Alicia Brooks
November 25, 1996 12:00 PM

As Rep. Patricia Schroeder can attest, men have not always welcomed women into the military—or even close to it. In 1973, as one of the first women ever appointed to the House Armed Services Committee, the then freshman Democrat from Colorado so incensed the committee chairman by her presence that he wouldn’t even give her a chair to sit in. Big mistake. In 1974, Schroeder led a coup that ousted Louisiana Democrat F. Edward Hebert from his chairmanship and spent the next 22 years championing the rights of women in the military.

Some things change: Today nearly 200,000 women serve in the American armed forces, six times more than in the mid-’70s. But some things stay the same: Allegations that 19 women trainees at the U.S. Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground’s Ordnance Center in Maryland have been raped or sexually harassed since May are reminiscent of the sordid tales of sexual misconduct at the Navy’s infamous Tailhook convention in 1991. And in the two weeks since the charges were made public, upwards of 250 women have called an Army hot line to express similar complaints, and the service has opened an investigation of all 17 of its training bases. “Women have been an island in the military, getting little support from the inside or the outside,” says Schroeder, 56. Correspondent Alicia Brooks spoke with Schroeder, who is retiring from Congress, at her home in Alexandria, Va.

Do women belong in the military?

Absolutely, but it’s a tough place for women to be. Even though the military exists to defend our culture, it doesn’t think it should be apart of that culture. Some military men get very angry that the culture they are defending says women should have equal opportunity.

How did the Tailhook investigation affect this climate?

A lot of things happened as a result of that investigation: the Secretary of the Navy resigned, people lost jobs. But the Navy did not deal with the root of the problem effectively. Top brass got the message out that there would be zero tolerance of this behavior, but the first thing they did was to march everyone into an auditorium for lectures. People’s eyes glazed over. And women I spoke to after the lectures said, “This is awful. Now the men don’t want to even talk to women because it could be a career-ender if they make a mistake.”

But has there been progress?

A certain amount, sure. The Pentagon regularly surveys each branch, asking women if they feel sexually harassed. From 1988 to 1995, the percentage of women who felt they were harassed decreased from 64 percent to 55 percent. In some cases, the training is getting better. I saw a video being used at West Point that shows men and women cadets interacting in different situations—if this happens you should do that, and so forth. It was the best training I’d ever seen.

How did you feel when you heard about the Aberdeen accusations?

My first response was to be cautious in drawing conclusions. But the accusations have been expanding throughout the Army, and that’s the horror of it. We’re not talking about a couple of failed human beings. We’re talking about a system that fell apart until the sun finally shone in and the outside world said, “This is outrageous!”

Is it hard for men in the military to speak out for women they serve with?

Unfortunately, yes. If some soldier raises his hand and says, “Knock it off, guys, the women in this unit are doing very well,” it’s like he’s got lace on his boxer shorts. He’s a sellout. So why stand up for women? What’s in it for you? Nothing. So you keep your mouth shut, and the people who are against women in the military start to believe everyone agrees with them.

Some people say the tension between military men and women results from job pressure. Do you agree?

I don’t accept that for one second. After Tailhook, the Navy said, “They’re fighter pilots. There’s so much pressure on them.” But there’s pressure on surgeons and pilots too. A lot of people spend their days holding people’s lives in their hands, and they don’t have to do these things.

Is the military always going to be a hostile place for women to work?

It doesn’t have to be. There can be change, there should be change, and to be honest I’m tired of waiting for change. Civilian Secretaries of Defense want to be best friends with the guys in uniform, but they should be a bridge between the military and the civilian worlds. I give [outgoing Defense Secretary] William Perry an F in that area.

Who do you think will be the new Secretary of Defense?

It isn’t going to be a woman.

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