By T. Anthony Bell, Fort Lee Public Affairs
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FORT LEE, Va. – The Army’s mission to integrate women into male-only military occupational specialties has deep and substantial roots – from the time women posed as men to join them in arms on the battlefield to the advent of the Women’s Army Corps – that were nurtured by those audacious and courageous enough to challenge social norms and military traditions to claim their right to serve.
That later sprouted efforts to integrate institutions like the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., where 119 women ushered in a new dawn of equal rights in 1976 when they were the first to be admitted. Retired Col. Shelley Richardson was a member of West Point’s class of 1980, one of 62 who survived the ordeal that brought an end to 174 years of convention.
Today, the quartermaster and former president of the Army Logistics University here, reflects on her experiences with a sense of accomplishment, pride and faith in a “learning Army,” an ever-evolving institution that eventually gets it right. That’s not to say, however, that her time at West Point was a leisurely stroll under warm, sunny skies; it was more like an uphill ruck march in the face of a rainstorm.
“I was probably somewhat naïve about how women would be received,” said the Fayetteville, N.Y., native, noting she may have been a bit green about her expectations. “I thought it was an exciting decision, and the timing was great for me. I was surprised to find there really was a lot of animosity about having women attend an institution that had been all male since 1802.”
Undoubtedly, Richardson was not prepared for the measure of resentment she was about to face. It was well-chronicled and ran deep. Some school staff members and senior leaders openly expressed their fears and anguish about the integration. Some male cadets employed harassment strategies designed to make the women quit or simply make the experience more difficult. For example, Richardson said she was not always at liberty to walk where she needed because of who and what she might encounter.
“You never wanted to get caught in another company area if you were female,” she said. “Some companies didn’t really care, and they would let you pass through, but there were some companies where there were pockets of people with a real chip on their shoulder that we were there. And they really wanted to make it their mission to drive the women out. Some really did leave because it was very, very hard.”
The difficulties did not end with the aggravations and provocations. The women were graded on a Bell Curve for physical training, said Richardson. The standards were not solidified for road marches and other physical activities, and many women suffered injuries. In the aspect of uniform wear, the female gray uniforms lacked pockets and the zippers were flimsy. To make matters worse, the dress grey uniform coats were made without tails, making the women stand out even more.
In the eyes of some, these problems and more had turned the women of West Point episode into a bad sitcom and created such a stir, it sucked the air out of good order and morale while antagonizing the women, according to a Washington Post article. From the viewpoint of others, like retired Maj. Karen Hobson, Richardson’s classmate, West Point’s culture-crash was more complicated than what was reported in the press. She said the command climate varied from one company to the other. Furthermore, there were cadets who were for and against integration and some who were indifferent.
“There were three types,” said the former air defense artillery Soldier. “There were those who didn’t want us there so they harassed us as much as they could; then there were those who felt sorry because we were getting harassed so much and tried to treat us better, which made the first group even angrier; and then there was that group that just treated us like the guys.”
Having served 30 years in the Army, Richardson now has a better grip on why there was such a ruckus about having women at the academy. First, change does not come easy for an institution that largely stands on tradition. Second, the decision to integrate was abrupt and forced administrators to scramble in their efforts to accommodate. In other words, the school itself was tossed into an upheaval and had to learn on the fly.
“A lot of the cadets who had to adapt some of the training were learning just as quick as we were in how to react to us being there,” she said. “They (the school) had their standards, but they had to figure out what was needed to be changed. For the most part, they tried not to change anything.”
Richardson said while she understood why many of the women quit, leaving school was a distant thought in her mind. Her family could not afford college, and she was locked on her target of earning a diploma.
“I don’t know why I stuck it out,” she said, “except maybe to say I hadn’t really explored other options and didn’t want to go home … I really wanted a college degree.”
When Richardson received her diploma in 1980, she had fulfilled her dream, but memories of West Point’s first women would linger on during the initial few years of her active duty. She was often reminded of what transpired during Founders Day activities, an annual event held for graduates around the world.
“We had older graduates who would not speak to us and acknowledge we had graduated,” she said of a few events following graduation. “I was already a captain when this was occurring!”
Richardson attended a 35th reunion in September 2015. She toted baggage packed with some of the more negative experiences at West Point with her through the years – cautious and careful not to rekindle memories she would like to forget.
“I always re-approach with apprehension,” she said. “It was not easy for my class. It’s a hard transition for any 17 or 18-year old but was especially hard that first year for women. I still feel apprehension returning.”
Despite the feelings of uneasiness in revisiting her alma mater, Richardson said her baggage was made lighter by supportive classmates – both men and women – and by warmer receptions than the one she received in 1976.
“It’s a lot of remembering, reacquainting with current activities and learning about the accomplishments of the academy,” she said of the events. “We get a great briefing from the superintendent, dean and athletic department; we stand as reviewers in the cadet parade, explore old haunts – attend the football game. It’s a great weekend.”
Richardson said she was inspired by the transformation taking place at the nation’s oldest military academy. She noticed how gender had almost disappeared from campus vernacular – “There are no longer male or female cadets,” she said. “They’re just cadets.”
She also realized West Point is a unique experience that keeps paying dividends.
“Only through time and reflection do you realize what an impact certain things have on your life, and you really can’t get the perspective unless you look back,” she said. “At the time, I didn’t know what a great institution (West Point is); the wonderful network (it created) and the opportunities it afforded. But on reflection … holy cow, it’s a great institution. It’s a sorority/fraternity you can always count on.”
Time and reflection also has given Richardson the comfort of knowing West Point is a better institution because of her efforts and all of those who dared to try; that things do change; and that she played a part in helping to develop a modern Army on the cusps of creating a gender-neutral fighting force in light of the decision to open up combat arms military occupational specialties to women.
“When I look at the Corps (of Cadets) today, I think they’ve come so far,” she said. “From the outside, it seems like the women are completely integrated. The Army continues changing, too. More opportunities are open for women, and we will go through integration and growing pains again because many units (infantry and armor) have never had women.”
Contrasting her time at West Point and the Army’s current plans on integration, Richardson said the service has the benefit of time, experience, a solid support structure and the belief among Soldiers the institution is doing the right thing.
“The Army is a great institution, a learning institution,” she said. “Yes, we don’t always get it right, but for the majority of those who serve, their hearts are in the right place.
“Sometimes, one just has to remind everyone that we’re all on the same team, working in the interest of national security and for the good of the nation. Men and women can both do that proudly.”
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