Thirty years ago, women made their mark
as four-year members of the Corps © Sept. 22, 2008, Norwich University Office of Communications
The year was 1974. A postage stamp cost eight cents, Richard Nixon had just resigned the presidency and, in the hills of Northfield, Vt., a handful of women arrived on the campus of Norwich University to make history.
“It was a shock, a total shock,” said Vicki Mudrinich, recalling the day she arrived to find herself surrounded by more than 1,000 men and very few women.
Mudrinich [nee Hippard] and two of her classmates, Linnea [Peterson] Westberg and Irene [Nadeau] Mills, were not the first women to join NU’s Corps of Cadets, but would be among the first to go through rookdom and graduate after a full, four-year cadet experience 30 years ago.
All eyes were upon us and our little detachment of women stood out
wherever we went.
~ Irene (Nadeau) Mills,
Class of 1978
Male students alone entered the halls of Norwich, the country’s oldest private military college, for more than 150 years. In 1972, a merger with Vermont College in Montpelier allowed women on campus to attend classes. One was Roberta [Moskos] Cooper, ’76, who became part of the Corps after enrolling and, with others, convincing the University to allow women to join. “For the most part, I was the only female in my classes,” she said. “That was awkward coming from public schools. I also hated being different; I wanted to be a part of the Corps.”
Cooper was among eight Corps women living on the top floor of Gerard Hall in 1974, including the freshmen. Other women who chose a traditional college lifestyle lived at home or on the Vermont College campus.
“A decision had been made prior to their arrival of what it would mean to be a female in the Corps of Cadets,” said Col. W. Scott Knoebel, who served as regimental commander in 1976, the year he graduated. “It was clear that the expectation following graduation was that they would be on the same footing as any male member of the Corps, and that during their tenure at the U., they would achieve the same exact standards as males.”
But when Westberg showed up at the 1974 Convocation, her own expectations were overwhelmed. “I looked around that room and said, ‘Oh, my God. What did I get myself into?’”
“You could tell this was a big experiment,” said Mills. “All eyes were upon us and our little detachment of women stood out wherever we went.”
Slowly, however, the female Corps members began to blend into Norwich, thanks to a combination of their own determination and cooperation from fellow students. “The entire freshman class—because they had not known anything different—was fabulous,” said Westberg. “And among upperclassmen, people came out of the woodwork to make our experience better and to make sure things were going OK.”
Knoebel said their challenges were twofold: The women were not only the first female Rooks, but they had to handle “growing pains” of the administration under Commandant John Wadsworth, which was revising policies to accommodate the integration. Everything, from logistical issue such as latrine facilities and physical training expectations, was in flux, said Knoebel. “It’s real tribute to their courage, to their discipline, to their focus and determination that [the women] got through,” he said. “They set the foundation for what Corps women do today—and Corps women today do better than any other group of students at Norwich.”
Cooper and others also set the foundation for women’s enrollment at U.S. service academies, and joined Wadsworth in consulting for the 1976 integration at West Point [The U.S. Military Academy].
But as semesters passed by for the women, college life focused on other matters. The Corps women were given their own quarters in Patterson Hall. Cooper battled 40-degree-below temperatures, learned math from Steve Ingram and rode her horse at home games as the Norwich University mascot. Mills tried fencing and learned to ski, warmed by hot tea and homemade cookies from student life employee Kay Bowen. Slowly, said Mills, the experiment began to prove that a new era had arrived at Norwich. “Everything seemed to become more closely integrated—uniforms, unit assignments, living quarters and activities,” she said.
Physical training, too, became integrated. Westberg recalled that their training runs were separated from the men at first—but still difficult. “I didn’t know you were supposed to go there in shape!” said Westberg, a middle-school counselor in Nashua, N.H., after eight years in the Air Force and 10 in the business world. “That first year has made everything else in my life very easy.”
On a 12-mile tack march during basic training, the female Rooks proved themselves. “The last part was through the Dog River, and it was long and hot and miserable,” said Mudrinich, who spent four years in the Air Force and now lives in Fayetteville, Ga. “The guys fell out or fainted or had blisters or had something wrong with them, and none of us did.”
What pushed the women forward? “The camaraderie—the feeling of being part of something bigger than ourselves,” said Mudrinich. “We were surprised at our own strength.”