Today in Feminist History: Women Graduate from Elite Military Academies (May 28, 1980)

Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.


May 28, 1980: Women are now among the elite who have graduated from the nation’s military academies!

Around the country today, precedents were shattered at West Point, Annapolis, and Colorado Springs, exactly one week after the Coast Guard set the pace by awarding diplomas and commissions to Jean Marie Butler and 13 other women at its Academy in New London, Connecticut.

The largest contingent of women was found at the Air Force Academy, where 97 women and 970 men graduated. At West Point it was 61 women and 809 men, while at the Naval Academy the figure was 55 women and 938 men.

Andrea Hollen, a Rhodes Scholar, became the first woman to receive her diploma from West Point, ranking tenth in her class. After the ceremony, she noted:

“We’ll always be first, but we’re not tokens anymore.”

Elizabeth Belzer, the first to graduate from Annapolis, held her diploma over her head and waved it to the crowd, receiving loud applause in return. Kathleen Conley, eighth in her class, got the honor of the first Air Force Academy diploma ever won by a woman.

The fight to get women admitted to the service academies was a difficult one, and the fact that women are presently barred from combat roles made their admission a controversial issue. But thanks to a good deal of persistence by advocates of equal opportunity, such as N.O.W. President Karen DeCrow, who testified at Congressional hearings—plus the support of 80 percent of the public in a survey—Congress passed Public Law 94-106 by a vote of 303 to 96 in the House on May 20, 1975, and a voice vote in the Senate 17 days later. It was signed by then-President Gerald Ford on October 7, 1975, and required the academies to open their doors to women the following year.

The Class of 1980 began its difficult journey about the same time the nation was celebrating its Bicentennial on July 4, 1976. Of all the women who were admitted that year, 66 percent managed to get through all four years of physical and academic challenges. That’s a rate virtually identical to 70 percent of men, none of whom encountered any resistance due to their sex.

Though there is still a long way to go to achieve total equality of opportunity in the military, the fact that women have now proven their ability to earn a commission under the extremely strict standards demanded of those who attend our military academies shows that this goal is a realistic one, and that our country will be better off when it fully utilizes the talents of all its citizens who wish to serve it in uniform.


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About

David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.