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Female Mids Past, Present Celebrate 40 Years of Women at Naval Academy

Naval Academy

For the first women who were accepted into the Naval Academy in 1976, the challenge was just beginning.

There were annoyances, like raincoats long enough to trip over and rigid uniforms that didn't accommodate womanly hips, alumni say. There were also inequities, like being disallowed from climbing aboard submarines, and worse.

Their advice for today's female midshipmen?

"Be patient," said Cmdr. Lynn Thomas, a 1983 graduate.

Dozens of female academy graduates of the 1980s mingled with female midshipmen Wednesday night in Ogle Hall to trade perspectives on the experience they share 40 years apart.

The event was the culminating academy event for Women's History Month and celebrated the 40th anniversary of the year women were admitted to the academy.

"It's so important that these girls know they have a support network," said Sharon Hanley Disher, a Class of 1980 alumna. "We're here to help them morally, mentally, emotionally, even if they just need a hug. We want to share those trials and triumphs."

Alexandra Marberry, a class of 2015 academy graduate, said she values the advice of mentors who have forged a path for minorities in the service.

"We need good female leaders to help change the culture of the military to be more inclusive," she said.

The Class of 2016, about a quarter of which is female, is the first group to enter a fleet where every position in the Navy is open to women.

Mentorship from female pioneers will help them break through modern barriers, said Lt. Cmdr. Kelly Welsh, an organizer of the event and a founder of the Naval Academy Women's Network

"The challenges at the Naval Academy will mirror those in the fleet," she said.

An obstacle in itself will be the gender makeup of the military, Welsh said. Women made up 20 percent of the naval service in 2015, according to Naval Personnel Command data.

"All the doors are going to be open, but I think the numbers are still going to be really small," she said.

On Tuesday, Vice Adm. Ted Carter, the academy's superintendent, reflected on his time as a plebe, or first year student, when women first arrived at the academy.

"It was a special time," he said. "They didn't know what they were getting into when they came here."

Carter, who was the editor of the academy's humorous LOG magazine in 1980, said the attitude toward women at the time was split: those who embraced the change and those who were "diabolically opposed."

"From a male perspective, we just honestly didn't know better," he said. "And I'm happy to say the men at the Naval Academy today know better. They understand how important it is that they're there as a family, a brotherhood and sisterhood that are working together in any capacity."

Disher recalled that some female midshipmen were afraid to band together at that time.

"I didn't want to be seen as the sewing club," she said. "I didn't want to be labeled."

That isolation continued into the fleet, she said, with graduates hesitant to lend a hand to underclassmen.

"The classes that came after: Honey, you are on your own," Disher said. "We just had to make it through."

Disher said seeing female midshipmen today makes her proud.

"It's heartening and gratifying to see the caliber of women here," she said. "It makes everything we went through worth it."

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