BOSTON (WOMENSENEWS)–When Simone Wellington first joined her high school’s Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, she did so to avoid having to take gym class. But when Wellington re-registered for the program the following year, it had nothing to do with Phys Ed, she says, and everything to do with what she had learned about herself.
“At first it was just a class,” says Wellington, a 19-year-old senior at South Boston High School and the highest-ranking officer in the school’s 204-student Junior ROTC program. “But later on, it became an obsession. I wanted to prove to the world that girls can do the same things as boys and not just cooking and cleaning.”
Itâ€™s a movement that is catching on from coast to coast, though it has yet to translate into gender equity in the U.S. armed forces. Although girls currently compose 42 percent of all Army Junior ROTC cadets, women account for only 16 percent of enlisted active-duty personnel in the U.S. Army, according to a March 2001 report by the Womenâ€™s Research and Education Institute. There are nearly 105,000 girls in the 1,465 high school programs nationwide, says Paul Kotakis, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Cadet Command. Texas is home to the most programs (164) and female cadets (12,801).
Students Not Given Combat Training; Emphasis on Discipline
Junior ROTC instructors point out that their program is not a combat-training course–a fact, they say, that appeals to many girls. Congress partially funds the program, usually offered as an in-class high school elective, and Junior ROTC does not recruit students for military service. The educational emphasis is on citizenship, leadership, self discipline and community service. Most of the programs are in inner-city high schools, where a dearth of extracurricular activities may be a factor in the corpsâ€™ increased popularity among girls. But thatâ€™s not the only theory out there.
“I think young ladies come out because they know that they’ll be treated with respect in JROTC,” says retired Col. William Lee, a senior instructor at Brighton High School in Boston, a city where girls outnumber boys in Army Junior ROTC, 546-541. “They see they can advance very well, and that everyone here is equal.”
“It’s the opportunity to hold leadership positions,” adds retired Lt. Col. Edward Meshinsky, a senior instructor at George Washington High School in San Francisco, where 89 girls are part of a corps of 209. “At my school, they hold the majority of leadership positions–four of the top five, to be exact. Unlike most other extracurricular activities, they have the opportunity to excel and be heard.”
Retired Maj. Dale Volley agrees. He worked at Worthing High School and Lancaster High School, both in Texas, before becoming the senior instructor at John F. Kennedy High School in San Antonio in 1997. Of his 160 cadets, 81 are girls.
“I was raised by four women, so I know how strong they can be,” he says. “Everywhere I’ve been, girls have been the backbone of the ROTC program.”
Women Still Vastly Outnumbered in Military Services
The greater participation in high school ROTC programs is not yet reflected in the percentages of women in the military. In addition to the Army, three other branches of the armed forces sponsor Junior ROTC programs, but their numbers pale in comparison to the Army’s 1,465. The Air Force has 744 programs; Navy, 585; Marine Corps, 230. And yet the Air Force has the largest percentage of women among total enlisted personnel, at 19 percent, according to the Women’s Research and Education Institute report. Women account for 14 percent of enlisted personnel in the Navy and just 6 percent in the Marine Corps.
“There’s an overwhelming male culture in the military,” says Dr. Linda Grant De Pauw, president of the Minerva Center, a Washington-based nonprofit devoted to issues relating to women in the military, and author of the book “Battle Cries and Lullabies,” published in 1998.
“There are plenty of Georgia Pattens out there kicking butt, but there is also a denigration of feminine characteristics. Being compassionate is looked down upon, and if that’s the type of person you are. . . It’s hard to fit in with that culture,” De Pauw adds.
Wellington, for her part, says she’s no G.I. Jane, but she’s going to give it a shot. The South Boston High School battalion commander plans to enlist in the Army after graduation this spring, citing her need for discipline and the desire to do right by her family as her motivation.
But those aren’t the reasons why high school girls are joining Junior ROTC: Gaining the respect from peers seems to be highest on the list.
Senior Cadet Jasmary Adorno paraphrases what others (not classmates) say about her: “‘Wow, look at that girl. She’s motivated!'” Adorno, of English High School in Boston, is thinking about joining the Army Reserves as a way to pay for college.
“I wanted to show the boys that I could do just what they were doing,” adds Zalika Headley, battalion commander of Hyde Park High’s 271 cadets, of which 125 are female. “When I came in, they had all the medals and not a lot of girls did. I wanted to change that.”
Although Headley has risen to the top of her school’s ranks (battalion commanders are selected by their Junior ROTC instructors, based on grades, leadership skills and dedication to the course), she says she continues to battle for respect on a daily basis. Some of the male cadets at Hyde Park don’t always follow her orders, she says, while other will give her smart talk rather than attention.
“They’re just stubborn,” says Headley, who plans to attend college in the fall. “If they don’t get it yet, they’re not going to get it. I deserve what I have. I earned what I have. And I shouldn’t have to prove myself anymore.”
Jeff Lemberg is a freelance writer and graduate student at Boston University.
U.S. Army Junior ROTC:
Women’s Research and Education Institute: