. “The main reason I graduated was to prove to myself, and the world, that I could. As we all know, USNA gets to be a lot more fun the closer you get to graduation, so that helped as well once we got past the midpoint and especially into first class year. Ultimately I was very proud of what we did.
Many stayed not just because of their internal motivation to succeed or the need to stay for family or society. Their fellow Midshipmen inspired them in ways that perhaps those men never expected. Three of the women who responded specifically credit their male upperclassmen and classmates for their drive to stay and graduate. For two of them, specific instances on I-Day fueled their fire for four long years. Sharon Disher, author of the book First Class, wrote, “At dinner on I-Day, my platoon leader told me he didn’t want women in his school, he didn’t like women in his school and it would be his mission to see that I was gone long before he graduated. I wanted to prove him wrong. And I wanted to serve in the military no matter what type of school I went to.” Maureen Nunez’s story is eerily similar. “On I-Day, as I chopped into Bancroft Hall for the first time, a firstie stopped me just inside the Rotunda, looked at my name tag and started yelling at me that he was going to see to it that I never graduated from HIS Academy. At that moment, I decided that I would graduate, no matter what it took. I had wanted to go to the Naval Academy and serve my Country for as long as I could remember, and I was not going to let anyone take it away from me just because he didn’t want women there.” For Stefanie Goebel and others, there was no single moment driving them to graduation, but the pervasive culture that so many wanted the women to leave steeled their resolve. As Stefanie stated, “The reason I made sure to stay and graduate was simply knowing how much the men (or many of the men) wanted us to quit. This gave me the strongest possible motivation to persevere and stay the course. I would never ever give them the satisfaction to see one more of us leave.”
Advice to Their Younger Selves
With few mentors and an unknown future in the Fleet, 55 women graduated. The Academy was tough on them. They were tough on each other and on themselves. They were isolated from each other. Many of them still have nightmares of their time at school. They have memories of experiences that no woman—no person—should have to endure. They answered our call for information, because they want the classes behind them to have it better. To that end, they offer current midshipmen – and all of us – the advice that they would give their younger selves.
It is OK to leave. You won’t be letting women down by quitting, your parents will still love you. —Kathy Clore
1) Get out there and experience what was offered. Go to concerts, plays, pep rallies, or sporting events (not just the mandatory events in plebe year).
2) You are smarter than you think you are. I didn’t have anyone pushing me to believe in myself academically. Telling me to study more is not the same as building confidence in my efforts.
Be more forgiving or yourself. Do your best. Help others. Take some risks—but not the dangerous kind. And for Heaven’s sake, go “over the wall” at least once!
1) Don’t be so afraid of standing out in the crowd or standing up for yourself (our favorite survival mechanism was to keep head low and stay out of the line of attention). You have every right to be where you are and do what you need and want to do – you don’t have to take s*&t from anyone.
2) Find something you really love to do and learn about instead of just trying to get grades/ credits or punch tickets.
3) Life is (hopefully) long, so don’t have too short a horizon. That is, you will still be REALLY young when your service commitment is over! USNA and active duty commitment is but a short chapter in your life. (Real adults did try to tell me this ☺).
4) See as much of the world as you can while you’re in the Navy.
Get involved in a female sports team, they had access to more women without pressure to not congregate. I remember at the beginning of Plebe Summer, my Squad Leader, a 1/C Midshipman, recommended that the women not band together ‘like the blacks’, we needed to focus on integrating with our male classmates. We ended up being isolated in 2-4 women companies. I was very lucky to have Melissa Harrington as my roommate. We were very close throughout the four years, she was definitely a positive influence and helped me get through the tough times.—Carol Desmarais Hoffman
Hang in there, it’s all worth it! —Jill Hawkins Votaw
You’ll be fine. Don’t let them get you down. It’s their problem, not yours.
—Elizabeth Belzer Rowe
That standing up for yourself and brushing back the bullies is empowering and important. That one woman making a mistake does not reflect on all women. That one man being a bully does not make them all bullies. That anyone who acts one way in a one-on-one setting, but differently in a group/mob setting should be avoided. That naval officers are not all enlightened. That crying is OK if nobody sees you. That if someone truly loves you, they will be proud of you and what you’ve accomplished. That women should support other women- we have it hard enough without battling or belittling each other.
—Maureen Foley Nunez
Don’t date a firstie (senior) as a plebe. —Sharon Hanley Disher
Perhaps I’d tell myself to not take the bullshit so seriously and try to laugh a little everyday. Hindsight is 20/20!! —Marjory Morley
Some moments here may seem like the worst you will ever encounter and that the difficulties will never end, but they will and you simply have to persevere and wait it out. Just like high school, many of your problems are specific to this unique place and will evaporate the day you graduate. Be kinder and more patient with yourself: you are young and still growing up and finding your way. You cannot know everything you need to know to succeed here. Like most of life, only trial and error will teach you what you need to know. Lean on your friends more for support and advice, and find mentors. There are always adults around you who are waiting to be asked to mentor you. Look for ways to mentor the women who are coming behind you. Tell them what you would have liked to know when you arrived!—Stefanie Goebel
Here is what I have been telling my younger self for the last four years – our daughter graduated from USNA last week with the Class of 2019.
1.) Grades do matter – there are so many additional opportunities in the Fleet but many of them require a 3.0 or 3.2 GPA to apply;
2.) Have fun but weigh the consequences; and
3.) Do not let your fears rule your Spirit.
For me, 40 years ago – #1 still holds, 2.) Do more ECAs, not just swim, 3.) Learn to love running—Peggy Feldmann
Thank you, women of the Class of 1980 for sharing a piece of yourselves with us. While we cannot fully understand the trials you endured, we appreciate your sacrifices. We look forward to sharing more in the weeks and months ahead.