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Cultivating women in the military: Alaska's commander takes a stand

  • Author: Jill Burke
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published February 15, 2015

Alaska's first-ever female National Guard commander lived the women's rights movement as a young military cadet -- breaking ground at West Point in the 1970s, two years after Congress forced the nation's military academies to open their doors to women.

Now, decades later, with the American Civil Liberties Union pushing to expose gender bias at the academies in an effort to eliminate it, Col. Laurie Hummel sees continued room for improvement, in particular with the quota systems employed by the academies to select students.

"The class composition goals are antiquated notions. They are probably left over from an era when there were few pathways for women," Hummel said in a recent interview about a federal Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed earlier this month by the ACLU and the Service Women's Action Network against the U.S. Department of Defense. Hummel was selected by Gov. Bill Walker to be Alaska's adjutant general and commissioner of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

Although it has been nearly 40 years since women were admitted to the academies, they consistently comprise less than a fourth of the student body, and sometimes far less. The ACLU and its co-plaintiffs are asking why.

As in the academies, men dominate the ranks of the Alaska National Guard. Of the 3,870 people in the Alaska guard, women comprise 19 percent of the force. They are outnumbered nearly five to one by men in both enlisted and officer positions.

Gender bias in the military is something Hummel is uniquely situated to talk about. She's tasked with leading Alaska's national guard, and leading reforms to eliminate abuses, retaliation and harassment.

As a military academy graduate, she returned to West Point as a faculty member, and from 2007 to 2009 also co-chaired an internal committee at the school on admissions and retention.

"Every day was a difficult day to be a woman at West Point in the 1970s. Going through West Point when I did, even being in a combat zone, nothing has been as tough since then. Even heading into DMVA and trying to reform and tackle all of the problems," Hummel said.

"It was the single most shaping element of my life, both personally and professionally," she said.

The ACLU and Service Women's Action Network contend the three service academies -- the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York -- have failed to fulfill records requests for women's recruitment and admission data, as well as policies and responses to sexual harassment and assault. The information, the plaintiffs believe, will help expose failings in the entry of women and their experiences at the academies. Knowing the breakdowns offers a place to start seeking solutions, they say.

"The U.S. Service military academies provide an elite education with opportunities for service and leadership. The academies offer these opportunities to cadets and midshipmen free of tuition and the schools are owned and operated by the federal government. It is troubling therefore that the military service academies provide this training, and the pathway to leadership that comes with it, for a student body that remains overwhelmingly male," said Ariela Migdal, an attorney with the ACLU's Women's Rights Project, during a Feb. 3 press conference about the lawsuit.

"By admitting so few women, the academies reinforce and reproduce the military's 'brass ceiling' resulting in a small number of women serving as top military officers," Migdal explained in an ACLU blog post.

There's another reason to increase the number of women at the academies, according to the plaintiffs: power in numbers. With more women on campus, there's a better chance to thwart a culture of sexual harassment and assault.

"Without the presence of more women, female students continue to be targeted for mistreatment, discrimination, harassment, and sexual violence. Despite nearly 10 years of research, training, and focus on the crisis of sexual assault at military service academies, sexual assault reports at the academies have not shown a substantial change in the past five years," Service Women's Action Network said in a prepared statement about the lawsuit.

In Alaska, Hummel and the national effort to shake loose statistics from the DOD share goals. Eradicating harassment of women -- or any military member – is among the top priorities for Hummel, who is talking the helm of the Alaska National Guard in the months following a scathing federal report that documented leadership failures and other abuses within the guard. But changes won't happen quickly, she warned.

"The reality is that it takes culture a long, long time to evolve," Hummel said.

Going through ‘The crucible of fire’

Hummel entered West Point in 1978, two years after President Gerald Ford signed the law requiring the academies to open their doors to women. While 126 women started there with her, only 63 graduated.

"Your average young woman who wanted to be in West Point in the mid-1970s was a very progressive young lady. In that age most of the men who wanted to be cadets came from very traditional backgrounds," Hummel recalled.

She describes it as an era when newly coed students were "guinea pigs" – "confused teenagers put into very difficult circumstances," circumstances from which the men were also not immune.

"The young men were constantly being told by parents and staff and faculty 'You can't measure up. You're not real men because women are standing next to you,'" she said.

Some of the male cadets were blatant women haters, she said. Most just kept their head down and tried to stay out of trouble. The senior leaders who envisioned a strategic future for the military did their best to create a fair and equitable culture. But junior leadership had a very difficult time with the shift to a coed campus, Hummel said.

Adding women to the mix was "largely seen within the services as a social experiment that would fail," she said.

"I went through the crucible of fire back then and it has really altered my viewpoint in life about what's possible," Hummel said, calling herself and the other women who graduated, "tough as woodpecker wood."

She had been on the military intelligence track, but chose to trade in her aspiring military leadership career for a career in teaching, returning to West Point to serve as a faculty member, where she could help shape what she calls "the heart and soul of the future of the officer corps."

"I felt that was how I could contribute most meaningfully to the academy," she said.

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