How One Woman Brought a Suit Against the Marines - and Won.

This piece features a personal story about one woman's fight with the Marines. The point of view expressed does not reflect the opinions of Ladies Get Paid. We are publishing her piece as an example of institutionalized sexism and the courage required to not only survive it, but rise up against it. We hope this inspires you to always advocate for yourself. 


How did you decide to become a Marine?

Growing up, my mom's sister lived less than a mile away from us, and I became very close with my older cousins. Since I was the oldest in my family, I did not have someone to look up to, so my cousins became my role models -- our relationship was more like brothers and sisters. When I was thirteen, my older male cousin joined the Marines. I was so unbelievably proud of him, and I idolized him and his strength. In 2001, he was killed by a drunk driver. My world shattered. Since then, I had this devout feeling that I wanted to do something to give back, to make his life meaningful. He was killed so young with so much life left to live. From that day forward, I had an inner drive and determination to join the military. My father didn't let me enlist after high school, but made me a deal: I could go to one of the five federal service academies, and go into the military as an officer, after completing my college degree. I took up his offer, and was accepted into the academy. At 18 years old I was sworn into the United States Naval Reserve with the intent of going into active duty after college.

 

Were you hazed?

I was hazed and targeted RIGHT from the start. I mean, I did not fit the "stereotypical" type of female that would be in the military. Physically, people thought I was "weaker" than I am because of my stature. Mentally, people thought, "Oh you're a smiling little girl, how can you make it? You have no bearing." Intellectually, people said I would never succeed in engineering. I had to work hard. Bearing was not my strong point and this left me as an even easier target from drill instructors and everyone was determined to break me down.

On the outside I kept it together, but on the inside I was being torn into so many different directions. I was confused; many of my classmates who were female, had experience in JROTC (Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps), or were from military families. I knew nothing, but I was eager to keep learning. On the inspection line it never mattered how well dressed I was, there was always something wrong. The hazing took multiple forms. First, it was coming back to my room after class and everything was tossed about. I would have to re-make my "rack" (a.k.a. my bed...what great military slang), countless times per week. Those in the military know how tedious this can be. I was physically hazed, asked to do ridiculous things with my rifle, hold a sea chest in a squat position as the platoon leader kept on adding weight, and every time I would fall, he would re-start the time. I was publicly humiliated in front of my company and asked to eat a candy bar while everyone watched. While these things were considered a "right of passage", I rarely saw other male candidates go through the stuff they would make myself and other females endure. Occasionally, you would get a genuinely good guy in command who would put a stop to the hazing, and then he would make sure I was okay.

But there was this secret code of silence; we would never rat on one another because it was frowned upon. Being considered a "rat" was the lowest thing you could do, and the repercussions of that were worse than what I was going through. So, I kept my mouth shut. The issue was that many of the men did not believe that a female should be in the military, and they were not afraid to say it out loud.


I rarely saw other male candidates go through the stuff they would make myself and other females endure.


The other issue was that some female officers would not stand up for other females, which only added to the discrimination. Many of the upper class men would often say out loud that I would never make it, and many times the upper class women would join in and say it too. Unfortunately, these women could not see the benefit of helping out another female, which is something I feel strongly about. I carried these things with me for a very long time after resigning from the academy. I learned from a few upper class females, who were respected by other midshipmen and company officers, that if I worked harder physically to prove to the boys that I could keep up, I could gain some respect. So this is what I was determined to do.

 

Did you have separate sleeping and bathing quarters from the men?

In my barracks there were all male floors, and then co-ed floors. There were significantly less females on campus, so we got what we got. Women slept in the same room as women of course, but my hall mates were primarily men. We had separate bathrooms and showers, but walking through the hall to the bathroom in your robe caused a lot of heads to turn (of course.) You just had to put your head down and walk to the shower. On the ship I shared a room and bathroom with another female, but being on the ship is a COMPLETELY different story than being at the academy.

 

When you were at sea, did the harassment and discrimination change from when you were on land? 

The name calling was the same. In some instances, I would have a supportive captain and a supportive chief engineer to work under. I have to say that my first experience on a ship was very supportive. A lot of the superior officers were married with daughters, and they really respected me as a female, and they helped me create self-efficacy within myself, taught me things, and were patient with my abilities and strength. They wanted me to succeed as a female in a ship's engine room. However, my second experience was the complete opposite. I was told (again) that women are inferior and should not be allowed into service academies. We were told that we would never make it, that we were stupid for wanting to, and that there was no place for us in this industry.

During my second experience, my chief engineer took advantage of his power, even though he had a wife and daughters that did not stop him from looking at us like objects. He would get drunk and let his hands wander. He abused his power because he knew it was his word against ours and no one ever listens to the female cadet. He stalked us, watched us, invaded our privacy, and tried to make passes at us. He tried to force us to drink on board with him, and he would call at all hours of the night requesting "help" in his room. As cadets who were told countless times to "always obey orders," we would go, knowing something was not right. This was not the first time he sexually assaulted female cadets. There were other women who came forward, but they were too afraid to publicly admit it. They knew what this meant in this industry: ridicule, shame, loss of respect, and the possibility of never having another job. On ship or land there are the good ones and bad ones, the supportive and the non-supportive. The harassment was different, yet the same.


He abused his power because he knew it was his word against ours and no one ever listens to the female cadet.


What's a memory that stands out?

I'll start with a positive memory because I will never forget this man. He was the academy's "meanest" company officer, a Marine Corp Lieutenant Commander who used to work at Boot Camp in Paris Island. He saw potential in me, and he wanted me to succeed. On the day I beat him in a 5-mile run, he was furious. He was beat by a female midshipman of all people, but he looked at me and said, "Goddamn, I would make you into the best freakin' Navy Seal if you weren't a female. " Well yes, that sounds negative, but he saw the limitations that I was facing as a female, and he wanted to help me overcome them, physically and mentally. 

 

How did you cope with the discrimination?

I realized that the less you show, the less people would bother you. Sometimes. In the moment, you could never cry. That would be the worst thing I could do. I would smile, nervously, but even that could make things worse. For the most part, I would try my best to make everyone else think I was fine, and that I could handle it. I had to let them know it didn't bother me. Behind closed doors I was upset, I felt embarrassed, I felt humiliated, and I felt very much "less than." I wanted to be taken seriously, and I wanted respect more than anything, but to gain the same respect my male classmate had, I had to work twice as hard, and had to prove myself more than once.

 

What helped you get through these tough times?

Unfortunately, I did not have the best coping strategies. I was very scared, alone, and did not have the necessary tools to help myself. Today, I am completely different, and take care of myself: mind, body and spirit. Back then, after hearing, over and over, that you were never going to be good enough, you start to believe it and doubt yourself. You start to become hard on yourself, and sometimes push yourself past your known limits to prove a point. I was mean to myself, just the way the people around me were. I told myself I was a failure because I thought everyone was right who told me I would never make it. In the end I resigned, but I felt cornered, like I had no choice. I would restrict things for myself from happiness because I did not believe that I deserved it. TODAY, I KNOW I DO. The affects of the torment, hazing, and abuse lasted years after my time at the academy. I became an expert at pretending. I struggled for years with an eating disorder, and I finally went to treatment in 2014, and have been free ever since.


"Goddamn, I would make you into the best freakin' Navy Seal if you weren't a female. "


Did you ever report these incidents?

I reported the major incident on the ship. There were so many things that were terrible about the entire situation. Even as I was leaving the ship, the chief engineer begged me not to say anything because, "he had a family." I mean, really! Did he ever think about what he was doing to me? We went into settlement almost immediately. There was no way the Secretary of Maritime Industry would let this go public because it would not look good. I remember the day as an out-of-body experience. There were so many officials from Washington who met with me, drilled me with questions, asked me if I was "sure" what I was saying really happened, questioning everything. The end result was to basically "pay" us for our losses. I'm not sure money could buy what happened to me, and the profound effect it had on my life. It's sad that I know things like this happen far more than they are ever talked about. When news spread that we were going to press charges, three other women who had been effected the same way, by the SAME chief engineer, came forward. However, all three women did not want to be involved in the case because of the difficulties it would cause them later in their career, and it's a shame those women felt that way.

 

What advice would you give to other women who are in, or thinking about joining, the military?

I would say, good for you, and I support you 150%! I would give you a hug, and tell you how proud I am of you. More women need to be in these roles, and prove that we are just as strong, capable, and intelligent as any man. We deserve to be treated equally. If any woman can die for this country alongside a man, for the same reason, why should you treat her with disrespect and shame? Why should you make her feel less than for wanting to serve our country? And why should you make her jump through two times the hoops to receive half the respect?


I truly believe the strongest people are those that walk through the toughest situations and come out alive. 


How did being in the Marines shape who you are?

I never made it to the Marines because I never graduated from the academy to be commissioned. Sometimes we pass judgement on certain experiences in one way, and they turn up later in life as being the best thing that ever happened to me. Seven years later, I can say that I am proud of myself, and I know that no one can ever say I don't belong somewhere if I work my ass off to be there. The experience propelled me in a different direction with my life, and today I'll say I would not change it for anything. It was hard, but I truly believe the strongest people are those that walk through the toughest situations and come out alive.

My passion is helping others because I have been there before, and I know how hard it is to be discriminated against, bullied, hazed, and hurt. I am the best version of myself today because I worked hard to get to where I am. The experiences I have had, no one can take a way from me, and while sometimes I wish they had never happened, I know there is a reason for it. So if sharing my story can help others going through similar experiences, then I have to share my story. I know that there is a possibility I'll receive backlash from old classmates of mine, alum, and current midshipman, but I'm willing to take that risk. It's time women stand together.

PersonalClaire Wasserman