By Tracie Logan, Museum Curator, United States Naval Academy Museum
We first started thinking about our exhibition “Ability, Not Gender” eighteen months ago. The inspiration came from a variety of sources. Most obviously, a national conversation about women, and their place in the military, was happening. Here in Annapolis, the number of female midshipmen continues to rise; women are nearly thirty percent of the incoming class of 2020. Luckily an appropriate time to discuss all these matters, the 40th anniversary of women entering the service academies, was right around the corner in 2016.
The first question was, were women graduates interested in an exhibition about them? After gathering about 25 representatives from different graduating classes, we found the answer was overwhelmingly “YES!” As we planned the exhibition, we continually returned to this group for guidance. By the time it opened, the number of women who provided ideas, objects, photos, and interviews swelled to more than 60 graduates.
“…to provide an honest history, we had to discuss the challenges women faced at the Naval Academy, not just their successes.”
Our goal was to commemorate female midshipmen, not just celebrate them. To do justice to graduates and current midshipmen, as well as to provide an honest history, we had to discuss the challenges women faced at the Naval Academy, not just their successes. We wanted to show the progress female midshipmen have made and how they worked hard for their accomplishments.
Their experiences could be divided into four themes: social, academic, military, and athletics and the artifacts in our exhibition support these themes. We strove to include artifacts that would spark conversation and interest among visitors and graduates alike. The artifacts strike a balance between women’s unique Academy experiences and experiences of all midshipmen. We also included smart phone enabled tags (QR codes) that allow visitors to hear first person stories from graduates. (If you are interested in contributing a story, let us know!)
To research the exhibition we interviewed both women and men graduates, combed through the Naval Academy Archives, and read secondary sources and peer reviewed articles from academic journals. As we dug into the exhibition, we built trust with the graduates which led to a wider pool of people to speak to and interview. This approach did have drawbacks as we were not always able to capture all the voices and experiences that we would have liked. We tried to speak to the aggregate experience of female midshipmen and tell a story that reflected a harder past with the more progressive present.
Any midshipman is capable of achieving what these women have achieved. It is our hope that all graduates feel included in the story, not just those with boldfaced names. At the end of the exhibition, and ghosted onto every other text panel, is a list of careers female graduates have pursued—military and civilian.
The reaction to the exhibition has been very positive so far. About eighty to ninety percent of visitors to the Museum enter the exhibition space and spend at least a few minutes exploring the space. Maybe as expected, the exhibition has been a hit with female graduates, incoming midshipmen, and families. My favorite visitor was a man whose sister was in the service. She had only occasionally mentioned in passing what her experiences in the service were like, and he said going through the exhibition gave him a greater understanding and respect for what she must have experienced. And that is our overall goal with this exhibition—to educate visitors on this one aspect of life at the Academy and to have them reflect on these wonderful, strong, and brave women.
Editor’s Note: This week the Senate agreed to a resolution “Recognizing the 40th Anniversary of Women at the United States Naval Academy.”