Ambiguity in the ranks Annapolis: As they continue to define their role, female midshipmen at the Naval Academy face challenges different from the men's.

February 09, 1997|By Scott Shane, JoAnna Daemmrich, Tom Bowman | Scott Shane, JoAnna Daemmrich, Tom Bowman,SUN STAFF

Like every Naval Academy freshman, Lisa Gibellato knew about the Herndon ceremony, the sweaty springtime celebration survival and teamwork in which plebes scale a 21-foot granite monument greased with lard. She knew the academy lore: that the first student to reach the top would be the first in the class to make admiral.

And like her classmates, Gibellato, a three-sport athlete who came to Annapolis in 1992 from Toledo, Ohio, had heard about another tradition, one never acknowledged in academy literature. It dated to the slogan that appeared on men's T-shirts the year women arrived at the academy: NGOH. No Girls On Herndon.

But if some men still refused to accept that women could become competent naval officers, Gibellato, the granddaughter of a Navy pilot, was not going to let them stop her.

So when a male classmate pulled her off the monument, she recalls, "I just got back up and kicked the guy in the head."

Twenty years after women arrived at the Naval Academy, their ambiguous status in an institution Gibellato calls a "bastion of masculinity" is symbolized by her experience at Herndon.

Women long ago demolished the myth that only men could compete in the macho world of the Yard. Last spring, by a measure that includes athletic and military achievement as well as grades, four of the top 10 graduates were women -- in a class that was just 12 percent female. Gibellato, a math major, ranked ninth of 917.

Yet neither the success of women at Annapolis nor the Navy's post-Tailhook sensitivity to gender issues has won them full acceptance as equals. Many male midshipmen -- some not yet born when the academy first admitted women -- say they wish the Navy's premier training ground were still for males only. And the academy's claims that women are fully assimilated disguise a deeply contradictory picture:

* Of 33 academy officers holding the senior rank of Navy captain or Marine colonel, none are women. No woman heads an academic department; even the Women Midshipmen Study Group is chaired by a man. Female officers told a Pentagon study group in 1995 that they felt "marginal acceptance" from the "good old boys' " network.

* About 35 percent of women who entered the Class of 1996 left the academy without graduating, compared with 25 percent of the men. The gender gap in attrition rates persists despite the lure of Navy combat jobs, which were opened to women in 1993.

* Women make up just 14 percent of midshipmen, a factor that contributes to the fraternity-house atmosphere of some academy events and can leave women isolated. Their achievements are often dismissed as results of quotas or favoritism.

* Female midshipmen suffer a high rate of anorexia and bulimia, eating disorders often associated with the drive and athleticism typical of academy students. Women say their weight and appearance are subject to intense scrutiny and frequent comments.

* Despite extensive training, sexual harassment and sexual assault remain a stubborn fact of life in Bancroft Hall, the dormitory for all 4,000 midshipmen. Some male upperclassmen exploit their power -- and violate academy rules -- by pursuing plebe women. And women who report offenses risk being ostracized by the male majority.

Adm. Charles R. Larson, who returned in 1994 for his second term as superintendent to restore the reputation of the academy, is credited by many women with setting a professional tone in which fewer boys-will-be-boys shenanigans are tolerated. Larson says it takes time to integrate women into an institution that was all-male for 131 years. Conditions for women have improved dramatically, he says.

Success story

"Women at the Naval Academy is a remarkable success story," says Larson, the father of three daughters, one of whom worked for a time as a police officer. "My sense is now the women feel good about the environment here. What they're doing now is confronting things much more openly. We've made great

strides."

His view is supported by many academy women, who are frustrated that the media and the public still see them as victims, symbolized by the female midshipman handcuffed to a urinal in a heavily publicized 1989 incident.

"I get really angry at the image out there of women at the academy," says Margaret C. Vasak, a 1996 graduate who completed a master's degree in aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland before reporting to Florida last week to train to be a pilot. "It sounds like we're all people who complain."

Others say women's undoubted accomplishments should not be mistaken for full acceptance. A consultant who studied the issue two years ago found that the academy's climate was still "neutral to hostile to women."

"Over the past 20 years, there hasn't been as much progress as I would have hoped," says retired Navy Capt. Georgia C. Sadler, the academy's first female faculty member in the early 1970s, who now studies military women at a Washington think tank. "They still haven't reached the point where they're just midshipmen."

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