Kate Armstrong is seen here with a copy of The Stone Frigate at her home near Nelson. Photo: Tyler Harper

Kate Armstrong is seen here with a copy of The Stone Frigate at her home near Nelson. Photo: Tyler Harper

‘Don’t expect justice or fairness’: B.C. author wins prize for book on sexism in military school

Kate Armstrong’s debut book The Stone Frigate has been shortlisted for a national writing award

Kate Armstrong never had a chance. She was never given one.

In 1980, Armstrong was one of the first 32 women admitted to the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ont. She entered hoping it would provide a path to being a pilot, even though at the time the Canadian Armed Forces weren’t allowing women to serve in combat roles.

But even before she had arrived, some male students were already making bets on how many female cadets they could have sex with. The new class was referred to as sweats, a military term Armstrong says describes an expert.

“They said that we were sweats because we were fat and ugly, that we were desperate to have sex,” she says. “And we were like experts at sex, and so they called us sweats because we had come to military college just to have sex with them.”

What followed was four years of sexual harassment and, as Armstrong later found out, a co-ordinated effort by older male students to break her because she was seen as having leadership potential.

The Nelson writer details her time attending Royal Military College in her debut book The Stone Frigate: The Royal Military College’s First Female Cadet Speaks Out, which was released in March 2019 and this month was shortlisted for the sixth annual Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writer Prize.

After she graduated in 1984, Armstrong spent the next three decades trying to come to terms with how she had been made to feel in the military before writing her book.

“I think that as a woman, if you’re accomplished and capable, that can be seen as a threat,” she says. “Culturally, it’s OK with guys to sort of band together against a woman. Even though she may be the most capable person in the group, she’ll be made to feel like the biggest loser.”

Women have served in the Canadian military for over a century, first as nurses during the First World War. More than 50,000 enlisted during the Second World War, although they were restricted from combat.

The jobs women could apply for were expanded in the 1950s and again in the 1970s. In 1979, Royal Military College opened its doors to women.

That year, Armstrong was finishing high school when she visited a recruitment centre in Vancouver. She was already a pilot, having learned how to fly a glider at 16 in B.C., and hoped to fly in the military.

“The recruiters laughed at me. They said, ‘Well, we don’t have women pilots. It’s not available to you.’ I was so stunned.”

Instead she opted for 10 weeks of basic training in Chilliwack, which Armstrong soon came to realize was another way of weeding out any women who signed up. The final training exercise kept cadets awake for five days to see how they handled stress. Armstrong endured, and was admitted to Royal Military College.

But even before she arrived in Kingston, Armstrong had begun to lose interest in the military. She’d already seen women harassed in Chilliwack, and at the college found little support for the new recruits.

Armstrong stuck it out, in part because she felt any female cadet who didn’t graduate would be used as an example to keep future women out.

“If I was going to quit it was when I was winning, not when they were winning.”

Although she never became a pilot, Armstrong graduated from RMC with a commerce degree in 1984. She served nine years in the military as a logistics officer before achieving the rank of captain and taking a release in 1993.

From there she returned to Vancouver for a job with BC Hydro, which she held for nearly 20 years and where she suffered similar harassment. In 2012 she retired to begin writing her memoir.

Now 58, Armstrong has a healthier relationship with RMC.

She still counts many of the people she graduated with, men and women, as her close friends, and returns to the college every five years for a reunion.

Her picture was included on a stamp in 2001 that marked RMC’s 125th anniversary, the college invited her back in 2014 for the unveiling of a plaque commemorating its first female students, and last October she returned to deliver a keynote address to the latest graduating class.

After it was released, The Stone Frigate also received an endorsement from the college’s current commandant and vice-chancellor, Brigadier-General Sébastien Bouchard.

In a letter to eVeritas, college’s online magazine, Bouchard wrote, “Reviewers have called the book brutally honest, and having read the memoir, I want everyone to know RMC accepts that honesty. Only through such honesty can this institution continue to move forward and learn from these experiences.”

The military, meanwhile, continues to struggle with equality.

Women have been able to work in every CAF role, as well as in combat duties, since 1989. The only exception to that was in the submarine service, which also opened to women in 2001.

But female officers and non-commissioned members are still a minority in CAF. In February, the Department of National Defence released updated statistics showing women make up just 15.9 per cent of total regular force and primary reserve members.

Last July, the federal government agreed to a $900-million settlement after several class-action lawsuits were filed by people who had suffered sexual harassment, assault and gender discrimination in the military.

Armstrong says her memoir was not targeted at the college or military. Instead, she wanted to show how sexism can look and feel in any industry.

“My book is about establishments, the institutionalized sexism,” she says. “But the message is that don’t expect justice or fairness. Don’t expect the powerful to yield their privilege. Because that’s what I wanted.”

What she received instead was an education in power and inequality that is as relevant now as it was in 1980.

Related:

Ex-Canadian military corporal appeals sentence for sexual assault, voyeurism

Canada to compensate 718 gay-purge victims in class-action settlement

Canada’s military bans discriminatory and sexually explicit tattoos

@tyler_harper | tyler.harper@nelsonstar.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

BooksMilitaryMilitary sexual misconduct

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

 

Kate Armstrong, who wrote a memoir of her years as one of the first women to attend Royal Military College, has been shortlisted for a national award. Photo: Tyler Harper

Kate Armstrong, who wrote a memoir of her years as one of the first women to attend Royal Military College, has been shortlisted for a national award. Photo: Tyler Harper

Just Posted

An app available through the Vancouver Island Regional Library’s website can help students during COVID times. (Stock photo)
New library app can help families with online learning

Sample tests, virtual flashcards available through Vancouver Island Regional Library’s website

The Nanaimo Clippers in action at Frank Crane Arena in early 2020. (News Bulletin file photo)
Nanaimo Clippers for sale as owner says hockey won’t be back to normal any time soon

Wes Mussio says he’s had numerous inquiries about the junior A club already

The current boat used by Rugged Coast Research Society for remote shoreline cleanup operations will be replaced by a landing craft that will allow society members to haul four times as much marine garbage per trip from Vancouver Island’s remote shorelines. (Agathe Bernard photo/Rugged Coast Research Society)
Nanaimo-based research group needs bigger boat for coastal cleanups

Rugged Coast Research Society raising cash for landing craft to pull trash from remote shorelines

Pet owners are leaving more dog waste than ever before on Nanaimo’s paths and trails, says letter writer. (Stock photo)
LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Dog owners need to pick up after their pets

Letter writer says he’s ‘disgusted’ by dog walkers not picking up their dog waste

The Nanaimo African Heritage Society is capping its month of Black History Month celebrations with a virtual gala on Sunday, Feb. 28. (News Bulletin photo)
Nanaimo African Heritage Society presents virtual Black History Month gala

Event to feature a variety of speakers and performers

A health worker holds a vial of AstraZeneca vaccine to be administered to members of the police at a COVID-19 vaccination center in Mainz, Germany, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. The federal state of Rhineland-Palatinate, start with the vaccination of police officers in internal police vaccination centers. (Andreas Arnold/dpa via AP)
B.C. officials to unveil new details of COVID vaccination plan Monday

Seniors and health-care workers who haven’t gotten their shot are next on the list

A boat caught fire in Ladysmith Harbour on Saturday morning. (Photo submitted)
Search underway for missing woman after boat catches fire in Ladysmith harbour

A large boat caught fire on the morning of Saturday, Feb. 27

Lone orca from a pod that made its way north from Georgia Strait and into Discovery Passage on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021. Photo by Ella Smiley/<a href="https://www.facebook.com/Comoxvalleywildlifesightings/?ref=page_internal" target="_blank">Comox Valley Wildlife Sightings </a>
Island wildlife viewers thrilled by close view of passing Orca pod

Group gives wildlife photographers a classic opportunity to view them off Campbell River shoreline

An investigation is underway after a man was shot and killed by Tofino RCMP in Opitsaht. (Black Press Media file photo)
Man shot and killed by RCMP near Tofino, police watchdog investigating

Investigation underway by Independent Investigations Office of British Columbia.

A crossover utility vehicle smashed through the front of a business on Bowen Road on Friday evening. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
Vehicle smashes all the way into business on Nanaimo’s Bowen Road

No serious injuries reported after incident at Venue Financial Centres

Snuneymuxw artist Eliot White-Hill, Kwulasultun is among the artists participating in the Nanaimo Art Gallery’s Rain Shadow exhibit. His piece, ‘We Fell from the Sky/Together and Apart,’ depicts a Snuneymuxw creation story. (Josef Jacobson/News Bulletin)
Nanaimo Art Gallery exhibit explores the ways people think about place

‘Rain Shadow’ features work mostly by Vancouver Island and Gulf Island artists

Jasmine and Gwen Donaldson are part of the CAT team working to reduce stigma for marginalized groups in Campbell River. Photo by Marc Kitteringham, Campbell River Mirror
Jasmine’s story: Stigma can be the hardest hurdle for those overcoming addiction

Recovering B.C. addict says welcome, connection and community key for rebuilding after drug habit

Wayne Allen's graduation photo from Chemainus Secondary School. (Photo submitted)
Brother charged with murder in Vancouver Island teenager’s Ontario death

Jesse James Allen stands accused in the death of Wayne Allen, a 2020 Chemainus Secondary grad

Baldy Mountain Resort was shut down on Saturday after a fatal workplace accident. (Baldy Mountain picture)

Most Read