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New London - Rear Adm. Sandra L. Stosz will become the first woman ever to lead one of the nation's military academies Friday when she becomes the Coast Guard Academy's superintendent.
But the groundwork for the event was laid 35 years ago, during a time of change and the tensions that change can bring.
"Everything that we went through was worth it because now it's just normal. Women are normal in the Coast Guard," said Michele Fitzpatrick, a member of the Class of 1980, the first to include women at the Coast Guard Academy. Her classmate, Karen Hays, said that, after 30 years and the selection of Stosz, "we were successful in getting the Coast Guard to accept the fact that women can do the job."
Stosz, who graduated in the third class to include women, sees herself as a symbol of just how far the Coast Guard has come. Before admitting women, she said, the academy was probably more focused on what was happening behind its gates instead of on how society was changing.
"It was not change-centric and therefore not innovative," Stosz said. "How long can an institution sustain itself that way? For all those reasons, the women subtly brought the academy forward throughout the years."
Joanne McCaffrey, of the Class of 1980, said with a laugh that since Stosz "was trained by the great Class of '80, of course we'll take credit for it." Cadets in their third year indoctrinate the incoming students to the military lifestyle at the academy. McCaffrey, a retired captain who lives in Virginia Beach, Va., spent 27 years in the Coast Guard and served as chief of civil engineering for the Atlantic Area.
"Anytime a woman in the Coast Guard gets a great job or a great promotion, I'm personally thrilled because we didn't know if those kinds of things were possibilities back in 1976," McCaffrey said.
"And," she said, "they weren't possibilities in 1975."
'Some weird hybrid'
Many of the 38 women who arrived at the academy in 1976 assumed they would be warmly welcomed since the Coast Guard had decided to admit women rather than waiting for Congress to require it.
Tami Rose Goodwin, who today lives in Neenah, Wis., pictured herself getting a good education and walking around the campus in uniform, hand in hand with a boyfriend. She says now that she wore "rose-colored glasses."
Classmate Kathy Hamblett, of Juneau, Alaska, said, "I think a lot of people saw us as an experiment, and for some people, they thought if they could make this experiment go badly we would disappear and that would be the end of that."
Mary Lou Southwood said she was probably the only one who knew what to expect. Her brother graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in 1975 and told her repeatedly that the academy was "no place for women."
"He didn't think the men would be open-minded to the women being there," she said. "I'm the type of person that if someone says don't do this, I will do it. Once I walked in the door, he was 100 percent supportive of me, but leading up to it he hoped I would not take that step."
After the first semester, half of the women were moved from their assigned companies to others that were still all-male - and proud of that fact. The renovations to the barracks had just been completed so that each section could accommodate women. Fitzpatrick, one of the cadets who had to move, began failing physics. Years later, she taught physics.
"It obviously wasn't that I didn't understand physics," she said. "I was so enmeshed with being in that environment, I couldn't even think straight."
Fitzpatrick, Hays and Stosz were on the sailing team together and bonded over the fact that they were all struggling to be accepted. Stosz, who also swam unofficially on the men's team since the academy had no women's team, said she wondered why some of the men could be "so resentful and mean-spirited toward women" since they all must have had mothers or sisters.
Stosz recalled sailing in the summer on a racing boat that was stripped to the bare racing essentials. The toilet was on the deck, with no doors or curtains. She sailed from Newport to Bermuda, always having to find strategic times to use it.
Cadets were required to attend school dances, where women were bused in to dance with the male cadets. The female cadets were not seen as suitable dates.
"The hardest part was building back some of that self-esteem that was lost during that time," Stosz said. "People looked at you as not a real girl. The real girls were at Connecticut College. We were some weird hybrid - females of a species but not girls."
The first four classes to include women were all in "survival mode," Stosz said, so the senior female cadets could not mentor the more junior women in the traditional sense. But from them, Stosz said, she learned toughness and dogged determination.
Southwood said she wanted to prove that she belonged at the academy.
"There was no stopping me," said Southwood, an information technology manager in Idaho who spent six years in the Coast Guard.
Fitzpatrick, of Groton, said many of the women had decided that they were going to graduate and serve in the Coast Guard and no one was going to take that opportunity from them. Fourteen did so in 1980. In Stosz's class, 30 women enrolled but only 10 graduated. Today, women make up about 30 percent of the student body.
At their first assignments, they were often the first and only woman on a ship or at a station.
Southwood said her commanding officer told her more than once that women don't belong in the Coast Guard, that they were taking men's jobs. Goodwin filed a sexual harassment complaint against an officer on her ship, and Hays, who was on the same ship, had to appeal to a board to get negative comments from a chauvinistic officer removed from her record.
These women recalled some of their negative experiences not to paint the service or the academy in a bad light but to show how far both have come.
Many of the women from the Class of 1980 stayed in the Coast Guard, proving that women could do the job. But they felt pressured to represent "all of womankind." If they made a mistake, some men would hold it against all female officers.
Jean Butler, of the Class of 1980, said she didn't often speak her opinions freely, especially as a junior officer.
"I wanted to try and just be the good officer who does what I'm supposed to do," said Butler, of Juneau. "And I almost viewed it as I was an actor playing a role."
But as Butler was promoted, her confidence grew. With more confidence, she said, "the more apt you are to be yourself and do a good job." She spent 26 years in the Coast Guard, retiring as a captain after serving as chief of the service's diversity staff.
By the time she was a commander, Goodwin said, people were used to seeing women officers, especially in leadership positions.
"It took time and performance," she said. "But as women, we always knew we were going to perform well."
At the same time there was less tolerance in society, in general, for discriminatory remarks and behaviors, which helped change the military culture. And women in the military were less of a novelty as more women joined.
"It's a mindset. You can't just tell people that, yes, women can do these jobs, you have to show them, and that takes time," said Hays, of Portland, Ore., who became an environmental engineer for a tanker company. "You have to constantly prove yourself every time," she said. "The guys didn't have to do that. But that got less and less over time."
Fitzpatrick served for 20 years, including eight at the Research and Development Center, retiring as a lieutenant commander in 2000. She still works on projects for the Coast Guard as a senior business analyst for a management group in Virginia.
"The big picture," Fitzpatrick said, "is that we did an amazing job of changing the organization to one that makes it possible for women to be a part of it at any level."
'No, no, no going back'
The opportunities for women in the service are now endless, the women of the Class of 1980 agree.
"There is no, no, no going back," said Goodwin, who is now a chocolatier after serving for 20 years in the Coast Guard. "Women are just too smart. ... We're capable of doing all of it, and frankly, they need us."
Some said that more could be done to help women try to balance family life and a Coast Guard career, and they have talked about creating an informal network to help women currently in the service.
A woman could not have become the academy's superintendent much sooner than now because it takes time to gain the necessary experience and rank. There have been other senior women in the service, including the current vice commandant, Vice Adm. Sally Brice-O'Hara, but they were chosen for other assignments.
President Barack Obama said at the academy's graduation in May that Stosz becoming the superintendent is "an incredible tribute to her but also a tribute to the opportunities that the Coast Guard affords women of talent and commitment."
Stosz, at 51, says she feels lucky to have been on the right career path to lead her to the academy. She most recently served as the director of Reserve and Leadership, where she developed policies to recruit, train and support about 8,000 Coast Guard reservists. She has also commanded two cutters.
Stosz doesn't plan to run the academy any differently because of her gender, joking that she isn't going to have all the women over for a tea party. She did say it's important to continue to recruit and retain the best women, as well as ensure that they have the same options as men for serving at sea after graduation "so one of them can be standing in my shoes one day." Some of the aging cutters still have limited accommodations - or none at all - for women.
"Now it's obviously not an experiment," said Hamblett, who served for 22 years.
McCaffrey said her class helped ensure that today, young men don't think it's odd that women are at the academy, too. "It's a simple change, a simple legacy, but it's the most important one," she said.
For Stosz, however, the real measure of success when it comes to integrating women in the Coast Guard will be when she is looked at as the 40th superintendent of the Coast Guard Academy - and not as the first female superintendent.