Thirty-five years ago this month, Kate Armstrong graduated from Royal Military College in Kingston. She recently wrote a book about being in the school’s first female cohort. In this essay she reflects on the cadet experience.
I’ve spent most of my life trying to overcome my sense of feeling on the outside. I don’t mean that other people ignored me, only that I was fixated on fitting in, being seen as capable, bright, strong and up for the task. Any task would do, provided its successful completion would earn me respect and move me closer to belonging to a team.
But in my drive to prove myself, I unknowingly set myself up for a lifetime of duking it out for equality in male-dominated careers, always failing to make any meaningful headway. Because women are called on to sacrifice too much on the patriarchal altar of “fitting in,” even to this day.
Thirty-five years ago, the Toronto Star published an article by Ron Lowman celebrating my graduation from the Royal Military College of Canada, in proud possession of the first college number — 14390 — ever given out to a woman. The stage seemed set for success. Canada’s Human Rights Charter and equality laws had been enacted as, according to the article, “at RMC, lady cadets are fully accepted as cadets.”
I had acquired a depth and breadth of foundational leadership skills, after literally having them drilled into me for four years, so I could reasonably expect great achievements ahead. The future looked bright for me and 20 other young women, the first female graduating class, entering what we were told was a new era of opportunity and equality. We were cutting our teeth in a man’s world and making real progress.
Or were we? It would take me decades to realize that this was a lie, when a sense of unfulfilment in my post-military career eventually led me to revisit the truth of what I had experienced all those years ago at RMC.
In the fall of 1980, I was one of 32 women surrounded by 800 male cadets. In my naïveté, I thought that we would be welcome now that it was the law to include us. I understand now that what happened to me happened because I was a woman, and not a quiet woman, not a compliant woman. And I paid the price for it.
As a cadet, I had considered myself “one of the guys” — and why not? After all, hadn’t I successfully run the gauntlet within the pinnacle of male bastions and completed the toughest indoctrination known to the patriarchal system? Recruit term, hazing, obstacle course, university studies, bilingualism, athletic achievement, military prowess, I did it all.
I was an officer and a lady steeped in Emily Post etiquette, but I knew how to fit in. I wasn’t a man hater. I wouldn’t complain about sexist jokes or casual misogyny. I would make fun of myself to let the guys know that I wasn’t a threat to them. What I didn’t realize then was that, in reality, the harder I worked and the more I tried to assimilate, the worse it got for me.
I expected RMC to be tough, and recruit term was known to be the worst of it. Every opportunity was seized by our senior cadets to make what was already an extreme exercise in endurance as difficult on us as possible. Circles were a discretionary punishment tool used by them to single out individual recruits for additional duress — each circle was a lap of the track to be run at 10 p.m., after a full day of rigorous emotional and physical demands. Recruits could run up to eight circles a night, or two miles, during the exact time allotted for preparing uniforms for morning inspection.
For the first two months of recruit term I was made to run eight circles a night, every night, after which I had to run back to my dorm and shower in time for lights-out. This meant that every night I had to get up at 3 a.m. to press my uniform in secret, and wake up again at 5:30 for morning run and inspection, and inevitably more circles.
But I did not complain. I never took any initiative to have my concerns formally addressed. That was against the rules. Instead, I would dust myself off, rally emotionally, and try harder. I made it my personal challenge to excel and make them see that they were wrong about me and, therefore, women. I was feisty to prove myself in their eyes. I experienced constant pressure to play along in all manner of madness to prove my willingness to fit in, because I thought these actions would earn me the right of belonging.
But over and over my frustration at being shut out would build, and when I indulged my exasperation, the guys around me would look knowingly at each other and smirk. Their relentlessness and my inability to sway their attitude made me question myself. I started to believe them that something was wrong with me, that I just couldn’t get anything right. Now I see it differently.
During my time at RMC, nobody told the press the truth. Not the brass and certainly not the women cadets. Nobody was ready to hear it. As female cadets, we were warned early on that our attention in the press could incite jealously and make our lives more difficult amongst our male peers.
Also, there was no upside to speaking out when our complaints could be used as evidence against us. The experiment to determine the suitability of women had not yet been concluded in our favour; even our successful graduation was not a guarantee of women at RMC in perpetuity. Essentially, the bar for achievement was set higher for women to prove our competence, but only within the proviso of not outshining our male peers. So every day we walked a tightrope over the jagged rocks of cultural bias against women.
I see now that 35 years ago, the governing officers at RMC missed a tremendous opportunity to grow a new kind of leadership in our country — one that values drawing the best and brightest on every team regardless of gender. Instead, the metaphorical petri dish was left to its own devices, in the hands of young men desperate to prove themselves over and above the crowd, leaving the young women at their mercy.
A metarule is a rule that governs the form, content and application of all other rules. As a cadet I had missed seeing the metarule for a woman in a patriarchal system: women don’t really belong. Full stop. That’s the failsafe for every aspiring man working alongside a smart, driven, funny woman. No matter how great the woman proves herself to be at overachieving, the metarule works against her in more ways than she can ever dare to consider. So at RMC, we were developing a generation of leadership with the entrenched bias that it is culturally unnecessary to treat women as equals. That’s just as true today.
There’s an aphorism in the military: respect cannot be demanded, it must be earned. The greatest tool used against women in the gaslighting enforcement of the metarule is withholding the sense of belonging until the women “earn” it. Women work hard to earn it, practising love and tolerance, putting up with atrocities that would not be tolerated if perpetrated against men of privilege. Yet belonging is still beyond our grasp.
The patriarchal system demands actions that, more often than not, will require women to forfeit ourselves and our values. Belonging is an inherent human need. It should be the birthright of every person. Still, depending on the intensity of the peer pressure, humans can override even their physical and security needs to gain it. Women do this every day in a kind of cultural sleepwalk.
I recently published my memoir, The Stone Frigate: The Royal Military College’s First Female Cadet Speaks Out, about what those four years were really like for me. I’d love to say that the nature of my experience at RMC was an anomaly; that it was a unique set of circumstances and our culture has evolved since then. That my memoir captures a historical moment long since passed, an earlier point on the continuum of women gaining true equality that’s expressed in our present-day freedom to make choices in our lives without judgment.
I wish I could say that by now gender is irrelevant. But that would not be true. What’s worse is that my story is common. Run of the mill. This may shock some who read my book, given the disclosures I’ve made in it, and they may question: how can it be true that her story is common?
Perhaps ask a woman close to you and find out.
Until I began to talk openly about my experiences, and listened to other women do the same, a sense of belonging continued to elude me. So much pain and shame had to be overcome from years of trying to be perfect in order to meet the patriarchal standards placed on me. Eventually, I reframed perfection to mean being who I am and where I am, in all my flaws; it is about accepting and loving myself just as I am today.
Belonging is not something you do; it’s something you experience. I wrote my story to affirm that there is a tribe of women out there to which every woman already belongs without needing to prove that she’s competent or changing a single thing about herself. The cultural attitude won’t be solved at the same level of consciousness it was created. It will require an act of leadership amongst ourselves, and our allies, pulling together to proclaim and honour the contribution and equality of all people.