As Naval Academy celebrates 175 years, first women to graduate reflect on their experiences of decades ago
By HEATHER MONGILIO | The (Annapolis, Md.) Capital | Published: October 11, 2020
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — Beth Gordon was playing tennis when her mother came driving up, waving a piece of paper. A piece of paper few women ever had seen.
It was Gordon’s acceptance to the Naval Academy.
The Naval Academy celebrated its 175th anniversary Saturday, but women have been at the academy for just 25% of the institution’s history.
While the Naval Academy celebrates its birthday, the female alumni celebrated 40 years since the first women graduated.
The academy has come a long way in the 44 years since women first were allowed in, said members of the first class that included women. When they went, they faced abuse from their classmates, many of whom did not want women in their class.
In 1975, Congress passed a law mandating that service academies allow women to enter, although they could not serve in combat roles.
Gordon was one of the first women to attend. In 1976, women made up about 2% of the academy. In 2020, the most recent plebe class is 30% women.
“I will say that I really was naive, I did not know how much of a controversy this was and that we would not be well received,” she said.
The women were scattered among the companies, Gordon said. She was in the fifth company, which had a few women. Sixth company, however, had none.
Life for the women depended on the company, said Sharon Disher, who also graduated in 1980. She was in a good company, she said, but she has heard horror stories from the other women.
“Nobody wanted us there,” Disher said. “Nobody liked us.”
Disher wanted to go into the military, regardless of attending a service academy, she said. But when she applied and got into the Naval Academy, she decided to go because she could choose her major, unlike at West Point.
“It was so beautiful on the water,” she said.
The academy tried to accommodate women, now that their acceptance was mandatory. As much as they tried, things sometimes were ill-fitting, such as the uniforms, which were adapted from the men’s uniforms, Gordon said.
The women had their rooms in Bancroft Hall, and bathrooms, too, Gordon said. That became their safe haven, including a place to cry, because men were not allowed inside.
And then there were the attitudes from the men. Some, like Disher’s husband, who also graduated in 1980, did not care. But others did not want the women, and they voiced their opinions loudly. Others just wanted to date them.
Disher remembers that on Induction Day — the first day new midshipmen arrive — she messed up how to be excused from the dinner table.
“And so my squad, my platoon leader stood up, and he put his finger in my face, and he said, ‘Miss Hanley. I don’t like women in my school. I don’t want women in my school. And it’ll be my mission to see you are gone before I graduate. Is that clear?’ ” Disher said.
The leadership stayed silent, Disher said.
Some professors could add to the feeling of being unwanted. Others helped the women succeed.
Because women could not serve in combat roles, some male midshipmen and professors felt women were taking the spots of men who could fight, said Marjorie Bachman, who graduated in 1980.
She remembers the many names the men had for the women.
“They started a lot of rumors about the women,” Bachman said. “Some nasty rumors. They pulled pranks on the women, put dead rats in the woman’s mailboxes, and threw things in the women’s room, like cold food that they’d had in the fridge in the middle of the night. They’d throw food into their rooms; they called them midnight raids, a lot of hatred and vitriol just directed at the woman when they didn’t even know us.”
That was not to say the academy did not have its positive moments, although it depends on each woman. Some still cannot return to the academy because of the trauma.
For Stefanie Goebel, it was a positive experience that allowed her to go to college, and it helped her to get out of a small Texas town.
But she, too, faced the vitriol the men spat toward the women. She felt unwanted during her first two years at the academy.
Goebel also said she got more demerits than the men around her. The women were different, which meant they stood out. Standing out meant more scrutiny.
Sometimes, men would turn their backs to the women, a silent sign they were not accepted. Members of the classes above them did it, so men did not defend their female classmates, she said.
“So, definitely, there was an air, definitely those first couple of years, of just feeling unwanted, not belonging,” Goebel said. “Sometimes, it was hostile. A lot of times, it was more mundane, people … just making fun of you.”
The Herndon Climb, signifying the end of plebe year, could be particularly horrifying. Some women tried to climb up and were pulled down. Others were sexually assaulted, the women said.
That year, there were shirts with NGOH on them, which stood for No Girls on Herndon, Bachman said.
The older midshipmen also tried to make the Class of 1980 men feel weaker because women were in their class. For a while, the Class of 1979 had a banner and other material with LCWB — last class with balls — on it, Gordon said.
Some men have reflected on their experience and apologized for how they treated the first class. One of Gordon’s classmates came up to her at a reunion to say he was sorry for his treatment.
“And we’ve had several guys say the same thing,” she said. “ ‘I didn’t treat you very well. I wasn’t very nice to you. And now I have a daughter there, and I see things differently.’ And so it took a long time, I think, for our class to kind of come together.”
For the women, there were not many chances to bond during their time at the academy. They were separated into different companies, and they were not allowed to be together.
And they were in survival mode, Disher said, which meant staying away from their female classmates and trying to be part of the boys’ club.
Even if they did not realize it at the time, the women carried a lot of pressure on their shoulders. They were the first. They had to open the doors for the 43 years — and more — of women to come.
They’ve seen the change now, even if it has come slowly, and not just for women, Goebel said. She hopes the academy continues to change, but that it also teaches its history of how it treated midshipmen who were considered minorities, whether it be women, midshipmen of color or LGBTQ midshipmen.
“Things are so much better now, obviously, which brings me great joy, great joy,” she said. “In fact, nothing brings me more joy than to be on the Yard. And see female midshipmen walking with male midshipmen who are clearly their friends and seeing how incredibly well they’re integrated now and the amazing things they’re doing while they’re mids and upon graduation, and it’s just fabulous. so wonderful.”