Porcelain on Steel: Women of West Point’s Long Gray Line

Porcelain on Steel, (2010), Fortis Publishing, $17.95, by Donna McAleer, is a provocative reminder that social evolution is rarely the product of intelligent design. This fine book is a pointillist image of change that is hard won but, seen in retrospect, long overdue. It is a collection of brief biographical sketches of women who have graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point, a book that could not have been written just a few years ago because, until 1980, there were no women graduates of West Point.
The women are remarkable, some for their exceptional achievements, some for their seeming ordinariness. One young cadet was suspended from the swim team for her attitude. Another was a child of divorced parents who lived for a time in poverty and took to drugs while a teenager. A third wanted to be a high school gym coach while others almost washed out because of their poor physical fitness during the early years. But the same story could be told of any of the men who were accepted into West Point, some children of privilege, some Army brats, some the children of West Point graduates. Just how remarkable Porcelain and Steel is must take into account that until 1976, women not only were not admitted to West Point, the idea was anathema to the military.
However it may be explained, in truth, armies in the western world have a long history of bigotry and ours is no exception, e pluribus unum notwithstanding. Blacks were excluded from West Point until after the Civil War, then admitted and treated with brutal prejudice. Asian Americans proved their equality in the battles for southern Europe, African Americans did so in the Pacific, and Hispanics of every ancestry fought with great honor in every theatre. But not until 1948 was the Army integrated, and then only by executive order of the president.
Even so, women were not minorities in the eyes of the military – they were nurses and typists. The notion of women in combat uniform or, worse, body bags, was beyond our imaginings. And, as with most bigotry, the facts gave lie to the prejudice. Among the 350,000 women who served in World War II, there were many who waded ashore at Normandy, survived as prisoners of war of Guam and the Philippines, and, yes, many who died in combat.
The lieutenants and captains who led American troops in battle in World War II were praised by Stephen Ambrose in Citizen Soldiers, [Simon and Schuster, 1997], as leaders who were successful because of their American penchant for independent thinking, willingness to be creative beyond their training, and ability to respond to ever-changing conditions of war. Their commanders, however, were not willing to credit American women with the same skills or the same opportunity. They closed West Point to women from the beginning, and so it remained until 1976.
Army leadership may have been closed-minded about it, but women were not. The women of the second world war were the mothers of the feminists in the 1960’s and the authors of Title IX in the 1970’s. Like Susan B. Anthony, Martha Gellhorn, and Rosie the Riveter, the women of the second half of the twentieth century knew they could do anything a man could do – unless forbidden. Their opportunity came three short years after universal military service – for men – ended, when President Ford signed an order to admit women to the service academies. The class of 1980 contained the first women admitted to West Point in 1976.
The bigotry only intensified. The first women were treated to the silence that the first black cadets had endured a century before, upperclassmen refusing to speak with them except on official business, while speaking at them to call them bitches and whores and desecrating their clothes and uniforms. Harassed, pushed physically beyond their fitness and emotionally beyond anything they could have expected, the women of that first graduating class, then the next, and the one after that, not only succeeded, but excelled.
Their individual stories bear the telling. The swimmer faced up to her attitude and moved on, graduating in the second class, then rising to become an air defense artillery commander in Iraq. She was promoted to general grade officer in 2008 and is nominated for her second star as I write. Another commanded the largest logistics and suppor command in Iraq — with an all-female corps support command. A third became the world record holder in the Velodrome and Masters Cycling Championship – while on chemotherapy.
And there is a special place for Cynthia Lindenmeyer. Overcoming family divorce, drugs, and poor grades and getting into West Point by the hardest turn-around imaginable, she was commissioned into the Signal Corps, where few men liked having a woman in charge of tactical communications. She eventually transferred branches to attend chaplain officers training. Again, like she had been as a new woman cadet at West Point, she was marginalized, harassed, and treated harshly by male students who believed men had a unique role in military divinity, yet she became the Distinguished Honor Graduate. Eventually, the Army returned her to West Point where, on August 25, 2005, she presided over the funeral service of Command Sergeant Major Mary Sutherland, the longest-serving woman in the history of the Army. And, on that same day, she served at the eulogy for First Lieutenant Laura Walker, Class of 2003, the first woman graduate of West Point to die in war.
Reading Porcelain on Steel is in many ways like studying a foreign language and, in the process, improving your English. What we have taken for granted is improved because of this book about women who have overcome the ultimate obstacle and, in some cases at the ultimate cost, having gone about their lives in a male world, and succeeded in ways that honor them and improve us. It should be shared, with those who don’t know, with those who are in doubt, but especially with young people who need an example of what they can become –women – and even men — of West Point. And, like pointillism, each individual point is rewarding to study, yet viewed as a whole is transformative.

Jack Woodville London is the author of French Letters: Virginia’s War (2009), a finalist for Best Novel of the South and Best Historical Fiction of the Year, and French Letters: Engaged in War, for which he was honored as Author of the Year (2011) by the Military Writers Society of America.

Comments and opinions expressed in Jack London Reviews do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the author or publisher of any work reviewed. Jack Woodville London may be contacted at jack@jackwlondon.com. Follow his book reviews, commentary about historical literature, World War II, writing, and related subjects at http://www.jwlbooks.com