You know I like to read memoirs, and although I'm personally not too keen on the military, perhaps because it's so foreign to me, I'm really interested in what life is like for a woman in the army. Unfortunately this book isn't great at revealing the author's personal experience. Her ability to convey them was possibly affected by her West Point training and subsequent need to maintain a military posture. It's still not a bad read, and its perspective on feminism in the army is well worth exploring.
About half of the book is about Barkalow's West Point experience; she was in the institution's first class that included women. Based partially on journal entries from the time, the narrative alternates between the primary material and the author and others' secondary memories and analysis. Barkalow interviewed many classmates and other members of the army. She uses the diary items to spark discussions of hazing, friendships, competition, dating, the physical demands, academics, etc.
Andrea Hollen, the highest academically ranked woman in the class of '80, and the only member of my class to be awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, observes, "The rote, black-and-white way of looking a the world wasn't part of my educational experience at the Academy. However, when I arrived in England I quickly took a course in Marxian economics. None of that had been given at West Point. I did not understand the word 'imperialist' when I hit Oxford. Students there called me a 'militarist capitalist imperialist,' and I didn't know what they were talking about. But then, at West Point, we were exposed to less radical political analysis. The view there was that the power structures in our society were basically benign, if not downright benevolent.
One dated reference cracked me up. "I am sitting at my desk, listening to 'I Am Woman' by Helen Reddy. I have made a vow to myself that on the night before graduation--27 May 1980--that song will be heard throughout the Corps of Cadets at midnight." She didn't end up doing it, though.
All in all, Barkalow makes Army life sound dull. There's a lot of preparing for potential conflicts that don't seem to be coming. Similar to reality television, they heighten the experience with external crises, like surprise inspections. "This was a bizarre task, really--like trying to persuade an orchestra to sit inside the pit of a darkened theater and keep their instruments in perfect tune for a concert that everyone hopes will never happen."
There was a longish section near the end about pregnancy and leave for soldiers. Abortion, too.
But ultimately this memoir left me a little cold because it was too surfacey, and some things were missing, like when did Barkalow get promoted to Captain? Why did she resign her commission? What did she do next? She trained for the Olympic handball team?!? All memoirs should be required to provide at least a little bit of an epilogue!
Part of the irony of our experience was that the women who went to West Point became feminists in deed, even if they rejected feminism in name. We were aggressive, independent, and ambitious; we were not radicals, we weren't challenging authority--but we were fighting inequity. [The book was published in 1990, in case you're wondering.]