The Vanguard of a New Generation: Telling the Story of Women at West Point

Donna (Matturro) McAleer
Title
  • Discovering the Service Academies
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  • Donna McAleer
  • And I anticipate at some point you do editing when you use these, or no?  They’re just—they’re raw interviews in there?

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  • Interviewer
  • They’re raw interviews.

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  • Donna McAleer
  • Okay.  Okay.

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  • Interviewer
  • They’re raw interviews, so you’re going to tell me your name, and you’re going to tell me the spelling of your name for the transcriber— 

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  • Donna McAleer
  • Okay. 

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  • Interviewer
  • So they understand.

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  • Donna McAleer
  • Okay.  My name is Donna McAleer.

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  • Interviewer
  • Look at me.

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  • Donna McAleer
  • My name is Donna McAleer, and that’s M-C-A-L-E-E-R—or should I say Mike, Charlie, Alpha, Lima, Echo, Echo, Romeo? 

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  • Interviewer
  • And Donna is the traditional spelling: D zero—D-O—sorry—double N-A.

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  • Donna McAleer
  • Correct, yes. 

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  • Interviewer
  • Okay.  All right, so let’s begin with where you come from.

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  • Donna McAleer
  • I’m originally from the East Coast, but during my high school years was living in Nashville, Tennessee.  My family moved from Redding, Connecticut to Nashville, Tennessee, and sent me to an all-girls Catholic private school for high school, and having come from a public school system, and playing Little League and many sports, I was a little bit dismayed to be going to a small school where they wore uniforms.  And in the course of the four years in this school in Nashville, became very active— fell in love with the tightness of this school.  And my senior year at the school I was taking a math class at the boys’ prep school across the street, and my father took me to a Thunderbirds show—a U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds—and I immediately became enamored with how to become a Thunderbird pilot.  And started asking a lot of questions and learned about the Service Academies, and started pursuing—actually, this was—I’m sorry—this was the end of my sophomore year in high school—started looking into the Academies, and all of a sudden I heard from West Point from some, I guess, testing scores.

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  • Donna McAleer
  • And there was a young man who had been—my junior year, he had graduated the boys’ school across the street and came to West Point in the class of ’85, and he came back to Nashville on what was called CPRC—I don’t even know the acronym, what it means—Cadet Public Relations Council—and came to our school and asked our principal, Sister Mary Angela, if there might be any young women interested in going to the Academy.  And she said, “I got a few for you,” and that was kind of my start of looking at West Point. 

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  • Interviewer
  • So had you ever—you lived in Redding—had you ever come over to visit West Point?

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  • Donna McAleer
  • No, I hadn’t—I never had.

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  • Interviewer
  • So you’d never been at West Point till you arrived here to look at it as a potential—

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  • Donna McAleer
  • Well, as a—yes, as a potential.  I came to the summer academic leadership workshop—I forgot what it was called then.  But it’s essentially a wonderful recruiting tool to introduce prospective students to Academy life and the profession.  And I had applied to all the Service Academies and was accepted, except at Air Force I got disqualified from flying.  And there was no way I wanted to be in the back seat, and made the decision really based on the Army was about leading people, not implementing technology.  And then came up for an overnight visit, and the rest—ended up coming here. 

  • 0:03:24
  • Interviewer
  • And did you come from an Army family at all?

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  • Donna McAleer
  • I did not come from an Army family.  I had one uncle on my father’s side who served in the Battle of the Bulge and was killed.  And my maternal grandfather had served in the Hungarian Air Force, but there was no other military in my family.

  • 0:03:41
  • Interviewer
  • Was your family surprised that you were so interested in the Service Academies?

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  • Donna McAleer
  • I think my family was very excited and supportive.  My mother was probably the most worried in that she had gone to Marymount College in Tarrytown, New York.  And she had actually been up to West Point several times and dated many different cadets over the course of her college career.  And I think she was a little bit more concerned that a daughter was going into the military, but they were both really, really supportive.

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  • Interviewer
  • So you entered in the class of what?

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  • Donna McAleer
  • I entered in the class of 1987, so it was the eighth class with women, and we entered in the summer of ’83.

  • The Vanguard of a New Generation
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  • Interviewer
  • Now, were you at all concerned—and I’m curious to hear what you would’ve heard from other women about what it was like to be a woman at the United States Military Academy?

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  • Donna McAleer
  • There was actually only two women I talked to, really. One was a classmate of Jim Tully’s— he had introduced us, and we spoke a little bit on the phone. And the other one was Julie Del Giorno, class of ’86, who was a basketball player, and she is who I stayed with on the overnight visit. But I don’t think I was mature enough at the time to ask questions about what it was like based on a gender.  It looked like a huge challenge for everybody, and at that time I didn’t realize how women had only been there a couple years.

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  • Donna McAleer
  • And, you know, the women I think in the ’80s—certainly in the class of ’80—they were on the vanguard of a new generation of leaders.  But the women in the early ’80s years I mean really set the tone, when you look at there was only 62 to 75 that were graduating each year— class of ’80 had about a 50% attrition rate of the women.  So no, I never asked those questions.  I was never—I never was really concerned with that, and I think—

  • 0:05:41
  • Interviewer
  • I guess it’s a sign of the health of the project in the sense of the Academy with respect to gender that it didn’t necessarily occur to you right away that that would be the overriding characteristic.

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  • Donna McAleer
  • Right, but I think experience and time and maturity allow you to look back on that experience and look at the importance of that, and look at how do we—how do we harness those differences in gender in terms of the way we communicate, the way we lead, the way we interact?  I mean I know so much more now than I ever knew then, and kind of this whole importance of there’s so much empirical literature about the importance of strong role models, and that women benefit more from strong role models, particularly same-gender examples.  And certainly as a cadet here in the early ’80s, there were not many women on staff.  I think there were six total— that’s what I remember.  I remember two in the Department of Physical Education, two in BS&L [Department of Behavioral Sciences & Leadership]—two professors in BS&L, one in history, and two TACs [Tactical Officers], so that’s seven.

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  • Donna McAleer
  • We did not see women at high levels of command with families that had a variety of experience, and so I think for a lot of us in those early years, you know, all our role models really were men.  And those women that were here, they were certainly role models, but I don’t think we realized kind of how they were also on the vanguard.

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  • Interviewer
  • Now, in your class, there are how many women? 

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  • Donna McAleer
  • My class graduated with 114 women.  We started out with about 175, so.

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  • Interviewer
  • And you have written a book about women at West Point, right? 

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  • Donna McAleer
  • Correct.

  • 0:07:29
  • Interviewer
  • And so you know a lot about this subject.  I’m curious as to whether there were quotas for women in this time.

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  • Donna McAleer
  • Well, there were always—the Admissions Office always had what they called “composition goals.”  How did they want a class of incoming cadets to look?  And they wanted that to reflect what the Army looked like and, you know, somewhat from society.  So I think—could you call them “quotas”—yeah, potentially.  Where we were against all those goals I don’t know—certainly one of the elements that I think the Academy worked really hard on is the retention rate.  And really, in the admissions process, correlating a candidate’s resume, academic background, to success as an officer was pretty key.  And as you—if you were to look at the history of the thirty years now that women have been graduating, in those first five years you had anywhere from a 50—50% retention rate all the way up to about 68.  That rate has gone up significantly in the last 25 years, where you have retention rates of women, 75% or above, and they’re not—the delta between the men and the women is not that much different any more.  So I think the selection and the admissions process is very well correlated with that.

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  • Interviewer
  • Now, what was your experience like as a woman here at the Academy, both as you recall it and as you look back upon it now?  How’d it feel?  Did it feel special?  Did it feel compromising in any way?

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  • Donna McAleer
  • It felt—while here, it felt challenging in every way, shape, and form, all the time—academically, physically, emotionally, spiritually.  My Plebe year was probably the year that, for me, gender played a pretty specific role.  I was in Company B-1, and B-1 had a pretty ugly moniker to it.  It was what—the official name of the company was B-1 The Barbarians.  But, kind of affectionately, it was called “Boys 1,” and the mission of Boys 1 was to run all the women out of the Corps, and they were doing a pretty good job.  There was only one woman in the Firstie class.  There were three in the Cow class, two in the Yearling class, and five in my Plebe class, of which two of us went on to the next year.

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  • Interviewer
  • And you would direct—you relate these numbers directly to the attitude of the men in B-1.

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  • Donna McAleer
  • Yeah.  I—my recollection of the attitude in B-1, it was very misogynistic.  There were a lot of comments and names we were called constantly.  We were accused of being here because we wanted to find a husband.  We were never given the benefit of the doubt—you know, hey, maybe we wanted the best engineering education.  We wanted an opportunity to develop as leaders.  We wanted to become professional officers that this was a training and proving ground in the premier leadership school in the country.   And a lot of those comments were based on something we couldn’t change—I mean we can’t change our gender, so.  But also I want to say that those years in B-1 were equally hard for the men in the company, and frankly, the upper-class women in the company.  It was just not a great company to be in.  There was a lot of—I would equate it to the treatment of cadets in the movie The Lords of Discipline.  There was a lot of running that company by fear.  We all always worried about getting—racking up too many demerits, or at the time, what were called these “fourth class reports.”

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  • Donna McAleer
  • And you would get them from minor infractions, from be it a uniform out of place, shoes not shined, a missed duty, and when you racked up so many of these, you would then have a board, a disciplinary board. The fear of going into those disciplinary boards was probably a driving factor to not earn those infractions.  Our Firsties would kind of have the room, the lights dimmed down, the blankets on the table, crossed sabers, candles—it was kind of this whole atmosphere of intimidation.  And certainly getting called pejorative comments is—doesn’t—is something that you think doesn’t ever bother you, and you just kind of—you—you—you let it go off your back.

  • 0:12:47
  • Donna McAleer
  • And you know, you come into your room and, you know, talk about it with your classmates, and—or your roommates, and you’d put on a strong face.  And I do have a belief in the Nietzscean philosophy: that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  And all these years later, there’s very few things, be it in a corporate environment, having been a national level athlete on the bobsled team, be it a nonprofit, there are few things that bother me like that.  I see those cadets—they were really immature.  They were really immature, and we had a tactical officer who was I think as intimidated by the first class cadets as we were.  Now, looking back—

  • Misogyny in Company B-1
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  • Interviewer
  • What kind of names did they call you?

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  • Donna McAleer
  • They would call us “bitch” and “cunt” and “mamacita” and “whore” and you know—you—kind of I think you can probably figure out what—

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  • Interviewer
  • And they weren’t disciplined for using these— 

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  • Donna McAleer
  • No, they weren’t, because they were never really caught, and—

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  • Interviewer
  • If they had been, would they have been disciplined?

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  • Donna McAleer
  • You know, I don’t know. I think they would have—maybe not within our company, but certainly later on.  And you know, to be accused regularly of, you know, “you’re only here to find a husband,” or you know—I mean those kinds of things, and they never had anything to do with performance.  All they were, were based on gender, and I still think some—and again, this is not all—the men in that company, I don’t think they also had examples of strong women in their lives. Now, I will say that attitude was—to me, was totally gone by my sophomore year. My next three years in Company A-3 was a vastly different experience.

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  • Interviewer
  • But come back to B-1 for a moment.

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  • Donna McAleer
  • Okay.

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  • Donna McAleer
  • What percentage of the cadets, the Plebes in B-1—I’m sorry, the Firsties in B-1 would you say were this abusive?

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  • Donna McAleer
  • About—probably about 35 to 40% of them.  But they were the 35 to 40% that were in key cadet leadership positions. Again, the company wasn’t easy for anyone, and I think there was even some pressure on the 60—the 65 or the 60% who didn’t engage in that to partake in it, so. You know, it’s—

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  • Interviewer
  • Did it ever wear you down? Did you ever feel like you were fed up and ready to leave?

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  • Donna McAleer
  • No, not because of that. It just made me want to—it really made me want to do better and prove them wrong. If for nothing else, just to prove them wrong to say, you know, “I could do this.” Yeah, did I want to leave?  Sure—I mean I had a very tough time academically, and I was ready to—I don’t want to say “ready to” resign, but I had reapplied to civilian colleges and gotten an ROTC scholarship.  And I think it was really kind of my mother’s response when I called her.

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  • Donna McAleer
  • You know, we used to be able to call like maybe once or twice a month or something, and she queried me about why I had an acceptance letter and an ROTC scholarship from Boston College at the house—and they mistakenly sent it there than to here. And you know, I was kind of complaining, and she said, “You know you got two choices. You can quit right now, and I’ll be down in five hours and pick you up, or,” she said, “frankly, you can shut up and put up and drive on.” And I kind of said, “Oo—thanks, Mom. I’ll talk to you in a couple weeks.” And it was really the motivation I needed to keep going.

  • 0:16:53
  • Donna McAleer
  • And unfortunately, I learned the academic grade of a delta is a gift that keeps on giving.  You are much better off failing a class here and going to summer school, and doing much better and getting grade replacement. So you know, a lot of lessons in hindsight, but the last three years was this incredible challenge. West Point is a place I am really proud to be from, and I—you know, in writing the book, in my research when I interact with people, the cachet that the name carries and the experience opens doors. There’s—there is no doubt about that. And some of those tough times emotionally I think made me a lot stronger later.

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  • Interviewer
  • But now—let me make sure I understand this—so the three succeeding years, you didn’t feel any of the same stuff.

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  • Donna McAleer
  • Not at all. I mean it was a completely different school for me.

  • 0:17:47
  • Interviewer
  • Why do you think that’s the case—’cause of the change of company?

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  • Donna McAleer
  • I think a lot of it had to do with the change of company. I think you now had—there were three classes that had all come in with women.  They had more women. They were used to seeing women perform and compete equally. It was—it was just— there was this change, and I don’t think I’ve reflected on it enough to know what it was. And it’s interesting, because the group of us from B-1 are still kind of close friends today, and we—when we talk about things, there’s always one or two incidents that come up, and you find out how kind of poorly everybody was treated. It was—there was—I think one of the big differences between now, then and now, is there’s much more emphasis on respect for the individual. I would imagine that—

  • Women Have Equal Responsibility in Defending the Nation
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  • Interviewer
  • Things are better now, you think.

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  • Donna McAleer
  • Things are—I think things are better now. From the interviews that I’ve conducted in working towards my book, things are not perfect, by no means. I don’t know if that is an achievable state. But I think there’s a lot more recognition towards issues.  There’s a lot more focus on—

  • 0:19:05
  • Interviewer
  • Well, what are the other issues, though, besides okay—one you identified is that women can be called sort of nasty names and treated with disrespect. What are other issues associated with being a woman at West Point?

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  • Donna McAleer
  • I think other issues are around performance. There—and part of it is I think issues we place upon ourselves of exceeding the standard by a greater delta. It wasn’t enough to meet the standard—you had to exceed it. And in a small group of people, the performance of one individual, like it or not, reflected on all individuals of that demographic group. So, if there was a woman who was performing poorly physically, or maybe not meeting a standard, it was kind of generalized over the whole population.  And again, I think that’s—that’s progressed.

  • 0:20:07
  • Donna McAleer
  • Their—their—both West Point and the Army, I think, unfortunately have a perception—not a perception—we don’t have identical standards for men and women. And why—because of physiological differences—I mean there’s empirical reasons why we don’t have the same standards. Yet having different standards then puts people at two different—two different levels, and makes one question, “well, you know, women can’t perform at this level.” I mean the APFT is a classic example.

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  • Interviewer
  • What’s the APFT?

  • 0:20:42
  • Donna McAleer
  • The APFT is the Army Physical Fitness Test. And we’re seeing this in the Army. You know, there’s a lot of talk right now—well, not so much talk, but there has been talk about—regarding the Combat Exclusion Rule. So the Combat Exclusion Rule is a DoD policy that prevents the assignment of women into units whose mission is to engage in direct combat, or to be attached to units whose mission is to engage in direct ground combat.

  • 0:21:11
  • Donna McAleer
  • Okay, this is significant for a number of reasons. First of all, women are being attached to these units and utilized in a variety of areas, but the challenge is they’re not getting credit of being within those combat units. And if we look at our history in terms of where the senior leadership in the Army is coming from, and particularly at the most strategic level—at the, you know, Chief of Staffs—those are all billets that come from the Combat Arms Branch. And women right now, they can aspire to it, but it’s not a reality, and that need to open up those branches is imperative. Now, people say, “Well, maybe the paradigm needs to shift in terms of how we manage our personnel.”

  • 0:22:00
  • Donna McAleer
  • Well, something has to be done to better balance the opportunities.  Not all women want to go into the Infantry, but there’s not an empirical standard where men and women are evaluated at—that’s the same standard, from a physical standpoint, from an emotional standpoint, from a leadership standpoint. Here as a cadet in the ’80s, Infantry as the queen of battle was the branch that was most touted. The pinnacle of a career at that time—again, where we’re not a nation at war—was to be an Infantry Ranger Airborne Battalion Commander.

  • 0:22:45
  • Donna McAleer
  • Well, two of—three of those four—those—those four attributes are unattainable for a woman, so you’ve already moved her to a different group.  So—and again, that’s evolved significantly if you look at how are wars being fought. We have this asynchronous battle, and the role of—the whole structure of the Army is changing to support this. But still, women do not have these opportunities to be in these combat arms branches. And again, not every woman wants to be, but to be able to have a standard to say, “Okay, if I want to be and I meet or exceed the standard, I can be.”

  • 0:23:30
  • Donna McAleer
  • And maybe there’s some men that might not meet that same standard, and maybe they don’t want to be there either, but I’m a firm believer in the importance of—as citizens, women have equal responsibility in defending the nation as men do.

  • 0:23:48
  • Interviewer
  • Let’s come back to your own personal experience—

  • 0:23:50
  • Donna McAleer
  • Okay.

  • Serving in the U.S. Army as the Cold War Ended
  • 0:23:51

  • 0:23:51
  • Interviewer
  • A little bit. So on Branch Night, you choose—

  • 0:23:56
  • Donna McAleer
  • I chose Military Police, and looking back on that decision, if there was one decision I could make over again, it would probably be that one.  I didn’t take the initiative to really learn and understand the mission of all the branches. I knew what was open to me, I knew what wasn’t open to me. I wanted to be in aviation—I got disqualified because of hay fever. I chose Military Police on some very shortsighted reasons, and those reasons were if was a very small branch, and I thought I could be a little bit higher to get an assignment.

  • 0:24:38
  • Donna McAleer
  • At that point, not being a nation at war, where you were going, you were really going to be there three or four years, so being in a location was more important to me at the time. I really thought I had an opportunity to go to Korea, which is—I wanted to just kind of see that part of the world. And I really didn’t understand the mission of the branch.  So that—but that was the decision I made, and lo and behold, that’s the branch I got. While on active duty, I ended up branch-transferring into Engineers, but never actually served in an Engineer unit, so why didn’t I choose Engineers from here? Because I thought I’d be too low, and I would end up in, at the time, what was considered a training assignment, and that’s not what I wanted to be.

  • 0:25:29
  • Interviewer
  • So you were commissioned and assigned where?

  • 0:25:32
  • Donna McAleer
  • I was commissioned, and my first unit was in Germany as a Military Police Brigade that was attached to Seventh Corps, and was headquartered with Third Infantry Division. So I was in central Germany in a city named Wurzburg.

  • 0:25:49
  • Interviewer
  • And we’re talking about where now—19—in terms of chronology here—1988?

  • 0:25:53
  • Donna McAleer
  • So we’re talking 1988—1988, so arrived in Germany in January of ’88.  Became a platoon leader and then an executive officer of an MP Company. And when I got commissioned, I was very much looking forward to this new profession, and was very open to a career in the Army, and a little bit bright-eyed and excited. West Point had been a place where there had been such high standards for everything, and the high standards as well as the atmosphere of your colleagues I think really pushed me to try to do my best.

  • 0:26:40
  • Interviewer
  • I found the expectations in the Army much lower than they were here, and particularly in my MP Company. I had—within the first two years, I had two company commanders and two first sergeants relieved of duty.  Which—

  • 0:27:00
  • Interviewer
  • For what reason?

  • 0:27:02
  • Donna McAleer
  • The first one was conduct unbecoming an officer because our company commander was having an affair with one of the soldiers. And then the second one was for drinking and alcohol issues while on a deployment, on a training deployment, so kind of two basic-level—it was—I wasn’t prepared for it. I didn’t realize—it wasn’t what I expected. And so it kind of set a tone that I was not too willing to give the MPs too much longer, and fortunately, I was selected—the Division—there was an opening on our Division staff in the Public Affairs office.

  • 0:27:50
  • Donna McAleer
  • And so I went to work in Public Affairs, and served with a wonderful group of soldiers and an officer in charge who really valued the use of all skills, and being very complementary.  And again, I’m hesitant to talk about this, given the nature—being an organization—being an Army that’s been at war for nine years. This was—this was a very different time in the Army. I mean a lot of our time was we were fighting the tail end of the Cold War. We were doing a lot of conversion of equipment, upgrading of equipment, and a lot of—most of our exercises were still on the scenario of the Russians crossing the border into Germany.

  • 0:28:39
  • Donna McAleer
  • We also spent a lot of time in missions like area beautification—I mean these were kind of not the things you kind of think of when you think of an Army career. The awesome thing about Public Affairs was the ability to get into an area where you’re promoting things of what your soldiers are doing, what the Division’s doing.  Your interactions with the German, the local German populace—and to me, that was something I loved, and it was something I was good at, so. That is not typically—typical for a lieutenant to go into that. I also started writing a lot of the speeches for our commanding general.

  • 0:29:22
  • Donna McAleer
  • So, you know, I got—as a lieutenant, now all of a sudden I was exposed to a senior level staff, which was really interesting. I didn’t want to go back to an MP unit, and I put in a branch transfer. I put in a branch transfer to go Engineers. My spouse, who was a classmate, was Engineers, and again, the thought was this would keep us together through an Advanced Course, and possibly a next assignment. While at the Advanced Course—in the third year of our commission, so in ’91, the Congressional mandates were passed to reduce the active duty forces by 25%.  And the cuts—the reductions were going to come from the most senior grades and the most junior grades.

  • 0:30:11
  • Interviewer
  • Now, where are we now—are we—

  • 0:30:13
  • Donna McAleer
  • We’re about ’91.

  • 0:30:14
  • Interviewer
  • So this is after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

  • 0:30:15
  • Donna McAleer
  • This is after the fall—

  • 0:30:17
  • Interviewer
  • This is the draw-down—the beginning of it.

  • 0:30:18
  • Donna McAleer
  • This is the draw-down.  This is the beginning—this is the beginning of the draw-down.  And what happens is I start looking at going to graduate schools, and summer of ’90 is the invasion of Iraq into Kuwait.  Most people are activated—our Division is not.  We are responsible for the movement of all personnel off of the continent of Europe and the move over to Southwest Asia.  And that was a period where you felt like you were missing out a little. You had gone to an institution and you had trained and prepared to lead soldiers, and lead soldiers in combat, and I’m thankful I never had to do it, but there is a level at that—I think at that point in maturity, this romantic notion of wars.  How would I have reacted?  How would I have led?  How would my soldiers have performed?  I ended up just from the timing standpoint—you know, the war was pretty quick.  It ends, we end up PCSing and going to Fort Leonard Wood. 

  • 0:31:36
  • Interviewer
  • PCS means?

  • 0:31:38
  • Donna McAleer
  • PCS means to—I don’t even know what the heck—Permanent Change of Station, I think—it’s you go to your next assignment.  So we go to our next course in our officer education, and it was there I made the decision that I was ready to pursue a career in the private sector, so— 

  • 0:31:56
  • Interviewer
  • So you had fulfilled your service commitment at this point, and beyond, or?

  • 0:32:01
  • Donna McAleer
  • Okay, so our service commitment, when we graduated, at the time the active duty service commitment was five years, plus three additional in the Reserves.  But going back to these Congressional mandates, which were now reenacted, they—the Army was offering certain year groups the opportunity to leave the service without having to fulfill that commitment in terms of the years.  So I ended up serving like almost four and left active duty, which has been a point of contention, I think, in a lot of the West Point community, in kind of the years that followed that.

  • 0:32:43
  • Donna McAleer
  • There were significant numbers of graduates getting—leaving the service, resigning their commission, in 1991, ’92, ’93—kind of the year groups ’86, ’87, ’88 time frame there.  And there was a feeling, I think, harbored here that West Point’s mission was to produce leaders of character.  But leaders for service in our Army and our nation in a lifetime of service, and there was this unspoken kind of air that we had all these grads who left the service.   Well, I think a lot of those grads, they left the service and they’ve contributed as leaders in so many different fields, and I think that’s an incredible reflection on West Point.  And the vast majority of those would certainly credit this alma mater for their ability to move ahead.

  • 0:33:47
  • Interviewer
  • Who are you thinking of when you say that? 

  • 0:33:49
  • Donna McAleer
  • Who am I thinking of when I say that—in particular—

  • 0:33:54
  • Interviewer
  • People from your class, people that you interviewed, where you say their achievements are directly related to—with regard to West Point.

  • 0:34:02
  • Donna McAleer
  • Well, I’m thinking of, you know, some of the—some of the people in business, in the not-for-profit sector, in the clergy.  Some of my—some classmates who have decided they’re going to focus on their family.  There’s a whole host of them.  I mean I don’t—I kind of don’t know what their years of service were, but the other piece was the Army was never designed for 100% retention, and people did take opportunities to go—go elsewhere and do other things.

  • Bridges to the Future
  • 0:34:34

  • 0:34:34
  • Interviewer
  • But help me understand that, because a lot of people will say that West Point is just special for what it—what it gives you that you take forward in elements of character and leadership.  But, you know, there are very—those are very nebulous terms.  What do they really mean?  What did you get from here that you take forward—that you see others taking forward?

  • 0:34:54
  • Donna McAleer
  • An incredible amount of confidence. An ability to, if you think of it in the academic term of the scientific method of looking at a problem, gathering data, analyzing it, and making a decision.  And maybe not based on complete information. I think there’s an incredible, you know, physically—what do we leave with? We leave with a—

  • 0:35:20
  • Interviewer
  • Let’s back up for a second to that one, because I think that’s a very interesting one. West Pointers can solve problems, in other words.

  • 0:35:26
  • Donna McAleer
  • Mm-hmm. 

  • 0:35:27
  • Interviewer
  • Now, what is it about the education here that equips graduates of West Point to solve problems?  What is it about the education here that’s different from other institutions, that provides them with that skill?

  • 0:35:40
  • Donna McAleer
  • Not having—well, I haven’t been to another undergraduate institution. 

  • 0:35:41
  • Interviewer
  • I understand, yeah.

  • 0:35:42
  • Donna McAleer
  • I think it’s the intensity of the workload, and the quantity of the workload—that there’s no extra time in a day, between your academics, your sports requirements, your drill requirements, to really waste a lot of time.  And—or is there the time to spend as much time as you would like on something.  So I think it really gives us this kind of Petri dish in which to come up with problems—solve—solutions to problems very quickly.  Is it the best solution—maybe sometimes yes, maybe sometimes no.  So I think a lot of it has to do with the intensity.

  • 0:36:32
  • Donna McAleer
  • I think the other piece of it has to do with the expectation.  West Point is a place where bridges to the future are built from a place where the past is always present.  I mean walk down these halls.  Walk outside on the Plain.  Our past here is always in front of us, and we are always reminded of those who have, you know, led in battle or—and made these great decisions.  And I think it’s those—that stimulus is a contribution to that, too.  And you don’t want to let your classmates down, or your friends, and I think that’s something that is probably very important if you get into a combat situation, so I think those are— 

  • 0:37:23
  • Interviewer
  • Now you never were in a combat situation.

  • 0:37:25
  • Donna McAleer
  • I was never—no. 

  • 0:37:26
  • Interviewer
  • And you feel you missed out on something by not doing it.

  • 0:37:30
  • Donna McAleer
  • Yes.  I feel like I missed out, but I’m thankful I wasn’t.  Again, you come here and you want to become a leader.  You want to become the best officer you can be.  You are trained.  I look at all our military training—this is the profession of arms.  Yeah, you feel like you missed out a little, and there’s no regret, but you can’t replace that.

  • 0:37:58
  • Donna McAleer
  • And everybody who’s got—who has been there said, “No, you didn’t miss out on anything.”  But there is—there is—there is, I think, a big delta between a—somebody who’s been in combat—and it’s also a function of the time.  I mean I think of look at all soldiers throughout history who’ve served for some period of time.  I mean, when I was here in the ’80s, you know, the officers and the soldiers who had served in Vietnam were—there weren’t too many of them.  In the early—in the late ’70s, early ’80—through the ’80s, you know, essentially, there weren’t that many officers here that had combat experience, particularly junior officers.  I mean Grenada happened, Panama happened—the Panama invasion was the fall [sic], was it, one year later [from December-January 1989]

  • 0:38:54
  • Donna McAleer
  • So again, you know, I think it would be very different now, where we’ve—you know, a nation going on, come October 1st, we will have been at war longer than we’ve been at war at any time in our history.  We will have been in Afghanistan longer than the Soviets were in Afghanistan, so you have a generation in the Army that if you don’t have that combat experience, you’re kind of an anomaly, so.

  • Telling the Story of Women at West Point
  • 0:39:20

  • 0:39:20
  • Interviewer
  • Tell me about your book now. So you came up with this idea when?

  • 0:39:24
  • Donna McAleer
  • So my—Porcelain on Steel: Women of West Point’s Long Gray Line was born out of my experience as a high school volleyball coach living in Park City, Utah. I have always had an affinity for sports and for coaching, and there was an opportunity to get involved at the high school. And I went into this position wanting to have the most disciplined, most fit team in our—what do you call it—in our—in our—I’m trying to think of what you call it in high school athletics—in our—our class of schools based on size.

  • 0:40:03
  • Interviewer
  • But you have—you have children yourself?

  • 0:40:05
  • Donna McAleer
  • I now have a six-year-old. I had a newborn daughter at the time.

  • 0:40:10
  • Interviewer
  • Uh-huh.  But nobody in the team was part of your—

  • 0:40:13
  • Donna McAleer
  • No, no, no—nobody on the team was part of my family, and I really didn’t know what kind of skill set I had in front of me.  And when my girls showed up to practice the first day wearing spaghetti-strap bras, and tank tops, and short-shorts, and these shoes called “skate shoes”—they’re like what we would remember as Chucky T Converse, but with very wide laces—but they don’t wear them tied.  They wear them open.  And this was a sport, and it was kind of this three-round shotgun burst.   I started issuing directives, and the first was the three Bs rule, and that wasn’t the “be bold, be brief, be gone,” it was there would be no butts, breasts, or bellies anywhere.  And I’m not conservative by nature, but, okay, this was not what I expected in a fitness obsessed ski town.

  • 0:41:04
  • Donna McAleer
  • I also had the girls—we did a lot of conditioning that summer, and I will tell you a lot of the conditioning drills came from my training at West Point, as well as my years bobsledding.  The first time I dropped my girls for push-ups—and mind you, there was nothing I asked them to do that I didn’t do myself.  And part of my motivation, too, was I also wanted to get back in shape after having had a child a few months earlier.  And one girl looked at me, and she said, “What kind of push-ups?”  And I kind of looked at her, and I dropped everybody and got in a front-leaning rest, and she goes, “Oh—man push-ups?”  And that was very telling to me, that in high school that there was a gender difference on push-ups.  Interesting—just a little aside—that first practice, few girls could even do five push-ups.

  • 0:42:04
  • Donna McAleer
  • By the end of the season, they were asking me to drop them for push-ups whenever they saw a girls’ basketball team, because the girls’ basketball team would do them on their knees.  And they wanted to demonstrate, you know, certainly how competent they were, and they were cracking out, you know, 60 plus, and so you kind of—those are little wins that make you quite proud.  So I kind of left this practice exhausted, concerned, and really inspired, and I thought, “Well, God, if some of my young—my young athletes knew some of the women I knew, maybe they would think about pursuing some other things.”

  • 0:42:45
  • Donna McAleer
  • And as I started pursuing this kind of concept, I came to understand as Americans, we’re bombarded with images of women selling everything, from beer to cars to stereos.  It’s not that anything’s wrong with it—it’s just how it’s done.  It’s all about selling sex and selling your body, and it’s—it became sexual allure is this Rosetta stone of power and esteem and confidence.  And then throw in the likes of the Britney Spears and the Paris Hiltons and the Lindsay Lohans, who are in the news all the time for this really bad behavior—I’m like, “No wonder my girls act and dress like this.”

  • 0:43:25
  • Donna McAleer
  • And that kind of got me thinking, who were some of these women I went to school with?  Who were some of the women I served with in the Army?  Where are they now?  This could be an interesting direction and collection.  And then I thought, “Well— 

  • 0:43:42
  • Interviewer
  • Because you thought of them as so distinctly different from the generation you were teaching.

  • 0:43:45
  • Donna McAleer
  • Well, not only distinctly different, but these were ordinary women who had done some really extraordinary things, and you know, to know that somebody was qualified on three different aircraft—I mean, you know, did you ever think you could be a helicopter pilot, or a general in the Army?  So that was really what kind of got me going in this whole area, but I also thought, you know, “Somebody’s already done this concept, right?  So what’s going to be unique about it?”

  • 0:44:17
  • Donna McAleer
  • And as I started, you know, other parts of the research, there are more than 10,000 titles written about West Point and its graduates—individuals, collections, you know, year groups, historical significance.  Of those 10,000 titles, there were five about women.  One was the dissertation of Dr. Lance Janda from Cameron University called Stronger Than Custom: The Integration of Women in West Point, was his Ph.D.  There was three memoirs by graduates in— 

  • 0:44:48
  • Interviewer
  • Excuse me—that was Stronger Than Cussing?

  • 0:44:50
  • Donna McAleer
  • Stronger Than Custom.

  • 0:44:52
  • Interviewer
  • Custom. 

  • 0:44:53
  • Donna McAleer
  • Stronger Than Custom.  Then there were three memoirs, one written by Carol Barkalow, class of ’80, called In the Men’s House.  One written by Donna Peterson, class of ’82, called Dress Gray.   Then there was a young adult novel by Amy Efaw, who’s class of ’89, who wrote a fictional work about a young woman going to Beast and her experiences in Beast.  Ironically, Amy’s— 

  • 0:45:25
  • Interviewer
  • You mean Beast Barracks, which you go through—

  • 0:45:26
  • Donna McAleer
  • Beast Barracks, which is the first summer of training—

  • 0:45:27
  • Interviewer
  • Before your Plebe year. 

  • 0:45:28
  • Donna McAleer
  • Before your training.  Interestingly enough, Amy’s daughter is now a member of the Plebe class this year. 

  • 0:45:36
  • Donna McAleer
  • Oh, this year.

  • 0:45:37
  • Donna McAleer
  • And then the other book by a woman that came out during this time was Tough as Nails by Gail Dwyer from class of ’81.  But nobody had written a collection.  There were no books on what had transpired in the 30—well, at the time when I started it, the 20—almost 25 years women had entered the Academy.  And it seemed like this would be a pretty important work in terms of that body of literature, and looking at issues at a macro level of maybe gender integration.  And sexual—excuse me—gender integration, and sexism, and discrimination, and how are various groups treated when they are coming into a situation.  And that was kind of the genesis of it.

  • 0:46:31
  • Interviewer
  • Now, so you then went out and interviewed an awful lot of women who went to West Point.

  • 0:46:34
  • Donna McAleer
  • I did.

  • 0:46:35
  • Interviewer
  • And you heard stories, and of course, like you could paint a little chronology of some of the more telling moments of the story of women at West Point.  Now, the hazing scandal of—when was that?  I’m thinking of the period when the football team was accused of hazing women.

  • 0:46:57
  • Donna McAleer
  • Interestingly enough, that did not come up in any of my interviews.  What I had done was I had gone out to the West Point Women’s Network via e-mail, and threw out this idea, and asked if anybody was interested and would support it.  I also—there were also women whose stories I knew, and what I was after was capturing how—although these women had the same educational experience, and served in the Army—how they utilized that education foundation and that experience to go on to all kinds of things.  Be it an artist or an athlete, a cancer survivor, in the clergy, a wife, a mother, a combat leader—so interestingly enough, that whole issue with that particular scandal— 

  • 0:47:41
  • Interviewer
  • So you don’t talk so much about what happened here at West Point.

  • 0:47:49
  • Donna McAleer
  • I didn’t talk—yeah, not about— 

  • 0:47:54
  • Interviewer
  • You talked about them more about what West Point did for their individual—

  • 0:47:56
  • Donna McAleer
  • Their individual—right—and certainly for the women of 1980 who were involved in the interview process.  I mean there were a lot of institutional issues we did cover.  I mean from uniforms that women were issued, and how decisions around uniforms just brought even more focus onto the women.  The class of ’80’s full dress uniform was originally issued without the tails in it, because it was thought that the tails on women would make them stick out more because of their hip size.

  • 0:48:34
  • Donna McAleer
  • Well, the fact that when they first marched in their first parade without the tails, they stood out like sore thumbs.  That was quickly rescinded and changed.  I mean there were a lot of issues that the institution was dealing with.  I mean there was a pretty short period of time they had to deal with to get ready for women to arrive.  I mean President, then-President Ford signed the Executive Order in October of ’75. Women would be reporting in July of ’76.  And so West Point as an institution went out to the Army and out to a number of people in academia, asking for help in identifying prospective women who might be interested in coming here.  So, you know, although most of those women were recruited to apply, based on sports, based on a whole host of issues, so.

  • 0:49:39
  • Interviewer
  • Why don’t we stop here with the intention that we’ll pick up for the next section and go through some of the people that are in your book?

  • 0:49:46
  • Donna McAleer
  • Okay.

  • 0:49:47
  • Interviewer
  • You can give us little short bios of them.

  • 0:49:48
  • Donna McAleer
  • Okay.  Is this—is this kind of what you’re after? 

  • 0:49:50
  • Interviewer
  • Yes.  Yes.  It’s good. [End of Audio]

DESCRIPTION

Women were first admitted to West Point in 1976. Donna McAleer, USMA Class of 1987, decided to interview dozens of those who pioneered the journey into the officer corps and from there into professional life. The result was a book: Porcelain on Steel: Women of West Point's Long Gray Line. Here, she discussed what she learned.

VIDEO DETAILS

topics Women in Service Writing the Soldier's Life West Point History
interviewer Todd Brewster

BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS

name Donna (Matturro) McAleer
institution USMA
graduation year 1987
service dates 1987 1991
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