At Academy: 'That was then this is now' Reforms attempt to leave sex harassment in Navy's wake

A caption in Sunday's editions of The Sun misidentifie Bancroft Hall at the Naval Academy.

The Sun regrets the errors.


Two women in tailored black uniforms are sunk in a couch under the ornate, vaulted ceiling of the Naval Academy's Bancroft Hall talking about double standards and their careers.

Footsteps echo around Midshipmen Karin Rao and Morgen Paul as six others stop by to discuss a conference on women's and minority issues at the Air Force Academy this weekend. They're eager to prepare for all the sessions save one. Sexual harassment. Nobody wants to touch it.


After more than three years of focusing on the treatment of women at the Naval Academy, midshipmen say they are ready to move on. They want to discuss leadership training and women in combat.

"That was then; this is now," is the mantra among the brigade of 4,300 midshipmen.

"Then" was the fall of 1989, when Gwen Dreyer, a 19-year-old sophomore from Encinitas, Calif., was dragged from her dorm room and handcuffed to a urinal as male midshipmen jeered and took photographs.

It was a watershed moment for the prestigious military college, ,, prompting four separate investigations into sexual harassment and hazing rituals.

Academy officials responded with 112 initiatives to improve the lot of women. They instituted educational seminars and an ombudsman to handle complaints and sternly warned students against offensive jokes, obscene marching chants, and posters of nude women, once common at the academy.

Senior Navy leaders, embarrassed by a second scandal of harassment at a Navy aviators convention, reinforced the message during a daylong seminar in August that the tradition of the hard-drinking, skirt-chasing sailor would no longer be tolerated.

Midshipmen say the measures have heightened awareness of discrimination, reduced female dropout rates slightly and improved the atmosphere for women.

Even though male and female midshipmen considered the attack on Ms. Dreyer a harmless Army-Navy Week prank and resented her whistle-blowing, they now look back on the episode as a turning point.


"The treatment of women has changed a lot," said Ms. Rao, a 21-year-old senior who belongs to the Women Midshipmen Study Group, which was reconvened after Ms. Dreyer resigned. "Now that I think back on it, in a way, I'm glad it happened. It made us step back and look at traditions."

Students and professors insist much has changed and say they're weary of their school being stereotyped as a bastion of misogyny.

Still, they acknowledge that what some see as a sanctioned double standard has not been altered.

Women face job discrimination because they're excluded from combat. No matter how successful they are at the Naval Academy, women are kept on the periphery, barred because of their sex from high-status warships and combat planes, unable to get the battle experience that hastens promotion.

Proponents of relaxing the ban on women in combat say it fosters a second-class citizenship and leads to sexual harassment.

Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women's Law Center in Washington, said that only 11 percent of positions throughout the military preclude the possibility of combat and are therefore open to women. This keeps women to a minority labeled in the services as "voyeurs" instead of "warriors," she said.


It leads to an attitude, "if you can't fight, you're not a serious member of this establishment," said the attorney, who co-wrote two white papers recently on sexual harassment and combat exclusion.

U.S. Rep. Pat Schroeder, D-Colo., fretted about male cadets at the Air Force Academy in Colorado who complained that women were treated better but opposed opening up more jobs to them. "I'm just horrified that this is still an issue," said Ms. Schroeder, an outspoken critic of the Pentagon policy.

Report due tomorrow

A 15-member presidential commission is expected to recommend in a report tomorrow that women be allowed to fly warplanes and serve on combat ships.

But in a sharply divided vote, the Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces decided that women should continue to be excluded from infantry, armor and artillery service.

Ms. Schroeder criticized the commission as hand-picked by the Republican administration and said she hopes the report "will be thrown out" by President-elect Clinton.


The integration of women at the Naval Academy has improved since the first group was admitted in 1976. Two of the three brigade commanders who have led the midshipmen in recent years have been women.

But women still make up only a tiny 11 percent of the brigade, despite a finding in a 1990 report that "a true coeducational environment is difficult to achieve where one sex constitutes less than 40 percent of the student body."

The problem is exacerbated by a tendency for women to drop out at higher rates than men, though the trend has slowed recently.

Yet female interest in the academy is still strong, said Capt. Sandy Coward, director of recruiting and head of the Women Midshipmen Study Group. Applications from women were up 10 percent this year, despite the widely publicized scandal of Navy aviators grabbing women during the 1991 Tailhook Association convention.

Male and female students are divided over easing combat restrictions.

"I feel both ways," confessed Ms. Paul, 20, a junior from Anderson, Alaska. "I feel society has dictated for a long time what women and men can do, and I think women can do the same number of push-ups, and can go fight. But then I think, that could be someone's mom out there."


Women midshipmen are forced to reconcile the traditional beliefs about family and women's roles that predominate at the Naval Academy with the intense competition that attracted them to the school.

Above all, they say, they don't want to be seen as outsiders, or even worse, as victims. They don't want different treatment.

Andrea Lindenberg, a 21-year-old senior from Winter Park, Fla., and battalion commander, recalled being horrified when feminists picketed outside the gates to protest the treatment of Gwen Dreyer.

"We were like, go away," she said. "We're trying to fit in here, and people who don't understand what goes on were hurting us, making accusations."

By all accounts, women are finding it easier to fit in these days.

Female students say they feel more at ease looking and acting "feminine," wearing lipstick and mascara, instead of trying to be one of the guys.


A decade ago, the women who succeeded at the academy usually were "rough and tough" and focused exclusively on class and sports, said Ms. Rao, president of a women's professional group.

A Chinese-American who grew up in a home where her mother cooked rice every night, she recalls undergoing a "culture shock" when she came to the academy in 1989.

It was a time when many of the companies were all-male.

Dating other midshipmen was openly disparaged, and the acronym for the women's Working Uniform Blue Alpha (WUBA) had become a crude nickname for overweight or promiscuous women. A copy of a 1979 article by former Navy secretary James Webb, called "Women Can't Fight," was in frequent demand at the academy library, and inspired a secret male club.

Plebe system questioned

Professor Carol Burke, who taught English and folklore at the academy for six years, wrote of this atmosphere in The New Republic last August. The article, which offended many students and professors, described obscene cadence calls, dating indignities and songs that celebrated violence toward women.


Ms. Burke, now an associate dean at the Johns Hopkins University, blamed much of the harassment on the plebe indoctrination system.

Academy leaders called her article "out of touch." And Mrs. Rao said the indoctrination system, vigorously defended by academy personnel as necessary for the transition from civilian to military life, has changed in the last few years.

But Ms. Burke said there is a "chasm between the official pronouncements and the real practice" at the academy.

Now, dating between midshipmen is accepted, all companies will soon be sexually integrated, and the Webb article has been taken off the reserve desk because fewer students are requesting it.

Though some problems persist, women interviewed over the last month said they just want to make it through the academy, not make waves.

For the record