For Navy women, sailing has gotten smoother

July 05, 2006|By JAMIE STIEHM AND BRADLEY OLSON | JAMIE STIEHM AND BRADLEY OLSON,SUN REPORTERS

The young woman was almost there.

After a year of petty treatment and abuse from some men, one of the first 81 women to enter the U.S. Naval Academy was about to reach the top of a greased obelisk that represented the end of an arduous indoctrination process.

By lore, the midshipman who scales the Herndon Monument every year in the prized ritual will be the first admiral of the graduating class. But the woman who had almost made it, climbing on the shoulders of her fellow plebes at the end of their freshman year, was yanked down by some male classmates.

"It was disheartening," said Sharon Hanley Disher, who was among the first women admitted in 1976 and among the first 55 to graduate four years later. "If we had banded together as a team and put the lighter-weight gals at the top, we would have been able to do it faster. But a certain few were not playing that game.

"It was disheartening, but it was also motivating. It was a lot like those people on the first day you got there who told you: `You're not going to be here when I graduate.' I said, `Oh, yeah? Watch me.'"

Disher and several other members of that first class said they couldn't remember who was tugged from the pinnacle of the monument, but all remembered it as one of the many insults they would experience during four years at the Annapolis military college. The women entered the school July 6, 1976, after Congress mandated that the traditional male-only policy be scrapped.

Similar changes were under way throughout education: Title IX leveled the playing field for female and male sports programs in public schools and universities. Princeton and Yale, two of the last single-sex Ivy League universities, went coed, along with elite New England colleges such as Williams and Amherst.

But the rigors of breaking the gender barrier at the military college were especially hard on the first women midshipmen.

Hailed as `heroes'

At their 25th class reunion last year, Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, the superintendent often credited with being an aggressive reformer of the school's macho culture, lauded the first women to wear Naval Academy class rings as "heroes" - a bouquet that brought tears to some eyes.

"That gave us dignity and respect. But for some, it was hard to go back there for the reunion," said Disher. "There were a lot of painful memories."

Thirty years ago, when the freshmen arrived for induction day - when heads are shorn, uniforms and rooms are assigned, and the crucible known as plebe summer begins - only 14 women were on the faculty. There were 17 male freshmen "plebes" for every one of the women, and once the rest of the midshipmen arrived in the fall, they were outnumbered by a margin of 50-to-1.

Their numbers were few, and their moves were watched. Their hair was cut to collar-length by barbers trained to shear men's heads like lambs. Their uniforms didn't fit well, and many of their male classmates made it clear that they weren't welcome, insisting that the school trains "line officers" for combat, not women who, under the law then in effect, couldn't serve on a Navy combat ship or plane.

In a demoralizing blow their senior year, James Webb, a war hero and novelist in the English department, cut a swath with an oft-quoted article in Washingtonian magazine, titled "Women Can't Fight."

But it wasn't all bad, said Capt. Katherine Shanebrook, who now heads the academy's division of mathematics and science. Now one of the highest-ranking officers at the school, serving in a position that would equate to dean at a civilian university, Shanebrook has mostly positive memories of her time at the academy.

"One thing I was really pleased about was the variety of things we got to do," she said, "whether it was hand-to-hand combat, swimming or sailing. We got to learn how to fence. We were introduced to so many different things in a short period of time, and I really enjoyed that."

Shanebrook came to the academy after three years as an enlisted corpsman, or Navy medic, in San Diego. After growing up in Pontiac, Ill., she joined the Navy to pursue a medical career and discovered it wasn't for her. Shanebrook was taking oceanography courses at a local community college when she found out that women could attend the Naval Academy.

She didn't see herself as a trailblazer, she just saw it as the right opportunity at the right time, she said.

Shanebrook's career in the Navy's oceanography and meteorology community took her to both poles of the Earth, working as a forecaster. Now back at the academy in a significant leadership position, she said the opportunities she received in the Navy were as good as what she might have found in the civilian world, if not better. The troubles the women Mids faced are all but gone, she said.

"Women have been here for 30 years," she said. "People here have not known it any other way. It's just not a big deal anymore. Women now go out to sea on our ships and fly out on our airplanes."

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