Up in Arms Over a Co-Ed Plebe Summer

The first women to attend the Naval Academy became seniors in 1979. Photographer Lucian Perkins was there as the old order changed

Now serving grief: Irwin (right) gives Holcomb (left) a lesson on why no plebe should ever forget the menu. (Lucian Perkins)
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Don Holcomb was new to the United States Naval Academy, still in the grueling orientation period known as "plebe summer." Sandee Irwin was a midshipman first class—a senior. One day in July 1979, while Holcomb was still getting used to the academy's intense memorization drills, Irwin ordered him to recite the lunch menu.

"Tater tots, ham, luncheon meats," he spouted, according to a contemporary report in the Washington Post. "Swiss cheese, sliced tomatoes, lettuce, mayonnaise, submarine rolls, macaroon cookies, iced tea with lemon wedges, milk...uh...ma'am."

"Did I hear salami, Mr. Holcomb?" she demanded.

She had not. She should have. Holcomb and his fellow plebes had pulled in their chins like nervous turtles, a punishing position known as "bracing up." Now he prepared for a verbal gale.

"I don't remember the words she used, but I remember the tone," recalls Lucian Perkins, then a Post intern on hand to photograph the rites of plebe summer. He snapped his shutter.

The academy had been the exclusive domain of men until 1976, when it admitted 81 women, about 6 percent of the freshman class; in 1979, the senior class included women for the first time in the academy's 134-year history. Images of a woman commanding men were rare enough to make the Post's front page.

In the moment, though, Holcomb didn't quite grasp the significance. "We knew this was the first class with women, kind of a historic thing," he says, "but when you're getting screamed at, it doesn't matter if it's a he or a she."

A day or two later, Irwin opened her dorm room door and reached down to pick up her daily copy of the Post—where, sure enough, the photograph appeared on Page 1. "Oh, [expletive]," she recalls thinking. "This isn't going to be a good day."

A few minutes later, one of her male classmates stormed into the room. "He slams the paper down," Irwin remembers, "looks at me and says: 'We are not impressed.' But you know what? My parents were proud. And as long as I was making my parents proud, I didn't care what anyone else thought."

Irwin had gone to the academy not to make a point, but to get a low-cost education—and a career. She says she had been a "California girl," a perky cheerleader from the Bay Area city of Livermore, but she was also determined to become the first member of her family to graduate from college. While nearly one-third of her female classmates would drop out (as would one-quarter of the men), she would make it to the end.

About Amanda Fiegl

Amanda Fiegl is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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