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 are asking to speak with two men who were seen driving this car outside the BMO on Saturday, Nov. 21. (Photo submitted)
100 Mile RCMP investigating after woman reports being harassed outside BMO

Young Indigenous woman reports being verbally harassed by two men outside the bank.

A man wearing a face mask to help curb the spread of COVID-19 walks in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020. The use of masks is mandatory in indoor public and retail spaces in the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
104 new COVID-19 cases in Interior Health

IH is reporting the new numbers since Friday, Nov. 20

Quesnel Search and Rescue has found a missing snowmobiler on Yanks Peak, near Wells. They are being assisted by the Wells RCMP, Wells Snowmobile Club and Central Cariboo and Prince George search and rescue teams. (Quesnel Search and Rescue)
Search and rescue crews locate missing sledder near Wells

Mike Harbek spent the night on Yanks Peak and was located by helicopter Monday afternoon

A rider carves a path on Yanks Peak Saturday, Nov. 21. Two men from Prince George went missing on the mountain the next day. One of them, Colin Jalbert, made it back after digging out his sled from four feet under the snow. The other, Mike Harbak, is still missing. Local search and rescue teams went out looking Monday, Nov. 23. (Sam Fait Photo)
‘I could still be the one out there’: snowmobiler rescued, 1 still missing near Wells

As Quesnel search and rescue teams investigate Yanks Peak, Colin Jalbert is resting at home

Quesnel Search and Rescue are looking for a missing snowmobiler on Yanks Peak Monday, Nov. 23. They are being assisted by the Wells RCMP, Wells Snowmobile Club and neighbouring search and rescue teams. (Quesnel Search and Rescue)
Search underway for missing snowmobiler out of Wells, Yanks Peak area

Two riders went missing while sledding on Yanks Peak Nov. 22. One is still missing.

People wearing face masks to help curb the spread of COVID-19 cross a street in downtown Vancouver, on Sunday, November 22, 2020. The use of masks is mandatory in indoor public and retail spaces in the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. reports 17 COVID deaths, 1,933 new cases as hospitalizations surge over the weekend

There are 277 people in hospital, of whom 59 are in ICU or critical care

(Black Press Media files)
B.C. to test emergency alert system on cell phones, TVs, radios on Wednesday

The alert is part of a twice yearly test of the national Alert Ready system

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speak to the media about the COVID-19 virus outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s inability to manufacture vaccines in-house will delay distribution: Trudeau

First doses of COVID-19 vaccine expected in first few months of 2021, prime minister says

Phillip Tallio was just 17 when he was convicted of murder in 1983 (file photo)
Miscarriage of justice before B.C. teen’s 1983 guilty plea in girl’s murder: lawyer

Tallio was 17 when he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the death of his 22-month-old cousin

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

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

This undated photo issued by the University of Oxford shows of vial of coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, in Oxford, England. Pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca said Monday Nov. 23, 2020, that late-stage trials showed its coronavirus vaccine was up to 90% effective, giving public health officials hope they may soon have access to a vaccine that is cheaper and easier to distribute than some of its rivals. (University of Oxford/John Cairns via AP)
VIDEO: How do the leading COVID vaccines differ? And what does that mean for Canada?

All three of the drug companies are incorporating novel techniques in developing their vaccines

An aerial shot of Cedar Valley Lodge this past August, LNG Canada’s newest accommodation for workers at the project site in Kitimat. This is where several employees are isolating after a COVID-19 outbreak was declared last Thursday (Nov. 19). (Photo courtesy of LNG Canada)
Forty-one positive COVID-19 cases associated with the LNG Canada site outbreak in Kitimat

Thirty-four of the 41 cases remain active, according to Northern Health

7-year-old Mackenzie Hodge from Penticton sent a hand-written letter to premiere John Horgan asking if she’d be able to see her elf, Ralph under the new coronavirus restrictions. (John Horgan / Twitter)
Elf on the shelf an acceptable house guest, B.C. premier tells Penticton girl

A 7-year-old from Penticton penned a letter asking if she’d be allowed to see her elf this year

Most Read