Female Cadets Reach Record Numbers at West Point

Cadet Karyn Powell falls in with the guys at midday formation. Same gray uniform. Same straight-ahead stare. Same dressing down from the platoon sergeant for the plebes' imperfectly kept rooms — except for the bit about long hairs in the sink.

"I understand your guys hair falls off," he tells Powell and her roommate. "Clean it up."

Powell is among 225 young women who joined the Long Gray Line this year for the Class of 2011. That is the highest number of female cadets in a single class since women first came to the U.S. Military Academy in 1976 and the highest proportion for any class: 17 percent.

West Point administrators are greeting this milestone with little more than a shrug of their epauletted shoulders. The increase is slight, they say, and women have lugged the same heavy rucksacks as the men and chowed down next to them at West Point's Harry Potter-Gothic mess hall for three decades. Expectations are the same for every cadet.

But in this history-drenched institution on the Hudson River that has produced generals such as Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Douglas MacArthur and Norman Schwarzkopf, some female cadets say they still feel the need to prove they measure up.

"You don't want to give the reputation to girls that 'Oh, she can't do it because she's a girl.' And you don't want to appear like you get special treatment because you're a girl," said Karina Quezada, a 19-year-old plebe from Las Vegas.

"And don't whine!" added Diane Leimbach, a plebe from Quincy, Ill.

Quezada and Leimbach roomed together this summer for "beast barracks," West Point's six-week shakedown of in-your-face orders and long marches for incoming cadets. No leeway is given if you are, like Quezada and Leimbach, petite.

"I didn't want to quit because I didn't want to be 'that girl' and I didn't want to appear weak in the eyes of my squad leader, my squad mates," Leimbach said.

"As a female, you have to win the respect of the males sometimes ... And I did."

President Ford signed legislation in 1975 opening the nation's service academies to women applicants, leading to 119 women studying at West Point the next year. The proportion of women at the academy hovered in the 10-12 percent range until around 1989, when it jumped to 14 to 16 percent, where it has stayed since then, said Col. Deborah McDonald, associate director of admissions.

That's in line with the proportion of women in active military duty.

The challenge now is recruiting at a time when troops are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. While McDonald said the academy has been able to meet recruiting goals for women, many parents now are "tentatively holding back."

"There's a lot of concern for the sons and daughters out there," McDonald said, "but especially for daughters."

West Point has made accommodations to women over the years. They can wear stud earrings and makeup. McDonald, Class of '85, thinks the best idea was to let female cadets wear long hair, providing it's kept above the collar. Hair buns do the trick. Often, the most obvious gender clue among the gray-clad cadets walking around the maze of granite buildings here is the knot of hair poking from under some caps.

"All the guys are kind of like your brothers," said Powell, 18, of West Harrison, Ind. "You kind of help take care of them and they help take care of you. I don't really think there's any difference between being a guy and a girl here."

West Point has been spared the sort of high-profile sex scandal that hit the Air Force Academy earlier this decade. But a Pentagon task force in 2005 found that inappropriate treatment of women — including offensive comments, repeated and unwelcome propositions and offers to trade academic favors for sexual acts — persisted at West Point and the Naval Academy.

West Point officials say they have made a number of changes since then, including the institution of a confidential reporting system and annually bringing in women who were raped to speak to cadets. New cadets said they were made to memorize reporting procedures.

"Our awareness of the situation has grown in the last two years," said Col. Jeanette McMahon, special assistant to the superintendent on human relations and a member of the Class of '83

McDonald said it is better for women at West Point compared to the early '80s when she and McMahon were cadets. She notes that today's female cadets regularly meet women who have had successful military careers, like McDonald and herself.

Quezada, the daughter of Vietnam veteran, can look for inspiration from the 61 military women at the faculty. And if she needs a boost of confidence, she can think of her sister, who graduated West Point in May.

Though a dozen female plebes had dropped out by late September, Quezada is confident she'll make it.

"I'm not going to be 'that girl' falling out," she said.