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What Norwich University, a Military Academy, Can Teach Us About Gender Inclusion

In high school and college, I was an athlete in very non-athletic environments. In other words, it didn’t count for very much. None of the social and cultural perks, none of the status that is so associated, particularly in American life, were hoisted upon me because I could swing a racquet with some accuracy. I am grateful for that because it meant all of those practices, all the physical and mental preparation and energy, all of that emotional investment had to come from a deep inner yearning to play. I had to be passionate about what was I doing because no one around me really gave a damn. It was all on me. One of the perks in college came when we got to travel around the East Coast as a team and visit different schools and campuses. For four years, we actually enjoyed each other’s company and connected on a human level which made it an irreplaceable experience in my life, having experiences with my teammates which were intense and often hilarious.

On several occasions, we competed at two of the three elite military officer training programs in the country, The Naval Academy and West Point. Working in schools for so long, I have had three students go through this process of applying to these institutions, one at each one of the academies. Two had already gone to special middle school physical training programs and leadership programs to begin the process and bolster their applications. Multiple physical exams are needed over time, stellar academic reports are a given, almost flawless, high marks on all aptitude exams, multiple interviews with the applicant (and their families!!), security background checks, and recommendations from US senators and congressmen from their states and districts. You need multiple recommendations of both character and fidelity to country. Ultimately being accepted to one of these academies felt more like a miracle, an act of divine intervention than an act of human decision making. Tuition is free and, from the Naval Academy, all of the cadets graduate with a Masters in Engineering. The country invests between a million to a million and a half dollars for the training and education of each of these cadets and future leaders in our military.

When we went to visit, both campuses were serious places. No one is hanging out on lawns in the Fall during class registration playing ultimate frisbee. Everyone either seems to be in a jog in a group, fully clothed in boots or moving with great alacrity to some place either by foot or in a vehicle. Everyone and everything is in motion. Our team was always given an escort from the sports facilities to the locker rooms and there was no light chit chat with our guides; they were there to do the job as they were told to do. We were also always invited to eat dinner in the main mess hall which at West Point serves 5,000 cadets for 3 meals a day. There, you got to watch the real show. First years, plebs, are being hazed by upperclassmen at meals, doing push ups, clearing tables, singing songs on command and generally being pushed around. To me, it was humorous for a few minutes and then it got old really quickly.

Women were first admitted to the Naval Academy and West Point in 1976 by a mandate of Congress, coinciding with Title IX expectations. My first visit was in 1983. We did see a few women in uniform on campus, but there were few, and it felt like an all men’s institution at the time. Many of these early pioneers into the academy found themselves in a fairly typical conundrum: gender became the primary focus of their attentions and the rest of the academies as they forged new ground. “When they [the female cadets] stressed sameness, they were seen as different; when they stressed difference, they were treated the same...the women were constantly ‘doing gender,’ negotiating publicly the meaning of femininity.” (Source: See Below, p. 239)

While some of the proclamations that sought to keep the academies all male was the typical biases regarding female physical weaknesses and frailty, other more revealing language crept into the debate. Superintendents and Directors of these programs described the impact of female presence as a “toxic kind of virus” “eroding” and “diluting” the environment. This language coincides with male confusion often found regarding definitions of their own masculinity. It’s as if the male culture only understands itself in stark contrast to beliefs and prejudices and biases about women, rather than an as something in and of itself.

Because they received federal funding, several other military academies also followed suit with integrating females into their programs, but only after the Supreme Court forced the issue. Virginia Military Institute and The Citadel did not integrate until 1996 and the results were not good. Hazing and sexual harassment ruled for the early women who enrolled and one male cadet withdrew because his younger sister had been harassed out of the institution. A high number of women who attend the academies wish to enroll because they have family members (father and brothers) who attended and it is an important part of their family history and values to which they wish to connect. Others talked about the quality of the education and the opportunities to prove themselves, to lead.

Personally, it gives me a greater sense of safety, security and confidence that our country’s military leadership represents a greater diversity of human experience.

Another of these institutions, Norwich University in Vermont, decided to take advantage of the moment. Instead of waiting for the federal government to mandate integration of females into their programs in 1976, Norwich decided to take the lead and integrate 2 years earlier. The school prepared, in a positive, thoughtful way, for the arrival of female cadets and the leadership did what they were supposed to do, lead. Any early trouble or harassment was immediately dealt with as contrary to the plan and contrary to the values of the University. The administrative leadership of Norwich modeled expectations which filtered down into the culture of the student body. Reporting on the first year of the integration of women, the school newspaper wrote, “ appears that the only serious hassle evolves from the few members of the Norwich community who are not mature enough to adapt to the new environment. These poor people feel that it is necessary to direct rude remarks or cat-calls in order to express their opinions. It is these few people who make it rough and embarrassing for these girls who are trying to accomplish something worthwhile.” (Source: The Guidon 1974 p. 1)

And, what was Norwich University’s message? Was it some broad general declaration about equality and fairness? Not really. It was, as you would imagine from a school dedicated to excellence and developing their cadets at the highest levels: the belief that the integration of women would make their cadets better leaders. As Lt. Col Dianna Zito put it, men, “‘have to know how to deal with women, to feel comfortable giving them orders and taking orders from them -- that’s the real world.’”* (Source: See Below, p. 245) Norwich saw an immediate impact in their thoughtful work with increased interest and applicants and substantial increase in their fundraising from alumni who were proud of the school’s ethical stance.

While these institutions have a very particular and focused purpose, they are still schools. They are expected to teach young women and men and prepare them for a role in the world and give that role meaning. Personally, it gives me a greater sense of safety, security and confidence that our country’s military leadership represents a greater diversity of human experience.

*Diamond, D. Kimmel, M.S. Schroeder, K. (2000) “‘What’s This about a Few Good Men?’ Gender in Military Education." In: Lesko, N. (2000) Masculinities in School. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

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