Service academy women convene

Three-day event in Arlington might once have been viewed as `mutiny'

October 26, 2007|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,Sun reporter

The meeting seemed innocent enough.

Because they were dispersed among the brigade of midshipmen and saw little of each other, the first class of women to enter the Naval Academy had a meeting to discuss common experiences.

During their first plebe summer in 1976, 55 of the 81 female students on campus met for 45 minutes in a room in Mitscher Hall and complained about being harassed, catcalls they termed "emotional rape" and men who routinely walked around naked in front of them in the dorm. The women considered the meeting a resounding success, and many remembered walking away with improved resolve.

The next day, Commandant James Winnefeld called the organizer of the event into his office, as recounted in the 2006 book Sea Change at Annapolis, and said the event could be deemed a "mutiny" and that she could be thrown out for "conspiracy."

The women never met together again after what they now call the "Plebe Summer Mutiny." But they look back on the event with a little irony more than 31 years later, as they and other female graduates of the nation's service academies gather today in Arlington, Va., for an annual symposium that has become a cathartic event since it was first held in 2003.

"Whenever you're a part of a group that integrates an institution, there's a lot of pressure to do it alone," said Stefanie Goebel, one of the first female Naval Academy graduates in 1980 who's a member of AcademyWomen, a nonprofit that organized this weekend's conference.

"So it is, sadly, a solitary experience in many ways. There is this feeling of sisterhood, and when you have this opportunity to meet women who went to the other academies, it's surprisingly wonderful to get to know them, and find out about them."

Tomorrow, 28 current female Mids will attend the three-day event, where they will listen to a panel about women in combat and at war, as well as memorialize those female graduates who have died in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

They will also get career coaching and advice from those in AcademyWomen which now has 1,300 members, including graduates from the Navy, Army, Air Force, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine academies. In recent years, it has expanded to include the entire female officer corps.

Christina Rejent, a senior and co-president of the Joy Bright Hancock Organization, an academy group dedicated to allowing female Mids "to discuss and share issues" - much like what was once called a mutiny - said she looks forward to the event and sees it as a mentoring opportunity.

"In school, we have female officers, but they have so many jobs and they're so busy in their daily life, it's hard to have time to get issues out or voice concerns about things that are unique to females," said Rejent, a native of Northeastern Pennsylvania who's majoring in Naval architecture. "There are always a lot of very successful people there, and it's just always a treat to be able to talk to them and have them in one place."

Susan Feland, a 1993 graduate of the Air Force Academy in Colorado who founded AcademyWomen in 2003, said she conceived of the organization after leaving the Air Force. She said she was surprised that so many people thought her experience at a service academy was so unusual.

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