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Public Affairs : Corbin Leadership Summit

West Point Corbin Forum hosts first Women's Leadership Summit 

Story and photos by Mike Strasser
Assistant Editor
WEST POINT, N.Y. (March 13, 2014) — If knowledge is power, than the inaugural Corbin Women’s Leadership Summit provided a wealth of it for nearly 100 attendees participating March 6-8.

With the theme of “Beyond the Brass Ceiling: Educating, Inspiring and Empowering for the Future,” women and men from institutions along the East Coast, such as the U.S. Naval Academy, the Coast Guard Academy, Temple University and Vassar College, took advantage of incredibly frank dialogue in the most open of forums.

“In order to empower and inspire others, first you have to educate and that’s why we’re hosting this summit with all these intelligent speakers and panel series,” Class of 2014 Cadet Alesia Moore, Corbin Forum cadet-in-charge, said. “I feel it was very important for us to bring people together for informed discussions on things like the evolution of sex and civilization, and learning the history of sexist culture.”

                                  A History of “Ism’s”
Col. Ty Seidule, professor and acting head in the Department of History, traced the history of “ism’s” with particular focus to the history of racism and sexism at the U.S. Military Academy.

Class of 2014 Cadet Alexis Salmon introduced Seidule, who made a memorable impression with the Corbin Forum in the fall when he presented his views on West Point history.

“His premise is that while the institution of West Point has stood strong since 1802, it is not immune from the ebb and tide of America’s historical ills,” Salmon said.

Seidule showed evidence of racism dating back to the abolishment of slavery in 1827 where the practice continued at West Point until the beginning of the Civil War in 1861.

“It turned out that officers were authorized an allowance for servants,” he said. “And guess who were the cheapest servants? It was the slaves.”

Seidule wanted the audience to consider that for every Henry O. Flipper who graduated from West Point, there were so many others for reasons of discrimination and hazing. As African-Americans grew in numbers at West Point their presence grew strong enough to out-vote their classmates and transform the all-white Contemporary Affairs Club into a black student union in the 1970s.

His research showed how “Black Power” in the 70s helped organize a major “Woodstock”-like concert at Michie Stadium to raise thousands of dollars for sickle cell anemia research, and even halted a presidential request to erect a Confederate statue at the academy. Seidule searched for more evidence of organized action, which he said seemed to be lacking after 1977.

“Women came to West Point. It looks to me, and I don’t have all the evidence for this but I’d like to send it out here, that gender overwhelms race at West Point,” Seidule said.

Seidule pointed out that sexism wasn’t exclusive to the academy, and there’s an abundance of research that shows its prevalence in society since America’s earliest days.

A cartoon published in the cadet magazine "The Pointer" in the '70s features "Little Tami Sami," a female cadet subjected to derogatory comments by her male classmates.

While newspapers and magazines published advertisements that objectified women, similar evidence could be found at West Point. The cadet magazine, “The Pointer” published a regular cartoon called “Little Tami Sami” featuring a voluptuous female cadet often being subjected by male cadets with suggestive comments.

The academy’s first women’s basketball team started as a club sport with a 14-5 record, before achieving varsity status which allowed for recruiting of female athletes by the Office of Intercollegiate Activities. Their name: “The Sugar Smacks.”

“The word ‘Smack’ is a derogatory term for a plebe, so the Sugar Smacks was the team nickname, which immediately makes our women into another category,” he said. “So the introduction of women is a fraught process here at West Point and the men did not take it well.”

Even monuments were subjected to gender discrimination, Seidule suggested. The original Battle Monument at Trophy Point from 1895-97 was melted down because the female figure was deemed too risqué, and even from 70-feet high there was fear it would “fire the cadets up too much.”

He said that while sexual assault and harassment have become front-and-center issues today for Army leaders to tackle, Seidule thinks the underlying problem is sexism, or gender prejudice.

Col. Ty Seidule addresses sexism and racism in the history of West Point.

“We need to deal with that; that men and women must talk about sexism, that we must throw sunlight onto this dark corner of West Point psyche, the Army psyche and maybe even the nation’s, and then we can change it,” Seidule said. “Every generation must fight this fight.”

He said there is no singular answer to this, and when he presented the idea that sexism overwhelmed race during a presentation at Harvard University the audience was split between agreeing and disagreeing with him.

Seidule then led an open discussion on whether putting women in positions of power would fix the problem or only set those leaders up for accusations of affirmative action.

“It’s not true and don’t let anyone tell you that. We have to fight that notion,” Seidule said.

Seidule said talking in open forums, like this Women’s Leadership Summit, is one way of getting rid of problems and has greater value than presenting 70-pages of Powerpoint slides as a solution.

“What we do is talk, sit down in a group and share,” Seidule said. “By the time you go around the table, every single person will tell you there is a problem. I guarantee you. It’s OK to say there is a problem but you have to be able to talk openly about it, be transparent and that’s one of the first ways to solve it.”

A midshipman asked whether a six-hour physical fitness competition that requires one female on each team would constitute sexism. Seidule calls this a “double bind” situation because it could be perceived by some as an inclusion policy for females while others consider it an equal handicap among teams. Attendees offered their opinion, some relating it to the Sandhurst Military Skills Competition which also requires a female on each team. An ROTC cadet from the University of Scranton described a Ranger Challenge that has the same requirement. Being the only female, she felt secluded from her team and saw it as a sexism issue.

Marene Allison, a USMA Class of 1980 graduate, suggested it is problematic when competitions that have existed for so long decide to add women and it will automatically become equal opportunity.

“The idea and thought is good, but the execution is very poor,” she said. “If you are going to add women, then add some of the skill sets that might be better-suited for women.”

“One cadet asked how they can best deal with the perception that their branch selection was just “filling a quota.”

“You get over it, by getting over it,” Col. Patricia Collins, division chief at The Joint Staff, J33, National and Nuclear Command and Control, said. “Because what someone else thinks, especially someone with an ignorant comment like that, do they really even matter? You can’t let them affect who you are or what’s important to you.”

Retired Col. Jeanette McMahon, USMA Class of 1983 graduate, wondered if sexism is even the appropriate term and if “gender-ism” isn’t more defining.

“When I came back here, for four years I had the job as special assistant to the superintendent for the prevention of sexual assault. No one wanted to talk about,” she said. “People still don’t want to talk about it. We need to talk about it in a lot of different ways, and I feel the issue is really gender-ism.”

McMahon said people in the military tend to be more conservative on the issues and the word sexism has a connotation of sex, which may scare off real discussion.

Changing behavior is hard, but Seidule said organizations such as the Corbin Forum exist to make that happen.

“I am so happy, so proud of the West Point women for putting this together, inviting me, so we can address this problem.”

                             Opining on Social Media
Sue Fulton, a Class of 1980 graduate and member of the Board of Visitors, joined Dr. Rachel Sondheimer, director of American Politics and associate professor in the Department of Social Sciences, to discuss “Women and Social Media.” They shared their professional and personal opinions on the good, bad and ugly in social media, while challenging the audience to present their own opinions and respond to open-ended questions being studies about the impact of social media.

Sondheimer posed the question for discussion on whether online interactions have any real value to affecting change.

“This notion of liking a Facebook page because you want to save Darfur and feel your leading some sort of change agenda is not actually happening,” she said. “If you think about Egypt and the Arab Spring, would that have occurred without social media? Probably. Maybe not. Revolutions and uprising occurred before social media, so is it really galvanizing change?”

During the session, Sondheimer advised participants to be weary of what they post online today that could have ill-effect on their careers later.

Service members are getting in trouble for unfortunate postings on social media that go viral. Stars and Stripes recently published an article about a Soldier from Fort Carson, Colo., who posted a selfie on Instagram while evidently ducking inside a car to avoid saluting the flag during Retreat. In February, a Facebook photo showing an Airman making an obscene gesture to a POW/MIA wall emblem resulted in the creation of a Facebook page admonishing those who disgrace the uniform by such online postings.

Fulton counseled the audience to be weary of websites that pose as voices of authority and to never, ever read the comment sections.

“There’s the lawless jungle outside the borders of the civilized way that is the curated media ... that’s where there’s an editor that review and approves posts ...but outside those guardrails it is an ugly place,” Fulton said. “I do feel like reading comments will darken your soul.”

Retired Col. Jeanette McMahon, a USMA Class of 1983 graduate and former assistant to the superintendent for sexual assault prevention, contributes to the discussion on sexism and whether the term gender-ism is more relevant.

Did You Know?

The United States Military Academy established the Margaret Corbin Forum in 1976 (the first year women attended West Point) to provide an opportunity for female cadets to discuss their experiences as they assimilated into the Corps of Cadets.Today it is known as the Corbin Forum and its mission is to provide a forum within the Corps of Cadets for the presentation and discussion of female gender-specific issues within the military. The Forum fosters within the organization and the Corps of Cadets a sense of pride in the accomplishments of military women in the past, present and future. It also serves as a mentoring and networking organization for female cadets and officers.

Learn more about the Corbin Forum
Sue Fulton,a USMA Class of 1980 graduate and member of the Board of Visitors, discusses online discrimination of minorities during the Corbin Forum Women's Leadership Summit.

A panel of four cadets took on the topic of “Sex and SHARP,” discussing the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention training at the academy. The topic of sexism was part of their coursework and volunteered to present their studies at the Corbin Forum’s Leadership Summit. Pictured are Class of 2016 Cadet Andrew Mohr, Class of 2015 Cadet Jacob Sanborn and Class of 2014 Cadets Erin Kocher and Alexis Salmon.

                                    Powerful panel
A panel of four cadets took on the topic of “Sex and SHARP,” discussing the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention training at the academy. The cadets were introduced by Dr. Greta Bucher, Department of History professor, who teaches a Sex and Civilization course and explained how the cadets were in attendance to present their studies.

“The course examines how civilizations construct sex and sexuality and how those constructs then shape culture,” Bucher said.

She said the cadets’ examination of history and theory provided cadets with the intellectual tools and vocabulary to engage the issues of sex, SHARP training and other topics at West Point and the Army rigorously.

The foursome—two male and two female cadets—started the dialogue, but it quickly took off in all directions as nearly every participant in the Haig Room provided an exhausting amount of insight and perspective. Moore expected nothing less.

“This is what the Corbin Forum does. This is what happens at all our events,” Moore said. “We have really formulated a process that makes this happen—the conversation just goes off naturally and takes on a life of its own. To empower and inspire, this is where it starts.”

The male perspective was equally honest and forthright as the women’s. One cadet, during the panel discussion, said his experience with SHARP training leaves him automatically feeling accused of rape. The panel enforced the idea that the female is not always going to be the victim, as is often perceived when thinking about sexual assault. So in sexual assault/harassment cases, respect violations and the like, having an open mind is the responsibility of the leaders who hear from both sides.

"I think we need to realize that anyone can be the victim and then anyone can be the perpetrator too," Class of 2016 Cadet Andrew Mohr said. "I think that's one of the problems of SHARP in general."

Class of 2014 Cadet Alexis Salmon served on the cadet panel, and is also the Corbin Forum public affairs officer.

“I enjoyed the experience immensely, because I could share my thoughts openly and in an environment in which they would not be misconstrued or counted as sexist/feminist,” she said. “In our classroom we were able to have conversations such as the one today; however, the rich dialogue which occurred at the conference between women and men of varying ages, backgrounds, beliefs, and experiences, could not be produced in our classroom and it was truly enlightening and freeing.”

She said the Sex and Civilization course opened up an outlet to discuss a subject crucial for leaders to not only understand but be comfortable talking about. She said having a split panel of male and female cadets was actually accidental. They just happened to be available for that session.

“In any case, I believe that without the split the conversation would not have been as informative,” Salmon said. “Think about it, we would have only had half the population we were speaking on present. How can you speak on topics such as SHARP, the repeal of ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell,’ or the ‘Combat Exclusion Rule,’ if you have views from only one of the two sexes it affects? You would not get a rounded, full, nor accurate view. What's the point in that? If I'm going to have a discussion I want all the facts, I want all the views... even if they make me uncomfortable. Knowledge is power and in order to fix the military’s current problem we need to have correct knowledge, from both sexes.”

Many attendees made mention of the opening remarks from the night before by Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen Jr., for making SHARP as a top priority this year.

“One of his priorities as superintendent is changing the culture at West Point and make it more inviting for minorities,” Moore said. “The Army needs to be diverse—it has to be, when you think how much it needs adaptive leaders.”

                                  Summit Success
Class of 2015 Cadet Kristen Barta got involved with the Corbin Forum this semester and helped organize the summit.

“It was really a worthwhile experience getting to work with our officers and civilian faculty who helped plan the summit,” she said. “They got cadets from my class involved specifically, because we’ll be the ones to take over the reins next year. So this was a learning experience for us as well to learn what the Corbin Forum is all about. Next year, when the firsties—who did an amazing job with the Corbin Forum—are gone, we’ll know what the expectations are, and how we can improve the summit.”

That implies the summit isn’t going to be a one-time affair.

“We’re hopeful,” Barta said. “I was speaking with some of the Coast Guard cadets last night and said they had wanted to organize a similar event. So maybe there can be some collaboration with other service academies involved. We’ll do an AAR to discuss all that, and I’m looking forward to doing something similar next year.”

Lt. Commander Casey Burns of the U.S. Naval Academy shares her opinion in an open discussion at the inaugural Corbin Forum Women's Leadership Summit.

U.S. Naval Academy Midshipman Jason Roman, from the Class of 2014, said he attended to increase his awareness on women’s issues.

“I wanted to learn what I’m unfamiliar with to become a better leader so I can help my fellow Marines out in the future,” Roman said. “I was impressed with how passionate people have been on these issues and I think there should be more discussion among other groups throughout the academy.”

Roman said the equivalence to SHARP at the Naval Academy is SHAPE, or Sexual Harassment and Assault Prevention and Education. According to the USNA website, “First and second-class midshipmen receive at least two hours of education each year, and SHAPE material is integrated into their required leadership and law classes as well as the first class capstone curriculum.”

Maj. Christina Fanitzi from the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership provides instruction on negotation techniques which she has the attendees practice during the summit session.

In addition to the presentations, panel and a fast-paced negotiation workshop led by Maj. Christina Fanitzi, an instructor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership, attendees could attend the Women’s History Month Luncheon, see the Women’s Boxing team in action or participate in an optional yoga class hosted by Maj. Missy Rosol. Evening entertainment at the Firstie Club featured a cadet-led presentation of “The Athena Monologues.”

“Some of the monologues address hard issues women had to deal with and overcome while at the academy. Others are more light-hearted and humorous, poking fun at their experience in the academy,” Moore said.

Moore said women began writing the monologues almost a decade ago, and they’ve been collected into a book. That wasn’t difficult, considering the tight network shared among cadets and graduates.

“All it takes is a quick message put out and all these submissions would pour in,” Moore said. “This is the first year we’re performing them, so we’ll hope for the best.

Last semester, the Corbin Forum hosted a luncheon during Branch Week to allow cadets a chance to dine and converse with every branch representative. At that time Moore said it was significant to host an informal event where cadets could learn more about future career choices, and with the overturning of the Army’s Branch Exclusion Policy, that included the Combat Arms. Moore said she was never going to be at the top of her class, or prove to be the most physical fit in the Corps. However her contributions to the Corbin Forum and this Leadership Summit, in particular, will be the most important thing she’s done with her time at the academy.

“It’s not only the most important thing I’ve done, but it’s probably meant the most to me,” Moore said. “When you talk about cadets leaving behind a legacy, I think the Corbin Forum accomplished that with this summit. This was nothing but excellence.”

And she didn’t do it alone. Moore said the committee was large and involved a lot of cadets and officers.

“We started with a vision that I had during my yearling year, but was told then it was too ambitious a project to take,” Moore said. “Too much time and too ambitious, but I would keep asking until my firstie year when I told Col. [Diane] Ryan that I couldn’t leave West Point without this happening.”

Retired Col. Lori Barone,a USMA Class of 1983 graduate, participated in the inaugural Corbin Forum Women's Leadership Summit at West Point.