WEST POINT, N.Y. -- It was a simple answer to a question, but the implications of the words carried the weight of history.
Talking over video chat due to the global pandemic that threw the spring semester at the U.S. Military Academy into chaos, Class of 2020 Cadet Elizabeth Cross detailed her unique journey to West Point, which first took her to a military preparatory school in Philadelphia after she wasn’t admitted to West Point the first time she applied.
It was a difficult year, but her heart was set on attending West Point, so she persevered through the adversity before earning a spot in the Class of 2020.
She talked about her four years at West Point, the challenges she’d overcome—such as a cracked femur that sidelined her during Cadet Basic Training—and the moments during training each summer when she fell in love with the academy and the Army way of life all over again.
Then came a familiar question asked of the current and former female cadets who have walked through the granite halls of West Point along the banks of the Hudson River: “Do you think you've faced any different challenges at West Point because you are a female?”
Tracing the history of women at West Point across 40 years, the varying answers to that question told of the struggles women have faced, but also the progress that has been made.
The women in the Class of 1980—the first to include female cadets—were able to say unequivocally they were treated differently because of their sex. They spoke of the assaults and harassment they faced both at the academy and once they entered the Army.
Brig. Gen. Cindy Jebb, who now serves as the Dean of the Academic Board at West Point, arrived two years later as a member of the Class of 1982. Looking back at her cadet career she said, “I think it’s safe to say we were probably all sexually harassed.”
Only a decade after women first graduated from West Point, considerable progress had already been made. In the summer of 1989, Kristin Baker stepped into the role of first captain, becoming the first female cadet to lead the Corps of Cadets. She said she felt largely accepted by the Corps during her time in the role, but that equality quickly dissipated once she received her diploma and left West Point behind for the Army. There, she soon realized she was a “second-class citizen” because so many doors were closed to her due to the restrictions on what roles women could have and which branches of the Army they could serve in.
When Baker and many of the 5,140 women who are members of the Long Gray Line entered the Army, they knew their career paths were limited. They couldn’t go to Ranger School. They couldn’t serve in the infantry, armor or a myriad of other roles. So, the reality was they could never aspire to one day become Chief of Staff of the Army or fill many of the senior roles in the Army.
The first of those doors was opened in late 2014 when women were allowed to apply to Ranger School for the first time. It was West Point alumni who led the way and proved what was possible as the first three women to receive Ranger tabs—Capts. Shaye Haver and Kristen Griest, and Lt. Col. Lisa Jaster—are all graduates of the academy.
More doors opened in the coming years as women in the academy’s Class of 2016 were allowed to branch infantry and armor for the first time and enter the Army with many of those once closed career paths available to them.
Now, in 2020, as Cross sat in her house separated from the Corps of Cadets and the academy because of a pandemic, she was able to look back at her four-year journey though West Point and say, “Going through the academy I’ve always felt in a siblinghood ... If you put yourself out there as just a hard-working Soldier, you are respected the same.”
Her answer spoke of the progress made at West Point as she and her classmates prepare to graduate as members of the 40th class to include women this Saturday, and her story as a whole exemplifies just how different the Army she will soon enter is from the one her predecessors served in.
Before she even arrived at West Point, Cross wanted to serve in the infantry. Her senior year of high school she did her graduation exit project on being an infantry officer, with a “definitely terrible” mock battle plan and toy soldiers.
There was only one issue. At the time, the infantry was still closed to women. As she battled her way through a tough year at Valley Forge Military Academy and College and prepared to be admitted to West Point, it was announced that women would be allowed to serve in the infantry for the first time.
Five years later, her dream is about to become a reality. At Branch Night in November Cross opened her envelope, found two crossed rifles—the insignia of the infantry—printed on the inside along with a brass pin of the insignia and threw her head back while screaming out of pure happiness.
Because of the change made during her year at prep school, she was able to pursue the route she wanted. The door had not been artificially closed to her like it had for so many other women over the years. The key with the change to open every branch to women was for the first time they have near limitless choices of where their careers will lead. They were not told they had to serve in combat arms and at the same time they were not told they couldn’t, just as it is for their male counterparts.
“If I had been in a different class here, I still would have wanted to go infantry there’s no doubt, but I would have obviously been forced to pick a different branch,” Cross said. “I think I always would have had that longing to be like, ‘I wish I could be down there with them. I wish I could be one of those guys,’ because that’s just where I’d see my heart being.”
Cross arrived at the academy on June 27, 2016 along with 281 other female cadets during a time of change. Not only were they the first class of women to enter knowing that upon graduation every career path would be an option for them, but their plebe year also marked the first time both the Commandant of Cadets and the Dean of the Academic Board were women.
Now-Maj. Gen. Diana Holland had stepped into her role as commandant the previous December and Jebb had become dean a few weeks before the class arrived for Reception Day. Thanks to a change initiated by Holland, the female cadets in the Class of 2020 would also be the first to take boxing as part of the curriculum. Boxing had long been a required class for male cadets, but until 2016 it was one of the few parts of West Point that female cadets hadn’t been integrated into.
That change proved to be a transformational moment for Class of 2020 Cadet Amira Mohamed. Her brother graduated with the Class of 2016 a few months before she arrived at the academy and one of the main pieces of advice he’d given her was to join a team. She found her place amongst a group of “badass ladies” on the women’s boxing team and fought with them for three years. The team had already existed for a few years, but the addition of a boxing class for female cadets enabled it to find a foothold and become established.
Mohamed and her teammates would go to the boxing room in Arvin Gymnasium, strap on headgear and gloves, and fight every afternoon after their classes were finished. Since 2016, the team has won two National Collegiate Boxing Association team titles along with eight individual national championships. The women’s team also underwent a big change before the 2018 season when it merged with the men’s team to form one cohesive and entrenched boxing team at West Point.
“It was really shocking to me that at one point someone had thought that wasn't possible for a woman to be able to do that. We were (boxing) every day,” Mohamed said. “That was our day, I would go back to the boxing gym every single day. That huge part of my life probably would not have been my life if it weren’t for Maj. Gen. Holland and I don’t know what it would have been like. I think it's just insane.”
Along with the boxing changes that enabled her to find a team at West Point, Mohamed said having two women in leadership roles during their plebe year was “powerful” for the women in the Class of 2020. They were able to see someone who looked like them in a leadership position and know what was possible for them in their careers.
It was a similar experience of seeing a woman in a successful position that eventually led Mohamed to her branch. For the first three years of her cadet career, her plan had been to branch military intelligence. Then during Branch Week at the beginning of her firstie year, she went by the field artillery tent with a friend and everything changed. They met a female officer who was Ranger tabbed and spoke about her experiences in the branch.
Meeting a female officer from the branch had a “huge impact,” Mohamed said, because she was able to see first-hand that it was possible to thrive as a woman in field artillery.
“It makes it seem like it’s possible,” Mohamed said. “She’s thriving, and that made it seem so possible and so within reach that if she can do it, why can’t I? I feel like a lot of the times, we count ourselves out. It takes an extra push to actually see someone doing something and then knowing that you also can do it yourself.”
After the chance meeting, Mohamed began to reflect back on all the field artillery officers she had met, including a member of the branch who’d become a mentor during Cadet Field Training a couple summers earlier. She realized she’d never met a field artillery officer she didn’t like. That, along with her experience during Branch Week, solidified FA was the right branch for her.
In November, Mohamed opened her Branch Night envelope to find the crossed cannons insignia of the field artillery branch.
“I am allowed to take that challenge”
This year marked the last time female cadets had the option to opt out of including infantry and armor on their branch preference lists. Starting with the Class of 2021, both male and female cadets will have to include all 17 branches in their preference list.
For Class of 2021 Cadet Elizavetta Fursova that mandate is just fine, as infantry and armor are her top two choices. Fursova was born in Texas, but her family has lived in Moscow since she was 2 years old because her parents work at the American embassy there. In high school, she’d started considering enrolling in an ROTC program for college when her guidance counselor asked if she’d thought about attending West Point.
When she arrived at the academy, Fursova said she was thinking she would eventually branch military intelligence, adjutant general or something else “completely non-combat arms.”
Class of 2022 Cadet Sam DiMaio tells a similar story. It was tennis that brought her to West Point. As an eighth grader, she first met West Point’s women’s tennis coach Paul Peck at a national tournament. That kickstarted a multi-year recruitment, which eventually led her to enrolling at West Point and joining the team.
She admits she had little exposure to the Army before the academy and entered figuring if she went combat arms she would eventually find herself in the middle of a war zone like the ones she’d seen represented in “Saving Private Ryan.” So, her plan was to play tennis and then branch something “safe” like finance or signal. Now, two years in, every branch in DiMaio’s top five is combat arms with engineers currently number one. Her hope is to become a combat engineer, a job that was just opened to women in 2015.
For both Fursova and DiMaio, the change in mindset began their very first summer at the academy. When cadets first arrive at West Point, they go through Reception Day and then begin Cadet Basic Training, which is affectionately referred to as Beast Barracks or just Beast. The new cadets learn how to shoot and go through basic squad drills while making the transition from civilian to military cadet.
Fursova said she realized during that first summer she enjoyed being out in the field and going through field training exercises. It was also during that first summer when she realized West Point was absolutely the right place for her and the nervousness she’d felt upon arriving became a thing of the past.
Beast planted the seed of change in DiMaio’s mind and the next summer as she went through airborne school and Cadet Field Training, the 180-degree change in plans was completed.
“I realized that being an actual leader in the Army (is serving) with Soldiers who are actually doing big, physical things like jumping out of planes and clearing zones and just getting things done,” DiMaio said. “I was like, ‘That’s something I want to do.’ So, I think the experience really turned me around.”
Class of 2023 Cadet Savannah Achenbach, on the other hand, knew before she ever entered the academy that, much like Cross, she was going to try and work toward a career in the infantry. The challenge of the branch drew her toward it, as did the personal relationships that grow between Soldiers as they face adversity together.
Both of her parents are West Point graduates and Achenbach arrived at the academy last summer brimming with confidence and sure she could cut it.
Then on Reception Day, when it came time to report to the cadet in the red sash, that confidence came crashing down. The rite of passage requires new cadets to step to a line right in the face of an upper-class cadet and recite a memorized response as the cadet in the red sash yells at them. Time after time Achenbach struggled to get the lines right, until finally succeeding on her 15th try, the most of anyone in her company, she said.
The repeated failures caused her to doubt whether West Point was the place for her, especially with the requirement to memorize and recite cadet knowledge throughout that initial summer. The doubts persisted until it was time for the first physical fitness test of the summer.
Fitness was her calling card as she’d been training in CrossFit and powerlifting before arriving at the academy. Despite her diminutive frame at only 5-foot-1 and 125 pounds, she said she managed to score the highest of anyone in her company, which gave her a new boost of energy to keep working toward her goal of serving in the infantry.
That boost carried her into the school year, where she tried out for and was selected to join the Black and Gold Sandhurst team, which trains throughout the year for military skills competitions including the multi-day Sandhurst Competition annually held at the U.S. Military Academy.
She would have had a chance to compete for the first time this year, but the competition was canceled due to COVID-19.
Achenbach is still early in her cadet career, but her time at West Point has already galvanized her desire to serve in the infantry and take on the challenge of leading Soldiers into combat.
“Now that it is open to females, and I’m seeing the firsties of Class of 2020 able to graduate and pursue that career, it means everything to me, because that means I am allowed to take that challenge,” Achenbach said.
“Now that it is open to females, and I’m seeing the firsties of Class of 2020 able to graduate and pursue that career, it means everything to me, because that means I am allowed to take that challenge,” Achenbach said.
Four female cadets—out of a total 229 in the Class of 2020—were commissioned into the infantry this year. Fourteen were commissioned as armor officers, while Mohamed and 35 other women are joining the field artillery branch.
Stepping into those roles, as some of the first women to join those branches, comes with the pressure of proving they belong. Cross said she naturally has a very “hooah” personality, but even though that matches well with infantry, she doesn’t feel the pressure to act or behave a certain way just because she will be serving in that branch. The pressure she does feel comes from the need to show that she and other women serving in combat arms can meet the standards, and also leaving a good impression on the men who might be experiencing a woman in their unit for the first time.
“It’s really just a thought of don’t give them a reason not to like you and don’t give them a reason to care about what the gender of their next leader is,” Cross said. “It’s really just a thought in my mind of don’t mess this up and don’t give them a reason to have a misconception of women.”
“The Army is changing”
Because the changes are recent, both Cross and Mohamed know there is a chance they will arrive in a unit that has never had a female officer in it before. It is an experience Cross is familiar with because during her Cadet Troop Leader Training experience last summer, she was placed into an all-male infantry company with the 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii.
Stepping into the company for a few weeks, she already had the challenge of proving she belonged because she was still a cadet. Additionally, she had the added pressure of being the first woman to be a member of the company.
It took a few days to break the ice, she said, but soon she was “smoking and joking” like another member of the company during a field training exercise. Before Cross arrived, the men had a misconception of what it would be like having women in their platoons, she said, because they had no exposure to it. It wasn’t that the culture was uninviting to a woman, it was simply that the men had no frame of reference to know what to expect. Gaining that acceptance comes, she said, not from acting a certain way or changing yourself, but from instead being true to who you are.
“Nobody knows what it’s going to be like,” Cross said. “I think that once you get to a unit, if you’re just yourself and you genuinely care about your Soldiers, you can get over any little bump because they just want a leader that actually cares about them and cares about the mission. If you give them that, I really don’t think most people in the Army would care what gender that leader comes from.”
The balance of being true to yourself and also proving you belong is something Achenbach said she has had to find during her first year at West Point. As a member of the Black and Gold Sandhurst team, she constantly has to prove she belongs physically.
At West Point as a whole, she said she feels secure in her place, but within the team—much as it will be within the infantry—she is surrounded by people in peak physical shape who push her to be faster, stronger and more competent.
At the same time, she said she has worked to be true to herself. She doesn’t want to feel like she has to act a certain way to fit in or behave a certain way just because she wants to go infantry. Like Cross, she has found the most acceptance simply by being herself and being authentic instead of putting on a false façade because of a preconceived notion of what an infantry officer should act like.
“I always try to be 100% Savannah Achenbach in everything that I do,” she said. “That’s very important to me to be authentic. That’s how I navigate things and sometimes that’s my downfall to just being myself all the time. That’s really hard because you’re so vulnerable to everyone else and if people don’t like the way you do things, then there's nothing really that you can change about that unless you break that.”
Along with the ability to pursue the career of their choice, the current female cadets said they have found West Point to be a much more accepting place for women than their predecessors.
DiMaio said in her first two years at the academy, she doesn’t feel she’s faced any additional challenges because she’s a woman. There is pressure to meet the physical standards, but at the same time she feels she has entered West Point, and will join the Army, at a time when everyone expects it to be integrated.
“I've been really fortunate to be surrounded by people who don’t view me as just a little girl trying to play Army,” DiMaio said. “They don’t think about how it’s just a man’s job when they go into it. They expect to have male and female peers, superiors and subordinates.”
Throughout her four years at the academy, Mohamed said she has felt like just a member of the team. Unlike the women in the Class of 1980, who Sue Fulton said were seen as nothing more than female cadets—and frequently referred to as worse—40 years later Mohamed said she was treated as just a cadet.
That feeling of just being a member of the team is something she said she hopes carries over to the Army, even as the branches adjust to women.
“The Army is changing. I think when the females back in 1980 were joining the Army, the Army really favored physical strength and just that aspect of it,” Mohamed said. “If you weren’t physically strong, we don’t really need you, but I think the Army shifted from that ever since. We value skills more. We value diverse teams and I think that’s why it’s been a lot easier for us relative to them to integrate into that kind of culture.”
A domino effect
When the Class of 1980 arrived at West Point, they were the only 119 women at the academy in a sea of more than 4,000 cadets. By the time they graduated, only 13% of the Corps of Cadets was female. Forty years later, there are 1,026 women across the four classes making up 23% of the Corps.
The decision to allow women to enter the academy has left an indelible mark on the U.S. Army, but the impact of them being admitted has not stopped at America’s borders. Since 2000, 17 foreign female cadets from countries such as Kazakhstan, Nigeria and Montenegro have graduated from West Point and gone home to serve in their nations’ armies.
Arelena Shala—who will be the first female cadet from Kosovo to graduate from West Point—will become the 18th foreign female graduate since 2000 when she graduates as a member of the Class of 2020 Saturday.
After graduation—and before returning home to serve in the Kosovo army—Shala will attend Stanford University as a Knight-Hennessy Scholarship recipient. There, she will pursue a master’s in international policy with a focus on security studies and counterterrorism.
It is an experience she would never have thought possible even a few years ago. She’d been studying at the Kosovo Military Academy for two years when the opportunity to attend West Point was presented to her. At first, she was hesitant. It would mean starting her cadet education all over from the beginning in a country she had never visited. In the end, she decided it was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up. Not only was it a chance to pursue a world-class education, but it would also enable her to represent her army and country on an international stage.
She arrived in the United States a few days before Reception Day and then was immediately thrown into Cadet Basic Training. She found comfort there because she was used to a military environment, but still had to adjust, particularly to the colloquialisms in American English she was unfamiliar with.
Attending West Point has introduced Shala to a considerably more diverse environment than the one back home. The academy in Kosovo is very homogeneous, she said, while West Point has cadets from all 50 states along with foreign cadets from countries throughout Europe, Asia, South America and Africa.
Along with the education, her time at the academy also offered her opportunities to experience things that never would have been possible back home.
“I would definitely not be here today if the women of 1980 wouldn’t have opened the door for all of us. You can really see the impact when you have women from armies from all over the world coming to West Point and then going back and opening doors for women in their militaries,” Shala said.
She was able to attend airborne school, which is not offered in the Kosovo Army. During Shala’s firstie year, she was also able to serve as a regimental command sergeant major over roughly 1,000 cadets. That was the equivalent to overseeing a quarter of her entire army back home.
“Being able to have that experience here and understanding how leadership works at the higher levels and interacting with the West Point leadership on a daily basis, I think that’s really valuable,” Shala said. “It will definitely make my experience easier once I go back.”
After attending Stanford, Shala will return to Kosovo and begin her career as an infantry officer.
In the long run, she said she hopes to have a chance to work at the Kosovo academy so she can introduce parts of what she learned at West Point into their curriculum, mainly the West Point character program.
“I would definitely not be here today if the women of 1980 wouldn’t have opened the door for all of us. You can really see the impact when you have women from armies from all over the world coming to West Point and then going back and opening doors for women in their militaries,” Shala said. “To think that I would be opening the doors for other women or cadets in general from Kosovo to come to West Point in the coming years, that is really inspiring. It’s just an impact that kind of spreads like a domino effect.”