Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Being a Woman at the Navel Academy

One of the First Women at the Naval Academy: What Was It Really Like?

Black Wings (Fuze Publishing, December 2011), a mystery by Kathleen Toomey Jabs, shuttles between the Pentagon and the United States Naval Academy. With vivid characters and a compelling plot woven with secret societies, gender politics, and of course, murder, this whodunit is available at www.fuzepublishing.com for your reading pleasure!

Kathleen talked with Fuze about her real-life tenure at the United States Naval Academy in the 1980’s.

Why did you decide to apply to the United States Naval Academy?

I honestly didn’t know what I wanted to do after high school. I was very interested in math and ocean science, and I wanted to travel. I happened to pick up a USNA catalog, and I found myself intrigued by the challenge and the opportunities the Navy offered.

What was the most challenging thing about being a woman at the USNA in the eighties?

The scarcity of other women! My class started with about 110 women–out of 1100 midshipmen overall–and finished with about 80. We were scattered throughout the brigade and with all the academic and athletic requirements, there wasn’t always the opportunity to be around other women who were senior, junior, or peers. Because of the number of rules and time constraints and the absence of phones or computers back then, the sense of isolation could be overwhelming at times.

What was the most rewarding experience while at the Naval Academy?

I went on an English Honor Seminar trip to Ireland the summer before my senior year. We spent the year reading Ulysses, then traveled to Dublin for a week to retrace James Joyce’s steps, and finally went over to Sligo for a seminar on the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. It was an amazing learning experience.

What do you think has changed the most in terms of the role of women in the military?

The sheer number of opportunities available to women has meant that females in the military are no longer anomalies. The Navy has opened up many fields that were restricted – ships, combat aircraft, now submarines. There are very few places in the Navy where you don’t see women. While there are still “firsts” for women, gender is no longer the focus.

Why should people attend the USNA?

Attending USNA tests a midshipman in every way possible – mental, physical and emotional – and teaches one’s limits and capacity. The service Academy environment is purposefully stressful, but it builds confidence to meet challenges and to work through problems.

Are you glad that you went to the Academy?

I wouldn’t trade my time at the Academy because it’s made me who I am today. I didn’t always enjoy it, and I would’ve done some things differently, but I appreciate the experience.

Are you still connected to classmates you met while a midshipman?

There is definitely a bond among classmates and then a stronger one among graduates. I’ve recently started to attend Naval Academy Alumni breakfasts in my area and re-connected with some women from different classes. We have an instant comfort level and understanding of what we’ve all endured and survived.

You currently hold the rank of Captain. Why did you stay in the Navy for your career?

I got out of the Navy after six years, but I missed it. My husband is active duty Navy so we were still around the military. I decided to join the Navy reserve, so I could still participate to some extent in the national security arena and maintain a career. When I moved into the public affairs field, I found a specialty that I really enjoyed.

Would you recommend the USNA to women today?

Yes, and I would also recommend that while they are there, join a sports team or another type of activity with a lot of women. My knees went bad, so I wasn’t able to stay with track during my tenure. I participated in club sports, but it wasn’t the same level of sharing and commitment. There is something reaffirming about bonding with women because many of the experiences at the Academy highlight gender. Looking back, I realize I was hungry for female role models. Events as seemingly simple as a Homecoming Dance or a date are much more complicated when you’re a female midshipman. The tension between being one of the guys but also not made boundaries very fluid, especially at an age where you’re very young and vulnerable.

What do you hope might change in the future?

I would like to continue to see the expansion in the military and in the larger government of better ways to blend parenthood and service. There are so many talented Academy graduates and military veterans who would love to be of service, but it’s very difficult balancing parenting demands and full-time careers. As a country, we need to find creative ways of tapping into the incredible potential of women, while at the same time allowing men and women the space and time to raise a family.

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