Charting a course of change Annapolis: The stories of three female graduates trace how the role of women has evolved at the academy and in the military.

February 11, 1997|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF Staff writer Scott Shane contributed to this article.

Day after day, through pre-dawn runs toting M-1 rifles, afternoon rowing races on the Severn and late-night dormitory ,, pep talks, the Naval Academy officer had won the loyalty of the midshipmen.

Now the officer, a Marine captain, stood before 40 students and described the test they would face after graduation if they chose the same career: daunting obstacle courses, exhausting marches over rugged terrain, a Spartan life in tents.

And she told the young women that they, too, could make it in the Marines.

It's no longer a few good men, Capt. Duska Pearson assured her gung-ho, all-female audience. "You're given the same opportunities as men," she said. "You will not be herded to anything specifically because you are a woman."

When Pearson returned to her alma mater to train the next generation of midshipmen, she experienced the mixed emotions many female graduates.

Invariably, women from earlier classes are astonished and impressed by the number of female midshipmen, their prominence as student leaders, their easy banter with the men, even their long hair.

Sexual harassment, once not even recognized as a problem, is now the focus of regular videos and seminars. Women match men in "Iron Plebe" contests and graduate in the top ranks of their class. Crowds of women compete for once-barred jobs aboard fighter planes and warships.

Yet, as graduates talk with those who followed them, they hear echoes of their own, often painful experiences.

Beneath the surface of academy life, a resilient strain of anti-female sentiment persists. The flagrant hostility toward women has subsided into more subtle forms of prejudice.

The story of change, and resistance to change, can be traced through the lives of three women. Chrystal Campbell graduated with the pioneering class of 1980, Duska Pearson, now back at the academy as an officer, with the class of 1989, and Laura Herath with the class of 1994, as the combat barriers fell.

Chrystal Campbell

The jobs now open to women are only the most obvious reason Chrystal Campbell envies those who came after her.

There is everything they no longer have to endure: the daily ridicule, the lewd notes, the finger-pointing on campus, the loneliness and isolation.

"Not one day in four years went by that someone didn't say something nasty to me," she recalls. "There were times that were just depressing. It was sad, lonely."

Now a Delta Airlines pilot and mother of two, Campbell, 38, is left with deeply contradictory feelings. She shares the same grim memories of most women from the first class. But she also developed the strength she needed to become the third woman ever to qualify to land Navy jets on aircraft carriers.

Whenever a male classmate would taunt, "Get out of my school, b----," Campbell comforted herself by thinking: "This guy doesn't know you. They're just unhappy people. Life is not going to get you down."

She, too, had wanted to be a Marine officer. The daughter of a Marine pilot, Campbell grew up moving from base to base, surrounded by fighter jocks. She saw her chance as a high school senior when Congress forced the nation's military academies to become coeducational.

On a humid July day in 1976, Campbell arrived in Annapolis with 1,298 other teen-agers. Even though the 81 women wore the same uniforms, practiced with the same firearms and marched in the same drills as the men, they had a hard time fitting in.

They faced an implacable hostility that was in some ways officially tolerated. Annapolis alumni, Navy officers and faculty grumbled that their beloved institution would never be the same with women, and the academy's attempts to defuse the situation were clumsy at best.

Hoping to join the Marines, which then admitted few women, Campbell always tried harder. She kept pace with her male classmates in the mile run and learned to jump from planes.

Looking back, she describes herself as naive. "It was such a breakthrough to let us in the academy," she says. "I had no idea about the resistance in the upper echelons of the Navy."

At football games, she heard men screaming "heifer" and "hosebag" at the academy's first cheerleaders. The men's favorite insult for female midshipmen was "WUBA," the acronym for the women's standard uniform (Women's Uniform Blue Alpha), for which they found other crude meanings. "Women Used By All" was one of the least offensive.

Worse was the betrayal by male classmates whom the women considered friends. In Campbell's senior year, male midshipmen attending a speech by the chief of naval operations erupted in wild jeers after a question about whether women belonged at the academy. Women looked away, mortified, as men pumped their fists in the air, and the Navy's chagrined top officer walked off stage.

"It was almost involuntary," Campbell says. "I think it really embarrassed them to see women running around in these uniforms, and they were humiliated."

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