No club has a more loyal membership, and no fraternity forges stronger bonds. And in their first months at the Naval Academy, Beth Schuette, Karri Zaremba and Kim McGreevy thought they belonged.
Then, in their sophomore year, they found out how wrong they were.
They testified against a male classmate accused of rape and discovered the visceral resentment that had greeted the first women midshipmen had not disappeared. It had merely gone underground.
Male classmates, caught up in the claim that Midshipman Stephen J. Ciccarelli III was the victim of a witch hunt by hysterical females, muttered obscenities when the women walked past.
They spat on the doors of the women's dormitory rooms, put a thumbtack through a photograph of Schuette's face and scrawled "Ciccarelli" on their T-shirts.
Shaken, McGreevy slept with a baseball bat under her bed. "You could feel the tension," Schuette says. "I felt uncomfortable, very uncomfortable, and, for a while, unsafe."
The alleged victims, identical twin sisters visiting for a summer program, canceled their plans to apply to the academy. Ciccarelli was acquitted of rape, convicted of lesser offenses and forced to resign from the academy.
But anger against his accusers remained. In the 1995 school year, the women had quit the academy, citing the Ciccarelli case and its aftermath as a major reason for their decision to leave.
In the 20 years since women began enrolling at the academy, incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault have periodically flared into public view.
Each episode has prompted indignant declarations from the administration that such misconduct would not be tolerated.
At the academy, cases of harassment and assault such as Ciccarelli's seem to cut a wider, more destructive swath than at civilian schools, tapping deeper emotions and stripping away the civility that usually governs gender relations.
Yet training on sexual assault didn't begin until 1993. Despite years of reports involving male midshipmen entering females' rooms uninvited at night, the academy didn't drop its rule requiring unlocked doors until August, after the messy case of a top-ranking midshipman accused of assaulting four female classmates.
Heavy drinking, a factor in almost every sexual assault at the academy, remains a stubborn tradition.
Matter of image
The image-conscious administration does not always seem eager to get a full picture of the problem. Official statistics provided by Adm. Charles R. Larson, the superintendent, to a congresswoman last summer reported 10 "sexual harassment incidents" since 1993 -- yet two-thirds of female midshipmen surveyed say sexual harassment is a problem at the academy and casual conversations with women can produce stories of far more incidents.
Larson's letter to Rep. Sue W. Kelly, a New York Republican, reports just two sexual assault cases since 1993. But in interviews, The Sun identified three additional cases.
Larson says there is no attempt to minimize the problems. He notes that midshipmen wishing to report harassment or assault have many people to go to: company officers, ranking midshipmen, chaplains, ombudsmen, peer counselors. Some cases may be handled informally and never show up in the statistics, he says.
"We want to encourage openness, not discourage openness," Larson says. "You encourage openness by allowing this to be informal grievances, not issue-bound reports."
Teen-agers coming to Annapolis enter a universe in which respect for military rank, obedience to orders and stoical endurance of difficulties are prime values.
Applied to sexual interaction, such rules can be disorienting, according to stories told by several dozen current and former academy women interviewed by The Sun.
What does a female midshipman do when her male squad leader, performing a routine uniform inspection, scrutinizes her breast pockets, inside and out, with special care? What if an upper-class male, telling a plebe woman that her "shirt tuck" is not as tight as it might be, proceeds unasked to push her shirttails deeper into her pants?
Does she confront her superior on the spot, taking the risk that she will anger a person who can make her life miserable and label her forever as a "whiner," or, worse still, in midshipmen parlance, a "feminist"? Does she take the chance of reporting the incident?
Too often a report of sexual harassment or assault rebounds against the accuser. When freshman Jennifer L. La Raia insisted on reporting her male platoon commander, a senior, for making a crude pass during inspection in 1989, "other upperclassmen came and said, 'Don't do it, your life will be hell,' " recalls La Raia, now 25.
They were right. She was summoned by the academy's deputy commandant, who she says told her point-blank that he thought she was lying. She resigned from the academy and now teaches in a Houston junior high school.