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In 30 years at Naval Academy, women have faced gains, trials

WASHINGTON -- The words were spoken 30 years ago, yet they are as jarring as they were the day when Sharon Hanley arrived at the Naval Academy -- 17 years old and about to make history as one of the first female undergraduates.

``I don't like you here," she recalls an upperclassman telling her. ``I don't like women at my school, and so I'm going to be on your butt every waking minute. . . . If my plan works, you're going to be long gone before I graduate. Is that clear?"

She remembers her shock and dismay, then confusion about how to answer. As a plebe, she was not allowed to object or comment.

``Yes, sir" was all she could say.

Now, on the 30th anniversary of the academy's integration of women, Sharon Hanley Disher finds herself in history's view again, the first of the earliest female graduates to be followed to Annapolis by a daughter. Late last month, she watched as her twin daughter and son stood in Navy whites for their swearing-in.

Their academy class includes a record number of women -- 273, or 22.4 percent, compared with 81, or 6 percent in the beginning -- at a time when the country is at war, with women serving on destroyers and fighter planes.

But though much has improved since the first women arrived, and many female graduates express great loyalty to the storied 161-year-old institution, a complex and sometimes troubling portrait of student life emerges from three recent studies sponsored by the Defense Department.

The most recent found that in the 2004-05 school year, 59 percent of female midshipmen and 14 percent of men reported sexual harassment, defined as crude and offensive behavior, unwanted sexual attention, or sexual coercion. Sexist behavior -- put-downs and offensive comments -- was reported by 93 percent of women and 50 percent of men.

What the academy experience is like for young women is coming into greater focus as Congress looks into the subject and as the quarterback on the academy's football team faces a court-martial trial this week on a charge of raping a female midshipman.

This month marks three decades of gender integration, with women recalling their unsettling early days in a college dedicated to the making of military men.

``The name of our game was survival," Disher said. The attitude was ``boys will be boys and `You're coming to an all-male school; what did you expect?' " Last week, Disher saw a C-SPAN broadcast of Vice Admiral Rodney Rempt, the academy's superintendent, testifying before Congress.

``Sexual harassment and misconduct and assault should not be tolerated in the Navy-Marine Corps," he said, ``and I can assure you that they are not tolerated at your Naval Academy."

To Disher, this was another sign of changed times. ``You have to talk about the problem to fix it," she said.

In the early years, women had fewer job choices because by law they could not serve on combatant ships or aircraft. Those who did not want women at the academy often complained that they were taking men's slots but could not do men's jobs.

That complaint grew louder in 1979, when Washingtonian magazine published an article, ``Women Can't Fight," by academy graduate and Marine war hero James Webb. He wrote that the women's presence poisoned the academy's mission and that the academy's massive dormitory was ``a horny woman's dream."

``The men went crazy; they loved it," recalled Disher, who wrote a book, ``First Class," about women's experiences.

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