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

Police tape is shown in Toronto Tuesday, May 2, 2017. (Graeme Roy/The Canadian Press)
CRIME STOPPERS: ‘Most wanted’ for the week of Jan. 24

Crime Stoppers’ weekly list based on information provided by police investigators

A mallard duck swims through Salish Pond in Chilliwack on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
WEATHER: Snow, rain in forecast for Fraser Valley

Fraser Valley has been treated to more than a week of mostly sunny weather, but it’s about to end

sd
VIDEO: Mission drag racer scores 1st career win, sets world record, makes history in 2020

Justin Bond, founder and owner of JBS Equipment, hits milestones in break-out year

A video posted to social media by Chilliwack resident Rob Iezzi shows a teenager getting kicked in the face after being approached by three suspects on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. (YouTube/Rob i)
VIDEO: Security cameras capture ‘just one more assault’ near Chilliwack secondary

Third high-school related assault Rob Iezzi’s cameras have captured since beginning of 2021

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders sits in on a COVID-19 briefing with Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer, and Adrian Dix, B.C. minister of health. (Birinder Narang/Twitter)
PHOTOS: Bernie Sanders visits B.C. landmarks through the magic of photo editing

Residents jump on viral trend of photoshopping U.S. senator into images

An Uber driver’s vehicle is seen after the company launched service, in Vancouver, Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. Several taxi companies have lost a court bid to run Uber and Lyft off the road in British Columbia. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Taxi companies lose court bid to quash Uber, Lyft approvals in British Columbia

Uber said in a statement that the ruling of the justice is clear and speaks for itself

A 75-year-old aircraft has been languishing in a parking lot on the campus of the University of the Fraser Valley, but will soon be moved to the B.C. Aviation Museum. (Paul Henderson/ Chilliwack Progress)
Vintage military aircraft moving from Chilliwack to new home at B.C. Aviation Museum

The challenging move to Vancouver Island will be documented by Discovery Channel film crews

Giants defenceman Bowen Byram has recorded his first NHL career point (Rob Wilton/special to Langley Advance Times)
VIDEO: Vancouver Giants Bowen Byram records first NHL career point with Colorado Avalanche

Player with Langley-based WHL franchise assisted on goal against the Ducks

Surrey Fire Service responded to a fire in the industrial area of 192nd street and 54th Avenue early Saturday morning (Jan. 23, 2021). (Photo: Shane MacKichan)
Surrey crews respond to fire in industrial area

Fire happened early Saturday morning

FILE - In this Feb. 14, 2017, file photo, Oklahoma State Rep. Justin Humphrey prepares to speak at the State Capitol in Oklahoma City. A mythical, ape-like creature that has captured the imagination of adventurers for decades has now become the target of Rep. Justin Humphrey. Humphrey, a Republican House member has introduced a bill that would create a Bigfoot hunting season, He says issuing a state hunting license and tag could help boost tourism. (Steve Gooch/The Oklahoman via AP, File)
Oklahoma lawmaker proposes ‘Bigfoot’ hunting season

A Republican House member has introduced a bill that would create a Bigfoot hunting season

Economic Development and Official Languages Minister Melanie Joly responds to a question in the House of Commons Monday November 23, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Federal minister touts need for new B.C. economic development agency

Last December’s federal economic update promised a stimulus package of about $100 billion this year

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

FILE - In this Nov. 20, 2017, file photo, Larry King attends the 45th International Emmy Awards at the New York Hilton, in New York. Former CNN talk show host King has been hospitalized with COVID-19 for more than a week, the news channel reported Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021. CNN reported the 87-year-old King contracted the coronavirus and was undergoing treatment at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP, File)
Larry King, broadcasting giant for half-century, dies at 87

King conducted an estimated 50,000 on-air interviews

Most Read