A huge welcome to the newest Geargal, Morgan. Morgan I and met when she started following my blog and telling me how much she liked it. That’s a quick way into my heart so we soon became real life friends. Morgan is an utter badass; a military officer and West Point graduate who moved to Alaska about a year or so ago and has taken to learning her way around all things Alaskan. I can barely keep up with Morgan unless we’re both on skis; that’s the one thing I can still beat her at, though knowing her that’s not going to last for long.
Morgan told me about her time at West Point and her descriptions of having to perform at the same level as much larger men while hamstrung by gear that didn’t remotely fit her struck a real chord with me; after all when I worked as a police officer years ago, I wasn’t even issued a bulletproof vest because my department didn’t want to bother with the expense. My firefighter’s helmet was so big that it fell off on a regular basis (but luckily the fire department I volunteered with quickly got me another one that did fit). Women in male-dominated professions still have to consistently outperform their male counterparts while not being given equal access to simple things like gear that fits, just to be taken remotely seriously.
I started the Geargals blog in large part because at the time, women’s outdoor gear was in a pretty shabby state, with few options for the serious woman outdoors enthusiast. Things are much better for us now, but the American military lags behind, claiming that adequate gear and life-saving armor for female soldiers is “just a bridge too far right now.” I asked Morgan to write something about the gear she had to wear in school, and she wrote up this fascinating piece. She’s agreed to be a regular contributor on Geargals and I’m really stoked to have a new voice on the blog. Read on for Morgan’s first post and join me in looking forward to hearing more from her!
~Jill, Head Geargal.
“Madam, I apologize for addressing you Sir. Please accept apology.
It’s an email the likes of which I’ve gotten numerous times in my six years of military correspondence. In the Army, we’re identified by our rank, instead of Mr. or Mrs., and it can be confusing since Morgan is a unisex name which, in my experience, trends toward male. This email came after several in which he’d addressed me as “Sir” and I’m not really sure how he found out I am a she. I didn’t correct him. I stopped doing so, and stopped getting frustrated with the mistake, years ago. Instead, I just laughed and accepted his apology.
In college, I wrote a paper on Lt. Gen. Ann Dunwoody. General Dunwoody was the first woman to make the rank of brigadier general (the lowest of the four general ranks- a “one-star”) in the army. In her autobiography, she talks about her early army days and how, as a junior officer, she spent a lot of time chasing jobs that would advance her career. In response to this, most of her (male) superiors basically told her that a pretty woman’s only place in the army was to decorate the office. In 2008, Gen. Dunwoody became the first female four-star general. She showed them.
Gen. Dunwoody was commissioned in 1975. The army has come a long way since then, but as a woman in a male-dominated business, I know first-hand that there is still much work to be done. When I showed up for my first day of cadet basic training at West Point in the summer of 2006, I was issued equipment that looked like it’d been around since Vietnam. The frame of the ruck was too big for me, so I could never get the lumbar pad to sit anywhere but right on my ass and the hooks that attached the suspenders to the weapons belt (worn underneath the ruck) caused chronic bruising on my back.
When we went on ruck marches, my 5’5”, 118lb self was expected carry as much weight as, and keep up with, all the guys. That’s exactly how I think it should be. However, I always considered myself a lot tougher than them since, when walking next to the 6+ feet tall dudes (whose rucks fit properly) I usually had to take five steps to their one to keep the pace. Eventually I took to jogging, since it was much less painful than walking. While every guy in my platoon walked the 13 mile march, I ran it. Whatever it takes, right?
During my junior year, we were lucky enough to receive new, “improved” gear. I anticipated this new equipment because I assumed that it would be more female-friendly (ie. could be modified to fit a smaller frame). I was disappointed to see that the rucksack frames were only bigger and frustrated to learn that not only had they not ordered any extra-small ballistic vests, but they’d run out of smalls, so I’d have to deal with a medium. The 175lb dude behind me also got a medium, and his fit him. If you’ve ever low-crawled through mud wearing your entire kit you’ll know that a too-big vest snags on EVERYTHING and becomes a major obstacle. Proper fit is crucial.
And the uniforms. Oh, the uniforms. I don’t know who was put in charge of designing them, but they must not have ever seen or “interacted” with a woman because they don’t seem to know that our anatomy is different. We come with hips and boobs. For me, the boobs thing isn’t an issue, but the hips thing is. The regular ACUs work well enough but we have special pants for the wintertime in Alaska which are straight cut down the sides. They come with Velcro attachments and zippers on the sides at the waist and ankles so they can be taken off with boots on. If I wear my appropriate size, I have to Velcro the waistband, then unzip them slightly around the hips so my ass doesn’t look like it’s stuffed into a sausage casing. The next size up just falls off unless I cinch them down with a belt so there’s a foot of extra fabric bunched up around my waist.
And the dress uniforms? Oh, those make me so mad I won’t even go there. All I have to say is, I don’t even plan on wearing grandma-pants that come up to my rib cage when I’m 80. Why would I want to wear them now? And why would anyone think that looks professional?
Barriers are opening up for women. Technically, we’re not allowed to be in combat but it happens all the time. Military Police conduct regular patrols on streets and in cities, female soldiers included. Female Engagement Teams travel with infantry units into towns to interact with the local women and collect information. Transportation personnel, like me, conduct convoys between bases to deliver food and supplies. The army has come a long way and I only see things continuing to progress.
But it’s still tough. The ones of us who care about bolstering our image as tough, capable women work our butts off to be seen as equals in the men’s eyes. Unfortunately, all it takes is one lazy, weak female who manages to squeak by to ruin it for everyone. It’s happened to me and it’s frustrating as all hell. My hard work has paid off before though. While in Airborne school last fall, we had a crusty old Marine Corps major in our platoon who I respected because of his quiet but demanding presence. He was someone you innately hoped would approve of you.
During the final week of the course, we had to run to and from the airstrip from our barracks. The girl next to me could not run for the life of her. She’d drop back and begin to walk, which threw the whole formation out of whack. So I started pushing her. I did it going down the hill and going up. I didn’t want to help her, but this girl was going to pass the class because daddy was a colonel, so I simply tried to minimize how many people saw her fall out of every run and then watch her graduate (several soldiers, including men, were dropped from the course for falling out of the runs). At the end of the course, the major pulled me to the side and paid me some of the best compliments I’ve ever gotten from a person of his stature. The Marines are a die-hard group and here was a guy who’d been one for a long time complimenting me on representing myself and female army officers well. It was a proud moment.
The male-bias shows up in my outdoor recreations pursuits as well, although for the most part it’s not as bad and I’ve met many men, including my husband, who don’t really care how long it takes me to get up the mountain as long as I’m out there doing what I love and having fun. It’s not to say that I take my time. I still do what I can to not slow the group down, and to carry my weight, and I do an internal fist pump every time I skin or hike past a guy on the mountain. I’ve met a lot of tough guys out there, but I’ve also met a lot of hard-core chicks who could kick most guys’ asses.
My hope is that women will continue to make headway in male-dominated ventures and will continue to have more and more opportunities open to them. Technologies are starting to improve for us, putting us right in the ball-game with the men. We’re keeping up with them and we don’t intend on quitting any time soon. So guys, next time you see me coming up hot on your heels and decide to speed up so I don’t pass you, don’t bother. I want it more than you do.
When not at her day job, Morgan spends her time writing for her blog and doing things outside. She enjoys climbing, skiing, camping and generally making the outdoors her personal playground. She also has a (supposedly) unhealthy obsession with running long distances, like the time she ran 40 miles off the couch and the 100-miler she has scheduled for this fall. Morgan lives in Alaska with her husband and her dog, Sophie, who both share her passion for adventure. Her goals in life include living in an RV, owning a Sprinter van, and completely covering her car-top cargo box with bumper stickers from places she’s been.