Kate Armstrong never had a chance. She was never given one.
In 1980, Armstrong was one of the first 32 women admitted to the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ont. She entered hoping it would provide a path to being a pilot, even though at the time the Canadian Armed Forces weren’t allowing women to serve in combat roles.
But even before she had arrived, some male students were already making bets on how many female cadets they could have sex with. The new class was referred to as sweats, a military term Armstrong says describes an expert.
“They said that we were sweats because we were fat and ugly, that we were desperate to have sex,” she says. “And we were like experts at sex, and so they called us sweats because we had come to military college just to have sex with them.”
What followed was four years of sexual harassment and, as Armstrong later found out, a co-ordinated effort by older male students to break her because she was seen as having leadership potential.
The Nelson writer details her time attending Royal Military College in her debut book The Stone Frigate: The Royal Military College’s First Female Cadet Speaks Out, which was released in March 2019 and this month was shortlisted for the sixth annual Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writer Prize.
After she graduated in 1984, Armstrong spent the next three decades trying to come to terms with how she had been made to feel in the military before writing her book.
“I think that as a woman, if you’re accomplished and capable, that can be seen as a threat,” she says. “Culturally, it’s OK with guys to sort of band together against a woman. Even though she may be the most capable person in the group, she’ll be made to feel like the biggest loser.”
Women have served in the Canadian military for over a century, first as nurses during the First World War. More than 50,000 enlisted during the Second World War, although they were restricted from combat.
The jobs women could apply for were expanded in the 1950s and again in the 1970s. In 1979, Royal Military College opened its doors to women.
That year, Armstrong was finishing high school when she visited a recruitment centre in Vancouver. She was already a pilot, having learned how to fly a glider at 16 in B.C., and hoped to fly in the military.
“The recruiters laughed at me. They said, ‘Well, we don’t have women pilots. It’s not available to you.’ I was so stunned.”
Instead she opted for 10 weeks of basic training in Chilliwack, which Armstrong soon came to realize was another way of weeding out any women who signed up. The final training exercise kept cadets awake for five days to see how they handled stress. Armstrong endured, and was admitted to Royal Military College.
But even before she arrived in Kingston, Armstrong had begun to lose interest in the military. She’d already seen women harassed in Chilliwack, and at the college found little support for the new recruits.
Armstrong stuck it out, in part because she felt any female cadet who didn’t graduate would be used as an example to keep future women out.
“If I was going to quit it was when I was winning, not when they were winning.”
Although she never became a pilot, Armstrong graduated from RMC with a commerce degree in 1984. She served nine years in the military as a logistics officer before achieving the rank of captain and taking a release in 1993.
From there she returned to Vancouver for a job with BC Hydro, which she held for nearly 20 years and where she suffered similar harassment. In 2012 she retired to begin writing her memoir.
Now 58, Armstrong has a healthier relationship with RMC.
She still counts many of the people she graduated with, men and women, as her close friends, and returns to the college every five years for a reunion.
Her picture was included on a stamp in 2001 that marked RMC’s 125th anniversary, the college invited her back in 2014 for the unveiling of a plaque commemorating its first female students, and last October she returned to deliver a keynote address to the latest graduating class.
After it was released, The Stone Frigate also received an endorsement from the college’s current commandant and vice-chancellor, Brigadier-General Sébastien Bouchard.
In a letter to eVeritas, college’s online magazine, Bouchard wrote, “Reviewers have called the book brutally honest, and having read the memoir, I want everyone to know RMC accepts that honesty. Only through such honesty can this institution continue to move forward and learn from these experiences.”
The military, meanwhile, continues to struggle with equality.
Women have been able to work in every CAF role, as well as in combat duties, since 1989. The only exception to that was in the submarine service, which also opened to women in 2001.
But female officers and non-commissioned members are still a minority in CAF. In February, the Department of National Defence released updated statistics showing women make up just 15.9 per cent of total regular force and primary reserve members.
Last July, the federal government agreed to a $900-million settlement after several class-action lawsuits were filed by people who had suffered sexual harassment, assault and gender discrimination in the military.
Armstrong says her memoir was not targeted at the college or military. Instead, she wanted to show how sexism can look and feel in any industry.
“My book is about establishments, the institutionalized sexism,” she says. “But the message is that don’t expect justice or fairness. Don’t expect the powerful to yield their privilege. Because that’s what I wanted.”
What she received instead was an education in power and inequality that is as relevant now as it was in 1980.
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