As the sun beats down on the sea of uniforms before her, Kristin Baker stands rigidly at attention, a ceremonial sword sheathed at her side. Sworn in as an officer in the U.S. Army only moments before, she must now deliver her final order as West Point’s brigade commander, ending the academy’s commencement. In a husky voice that belies her slender 5’4″ frame, she bellows, “CLAAASSS DIS-MISSED!” With that, all 895 graduating cadets hurl their hats skyward, cheering wildly.
For Baker, 22, it is a moment of both triumph and relief. Ten months ago, amid tremendous publicity, she became the first female brigade commander of West Point’s cadet corps. The job, awarded on the basis of academic, athletic and leadership ability, is the school’s most demanding assignment. The first captain, as she is informally called, oversees all aspects of life for 4,400 cadets: marching them through drills, supervising parades and managing a support staff of 40 upperclassmen, all while carrying a regular course load.
The daughter of a nurse and an Army colonel who graduated from West Point in 1966, Baker faced challenges that former first captains like John Pershing and Douglas MacArthur didn’t. Shortly after she was appointed, she obliged her superiors by sitting for a slew of media interviews. “I got more attention than I ever thought I would,” she says. “I never thought of myself as setting a precedent. Everybody else thought about it a lot.”
Not everyone thought positively. West Point began accepting women in 1976, but the student body is still only 10 percent female, and less enlightened cadets had initial qualms about taking orders from a female. Moreover, Baker received an onslaught of letters from old-line West Point graduates saying a female shouldn’t be first captain. “She’s really had a high-pressure situation,” says Cadet Michael Thorson, her deputy officer and boyfriend. “A lot of people tried to make it look like she didn’t deserve this position. She had to do twice as well as anyone else.”
Her good cheer and dedication ultimately won over most of the doubters, and her position offered privileges as well as pain. When she wasn’t giving orders or studying, Kristin, a psychology major, traveled around the country speaking to young people about leadership. Last November she lunched with former President Reagan at West Point. (“We talked about arms agreements,” she says.) And she found enough free time to listen to her prized recording of Army band music. “It drove my roommate crazy,” she says.
Best of all was the time she spent with Thorson—though their privacy was seriously limited. “There’s no PDA [public display of affection] allowed here,” says Kristin, who began dating Thorson last year. “You can’t put your arm around your boyfriend or girlfriend on campus.”
The two will soon have to get used to more daunting obstacles. Thorson begins a Marshall Scholarship at Oxford this fall, about the same time that Kristin, after finishing airborne school in Georgia, will be arriving in West Germany to begin an Army career in military intelligence. She will miss Thorson, though they plan to maintain a long-distance relationship. “My parents say they’re going to revoke my telephone calling card,” says Kristin with a laugh.
She will also miss West Point. “The day of my last review, when my company marched on by, I realized, ‘Hey, I’m leaving all of my friends. I’ll never come back and be a cadet again.’ ”
Nor will she ever, in all probability, be so much the woman of the hour. “I’ll just be another second lieutenant,” she says. “Low man on the totem pole.” That prospect makes Kristin Baker grin broadly.
—Charles E. Cohen, Sue Carswell at West Point