May 28, 1980: Military Women Make History Across the Nation

Founding Feminists is the FMF’s daily herstory column.


Women are now among the elite who have graduated from each of the nation’s most prestigious military academies.

Around the country today, precedents were shattered at graduation ceremonies from West Point to 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 their 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 in Annapolis 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 that, “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 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 awarded to 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 has 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% 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 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 time the nation celebrated its Bicentennial on July 4, 1976. Of all the women who were admitted that year, 66% managed to get through all the physical and academic challenges and graduate. That’s a rate comparable to 70% of men, who did not have to encounter resistance due to their sex.

Though there is still a long way to go to achieve equality in the military, the fact that women have now proven their ability to earn a commission under the strictest standards that any branch of our military has to offer shows that the 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 in uniform.

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