Nelson’s Kate Armstrong has written a very powerful book about the first females admitted into training at the supposedly prestigious Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario. Written as a memoir, The Stone Frigate (Toronto, Dundurn Press) details Armstrong’s own life as a cadet in this institution. It features four years in her life and the lives of three other women in particular who are attempting to become officers in a male-oriented domain.
Armstrong had no idea what she was getting into, nor did the other 32 women who were admitted to Royal Military College. They knew by law that the college had to take them, train them, and teach them. But they did not know the obstacles that they would be facing. Until their presence in the program, the college had clearly only dealt with males seeking to become officers and lead the armed forces of Canada.
Many of the top brass at the college were not ready to deal with women as students. Most of the second and third and fourth year male students were not happy about the college admitting women, and so they made life difficult for them. Kate herself was punished (they called it corrective action) by every level of cadet leader and had to put in hours upon hours in extra jogging called “circles.” There were catcalls, outright sexual pranks, and deep resentment directed regularly at the women.
Most of the hatred, ostracizing, and brutality came during the first year, and especially in the period of time called recruit term. Both the men and women in the first year program hardly had a moment to call their own. Add to this the harassment the women had to put up with from various male leaders, and stress then became central to their lives. Throughout this period, they were always tired, always on guard, and always trying to improve against all odds.
Eventually, though, the recruit term was over – a period of time meant to separate the “men from the boys.” That there were women who managed to come through the rough and tough time was almost an afterthought to the leaders and the upper cadets. The next three and a half years were not nearly as rugged, but the misogynist behavior of many of the males did not stop. Wherever possible, they made life miserable for the women, many hoping the women would not succeed or that they would quit.
Tucked neatly in tiny sections of the book are depictions of Armstrong’s family while she was growing up. One of her brothers abused her sexually when she was a mere child. Her mother was a mean, unhappy woman who could not say a good thing to or about anyone – especially Kate. These portraits are brilliant in themselves and clearly help us understand Armstrong more completely.
This book is a courageous handling of the military training protocol and what it meant to be the first females to enter into a program designed for a male world. But it is also extremely honest in that Armstrong ties in the abuses of her upbringing at the same time as she delineates the abuses of Royal Military College training. That she manages to graduate is a triumph in itself.