In the fall of 1976, Jennifer (Jen) Silva was just starting kindergarten, while 119 women entered the halls of West Point for the first time as students. Thirteen years later, Jen joined the Long Gray Line, so named because of the gray uniforms all West Point cadets wear during their four years.
“I considered it a privilege to be there,” said Jen, chief program officer at Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP). “It challenges you as a young person academically, physically, and from a military and leadership perspective. At every turn you’re expected to perform at a level of excellence.”
Women weren’t always permitted to attend military academies such as The United States Military Academy at West Point (USMA). These institutions were focused on producing leadership for combat, and women in the military were excluded from combat roles. But in 1975, President Gerald Ford signed a bill allowing admission of women into the academies.
Opening the Doors
The doors opened for women at West Point, the U.S. Naval Academy (USNA), the U.S. Air Force Academy (USAFA), and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy (USCGA). The academies adapted to accommodate women but weren’t entirely prepared. Uniforms didn’t fit properly and bathrooms still had urinals. But that was the least of the women’s concerns.
“In one class, the guys would put their feet on the tables so that I couldn’t get to a seat,” said Patricia Whitney, who was part of the second class of women at the USNA. “I had to climb over the tables.”
Patricia also recalled men making a big deal about women having more time to complete their PT (physical training) tests. She said men used it as a reason to justify why women weren’t as qualified. Because of that, whenever Patricia did the mile run, she always tried to beat the men’s time, not just the women’s.
Beyond that, Patricia and other women experienced other belittling behaviors: upperclassmen waited for her in the halls so they could yell at her, they called women derogatory nicknames, and they made comments on women’s bodies and weights.
“There were so few of us that it was like we were under a microscope,” Patricia said.
Jen echoed that sentiment. When she attended, women were about 10% of the population. “When it’s only 10%, it’s like a fishbowl, and no matter what you do, you’re representing your gender,” Jen said.
But it wasn’t all bad.
“In class, women and men were on an equal playing field,” Jen said. “Mostly on the physical side of things, we had to prove we were equal to men. At that time, we weren’t allowed to serve in combat, but we still did all the combat training with our fellow male cadets.”
She added that she felt as long as her fellow male cadets saw she was a good team player and could keep up physically, they were good teammates. There were still some who were immature about gender roles and women’s roles in the academy, but they were in the minority, in Jen’s experience.
Patricia noted that her experience at the USNA pushed her to do things she might not have done otherwise.
“In both my military and civilian careers, I definitely had to prove myself in a way most males do not,” Patricia said. “It’s difficult when people feel like you’re the token female, so it was common for me to stay longer at work and push harder to ensure they saw me as capable.”
It took time for Patricia to earn respect in her career. While men got respect right away, Patricia found that women have fight to earn that same respect.
In the face of these obstacles, women who attended military academies in the early years developed fortitude and resilience.
Learning Life Lessons
“The top lesson I learned at West Point is how to fail,” Jen said. “The expectations were so high all the time because they’re teaching you how to fail and react to it, and ultimately, how to excel next time.”
The normalization of failing is an important skillset Jen took with her into her civilian career.
“If you’re not failing, you’re probably never really challenging yourself, and you’re not trying to build something innovative,” Jen said. “It doesn’t mean you don’t prepare to succeed, but you have to realize you won’t be perfect at first.”
Jen knows she won’t always be great at everything, but she will always put the effort in. Another important lesson she learned is that it’s key to rely on others. She applied that lesson in the Army and civilian life.
“At Wounded Warrior Project, we tackle really big problems,” Jen said. “We rely on each other as teammates as we help warriors through challenging times.”
Patricia agreed that it is important to find a group of people who are supportive of each other. Having mentors or role models and others you can relate to can make a significant difference in dealing with challenges. In WWP’s Women Warriors Initiative research, women warriors indicated that social and personal support — and having a strong community of fellow sisters-in-arms — play critical roles in their transitions to civilian life from a military career. Survey results from that research show that 52% of women felt they had strong connections with female veterans.
Looking to the Future
“You have to want to be challenged in every aspect of your life,” Jen said of young women or men who might be considering attending a military academy. “Academics, physical and military training, teamwork, and time management. It’s the greatest leadership experiment out there.”
Patricia encouraged young women to not give up. She noted that the courage, sense of commitment, discipline, and teamwork women build in the military will serve them well. Although she said she felt pressured to get all the certifications and licenses possible, she found it helps with credibility. She added that women shouldn’t have to do that, but that it’s a reality when working in male-dominated professions. It also proves a person’s drive and dedication to success. Still, it’s important to know success doesn’t come without failure.
“We can all learn something from failing,” Jen said. “No one has a straight, clear path without obstacles. Learning how to fail in a way where you can be positive after facing challenges is a really powerful life skill.”
Today, women are the fastest growing group of the all-volunteer force, representing approximately 16% of the active-duty military today and about 10% of veterans. This number will continue to grow as women make up approximately 20% of the population at military academies.
“Women with a desire to serve are real assets to their communities, and they should be proud of that,” Jen said.
Learn more about WWP’s Women Warriors Initiative.
Contact: Rachel Bolles — Public Relations, firstname.lastname@example.org, 904.646.6941
About Wounded Warrior Project
Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers — helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more.