University Archive
Virginia Tech

The First Women in the Corps of Cadets

Oral History Interview with

Emily Pillsbury Davis

Member of the Original "L" Squadron

Date of interview: November 17, 1998
Location of interview: Media Building sound booth, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia
Interviewer: Tamara Kennelly
Transcriber: Stacie Swain
[Tape 1, side 2]

Davis: I wouldn't call it hazing. I don't even know the term. It wasn't abusive, but it wasn't nice. Why are you here? You're here to get guys. They thought it was dumb why women would want to be in the Corps. There were people who would call out of windows--it was less than pleasant kind of comments. Certainly not necessary, but nobody hurt us or attacked us.

They thought it was odd. It was an attitude of, Why are you doing this? What's your motive? They couldn't understand why women would want to be in the Corps and would want to be working toward the same thing the men were working toward, which was a commission in the services.

Kennelly: Do you think that those same civilians were doing the same type of things to the male cadets?

Davis: No, no, I don't. It was directed specifically at women.

Kennelly: Did you mention about the civilian who was writing articles in the paper?

Davis: Yes, he had been in the Corps, and he didn't like the Corps. He took it on himself to just spy on the Corps and report outrageous things that weren't true, and he was reporting hazing and all this stuff in the Collegiate Times. He was just disgruntled and unhappy, and his stuff was published as if it was fact. And that was frustrating to people in the Corps. Here we were trying to build the Corps, and these things that he would report of abuses were not happening and were not real, and we would joke about it.

I can remember coming into Dr. Robertson's class, civil war class, and there were several cadets that went to this class 'cause we all thought the world of him and wanted to take a lot of his classes. And we sat as group halfway back, male and female. We sat as a group. It was my junior year so things were a little more calm by then.

And we were sitting there and talking about Willard's article, and somebody says, "Did you hit any freshmen today?" And we said, "No, no, no. We locked 'em in the closet last night. Not a big deal. They shouldn't surface until tomorrow or so."

We were just clowning around and joking. And we thought the article was absurd and ridiculous, and we were overheard by a woman, and she thought we had such a good sense of humor and how we could laugh that off, and she wanted us to know that no one out there believes this guy anyway. He just ranted and raved, and before we were through she wanted to join the Corps.

She liked us, liked our attitude, and thought we were good people, and she had been thinking about it, and so we had to laugh. And she did. She went down to the commandant's office and joined. It was winter quarter. And he called me and he said that she had given my name as one of the reasons she wanted to join, and I laughed and said, "Well Willard's not doing too well. He's trying to drum people out, and we're recruiting." And we all got a real chuckle out of that.

We kept adding women all year long; we added men too. People joined, and that was a time of great spirit and growth, and we were increasing in members each year, and it was breathing new life back into the Corps, and that was a good thing. And we were talking about scholarships and getting things going and bringing more people into the Corps. And they have a goal now to top 1,000 by the year 2000, so they are still working on bringing the members up and bringing the Corps back. Those were all good things that came from one disgruntled person who just had a hard time at life.

Kennelly: So you don't think having women made some males decide not to go into the Corps?

Davis: I don't think so because times were changing. I was in Lake Braddock in Northern Virginia. I always did recruiting over the Christmas breaks, and every time I went home I did recruiting. John Coulter and Joe Rike and Janet James and I did a lot of the Northern Virginia schools. I remember Joe and John were a little late, and I don't think Janet was coming that day. And I was at Lake Braddock, and there were people there waiting for us to start.

So I went ahead and started thinking that the guys would join me and put their two cents in. So I started in my speech, and as soon as the two guys rolled up--this was really priceless--this young man asked me are there any men in the Corps. You had to have seen John and Joe's face, and it was like we are taking over. So they got me off stage, and I told them that there are quite a few more men than women in the Corps and here are the two of the finest we have. It was priceless. I thought John was going to die, 'cause I was talking from the women's point of view. I don't know if we recruited him or not. I went to so many schools.

One Christmas break I did 23 schools. It was amazing. This was all volunteer. We would just get into our uniforms and go and talk about the Corps. It was a great experience. I felt really good when I saw people come that we had met or had heard us talk.

John and Joe were wonderful recruiters. John is still recruiting over here. He loves Tech, and he loves the Corps, and I did too. And that is infectious when you feel it and when it's in your blood.

I always loved it too because I felt we had a wonderful program, but it was a good leadership program whether they went into the service or not. I felt if you applied the principles you learned and lived the life, you came out a much better person. So I thought of it as a very positive experience, and I was very glad I was in the first group even though it was stressful and strenuous, and it was difficult. It was exciting, and it was new, and it had never been done. It was bold, and those were all real key factors.

Kennelly: When you mentioned about being a commander, you said towards the end the other male commanders respected you, and you could work with them. Was there some incident that was the turning point or was it gradual?

Davis: No, I think it was a gradual getting to know each other. I think that it is fear of the unknown. These men as they got to know us--whether it was me in the commander's seat--as they got to know us and they got to understand our motivations and got to understand why we were here, a lot of their fears dissipated. I don't know what they thought. I'm not a man. I don't know what they thought we were going to do--come in and hang curtains in their dorm. I don't know what they thought, or how we were going to change their lives.

And we did, because we came in. We competed with them. I have a picture in here when we won the Kohler Cup. There are different recognitions during the year. I don't remember everything, but it involved marching, unit QCA, unit academics, and how your squadron was rated to other units. And our "L" Squadron was a recipient. And that bothered them because we didn't march with rifles, it wasn't fair. They wouldn't give us riffles okay, so was that fair?

It's like right now when Glenn was trying to go up in space, and there's those 15 women who were trained in the Mercury program that were all trained as astronauts and all went through the same thing, and none of them got up into space. They weren't up in space because they were not fighter pilots, and that was the requirement put in for astronauts, so they would be precluded from going. Because they were not allowed to be fighter pilots, and since they were not allowed to be fighter pilots, they couldn't be selected to be astronauts.

Well so if they didn't give us rifles, we couldn't march with rifles. So it was just that kind of mentality that sort of floored us. But we won it anyway, and whether they said it was because our skirts were short or because we didn't have rifles I don't know. Maybe we looked better marching. Who knows? I don't know. I just know that I feel we won it fair and square. Our unit was very proud to earn it.

Kennelly: So was the disgruntlement in these things like wearing your hair up or down or those type of things, or was it just an undercurrent...?

Davis: I think it was an undercurrent because one unit was told literally to ignore them, and they will go away. They were told not to speak to us, not to interact with us, and I know this because the gentleman who was in the freshman class was a friend of mine, and we went to school together. We had made plans to go to church together that first Sunday, and he said, "I can't walk with you. I can meet you there, but I'm not allowed to walk with you." And I said, "You're not allowed to walk with me? This is nuts." And he said, "Yes, this is nuts, but it's my unit."

And other people addressed upperclassmen very negatively. "Hi, bitch," is not a very nice way to be greeted. There was verbal abuse, and it was stopped when it was reported. It was under the breath. It stopped being visible, but it was there.

And that's what I meant about the civilians too. It was the same type of thing that you know you really don't want to hear when you're walking down the sidewalk, and it's coming out the third floor window of the dorm. And they are anonymous because you don't know which window it came out of. And even if you did, what were you going to do?

Kennelly: Did you have to deal with that pretty much the whole time?

Davis: No, it was the first year. The first year we were such a novelty, and we looked different from the men. We really stood out. It was this polyester double knit thing, pretty noticeable, and these short skirts with these pumps. That's not exactly what you would see walking around campus in 1973. So, yes, we did stick out a little bit, but there was nothing we could do about it.

Kennelly: Was there much dating between the women of the Corps and the men of the Corps?

Davis: Not initially, but it did happen. I married someone from the Corps. Leslie married someone from the Corps. Spotty married someone from the Corps. Several of us did. And a lot of us dated people from the Corps. I didn't start dating a Corps person until later. I was dating a civilian when I first came. I had friends in the Corps, but I wasn't dating.

Kennelly: When I read a term paper about the kind of power structure in the "L" Squadron, one point was made in there about say a women may be dating a man in Company "C" and because of the way they did things in "C"........

Davis: Yes, squadrons were very different from companies in how the operated. And this is another real problem that filtered into our unit, and it was the influence of the units. We had the liaison officer who was from the group who had one perspective because of the units he had been into as a cadet. Then if these people were dating other people, like we had people dating "H" and "C" and "A," etc. They did have different ways of running their unit and of everything, how to report honor violations or how you do this or how you do that. They have their own slant about how to do things. And so it was a big struggle because the unit was very lax in dealing with things, and the battalion was very strict in how its procedures were and what was right and wrong.

We had three people dating "C" Company people, and "C" Company was the gold cord company--the hardened company. I was dating one of them, Leslie and Spotty was dating one of them. So their influence was coming into our unit cause the guys would say, "No you shouldn't do it this way you should do it this way," and yet "H" and "E" with a much more relaxed and open attitude was coming in through other people saying we need to do this.

So as we struggled to find our identity, to find ourselves as "L" Squadron, it was very difficult because we were bombarded by everyone's idea of how it should be. And we didn't know how it should be. For one thing we were women, and we think differently anyway. There is a difference how we processed information and how we thought things through. We were struggling as a unit to try to come up with our own identity. And that was difficult which is another reason why in '79 they integrated into the units. I think that helped and made a difference.

Kennelly: Once the integration happened would that be difficult in a sense because women are different or they process information different, or do you think just because things are laid out and that's how it is.....

Davis: Yes, I think that's how it is. It's laid out. I guess we were evolving into our own identity, but I really did see even as late at '77 that women were very influenced by the people that they dated. They really were, and I'd like to think that we stand on our own and do our own thing, but that's not the reality.

Kennelly: Would it make a difference if a woman was dating a person in a leadership position?

Davis: Yes, definitely. They influenced--they had a higher influence level. And when we came to these--"L" Squadron--all these factors would be coming to light. This should be our unit policy. That's what I was looking up was our unit policy, because that evolution was amazing just coming up with our unit policy and our unit directives. We waffled on a lot of subjects.

And that's what I tried to avoid when I became commander. I wanted a definitive policy. I went home between my sophomore and junior year, and I sat down with the cadet manual and tried to write our policy--who we are and what we are, what we stand for and what we want to do, and what we hope to accomplish. And I spent the better part of the summer writing out the uniform specs and when we do what and why, and that kind of thing.

I really tried to hit the fall with a definitive unit policy, and I felt we were lacking that in the first two years. We were groping. We were just trying to survive, and now we were at a point where we could grow. And that rubbed people the wrong way--well we're getting too structured. We needed structure because we had too much indecision, and so if I upset people I felt like they needed to verbalize that. But I felt that it was time we had a unit policy.

And at the end of my year, when they asked me to be on regimental staff as a liaison, I refused because I didn't want to usurp the new commander's power. I didn't want there to be a liaison. I didn't want a person to be between "L" Squadron and the commander. I wanted the commander to have direct access to the group staff, and so I was offered a position and declined because I didn't want that step in there. I wanted that step to go away.

I don't know what they did in that position, but I know that Janet James followed me, and what I tried to do for Janet is give her a clear shot and make her have authority of a commander and not have a liaison over her telling her what to do or advising her. I didn't want that position to occur. The other units didn't have it. We were growing, and we were grown, and I wanted us to grow up and be a unit unto ourselves. I didn't want to bring that liaison back in. We didn't have it my year, and I didn't want to have it Janet's year. That would've been like me taking command for two years, which to me was absurd. It was Janet's turn, or whoever was coming in, but we didn't have that position my year, and that to me was a reversion. That was going back. I was not in the Corps that last year. I was in Eggleston.

Kennelly: Why did you decide to leave the Corps?

Davis: There were several of us that did that. I felt I had done the senior position my junior year, and I wanted the juniors to have a chance to do their thing. And if I was there, I was going to be overseeing them, and that wasn't right for them. They needed their time and their space. And so I felt out of place because I had done the senior position my junior year. And it put a wrinkle into their process if I hung around, and I wanted them to grow. I really did, I feel passionately about "L" Squadron. It was a movement, really special.

I wanted the juniors to come in and have that senior year. And if I was there, I would be called on, and I would've taken over Janet's job. And I wanted Janet to experience what I experienced. It was reported that she was the first member from our class to be commander and that was not accurate. She was the first person to do the four years and do that position. Several of us didn't finish that senior year with the Corps. Fran was not there, and Kim wasn't there, and there were a few that stayed on. But those that stayed on--it was their turn to lead. And I felt very strongly about that.

Kennelly: Did that mean that you were not planning to go on with the military career.

Davis: At that point no. I had met Nat, and he graduated in '76 which was the year I was commander. He was going into the service and was staying on for a year to do his master's. So I used that last year to graduate, and he used it to get his master's. And then we went into the service together. He went into the army, and I was a spouse at that point. I didn't go into the military.

I was a "cadet only" my junior year, when I was a commander. I was a "cadet only." That means you are in the Corps. The band was "cadet only." There were a lot of people who were "cadet only." They were in the Corps, but they were not attending ROTC. I attended ROTC classes my freshman and sophomore years, but not junior year. So I would've been stationed in Texas, and he would've been in North Carolina. So we didn't think that was a really good way to start a marriage in two different states. So I didn't pursue a military career; I just went with him.

Kennelly: Do you have regrets?

Davis: Oh, I think I would have thoroughly enjoyed it. I would've loved it. And I thought about it several times, but I wouldn't change any choice I've made in life. I look back at many forks in the roads, and where I went and what I did, and I had a delightful time. I married Nat. We went to North Carolina. He was at Fort Bragg. I've enjoyed the people I've worked with, the volunteering I've done, the places we've gone. We moved a lot--10 times in 12 years while he was in the service. I loved it! I loved helping people, volunteering, the jobs that I've had, met a lot of different people, went a lot of different places.

He got to a point in his career where he wanted a little stability. He applied here at Tech, and he got a job, and we came back, and I couldn't be happier. I would have liked a military career. I would've done well and enjoyed it, but it wasn't the path that really the Lord led me in at that time. I don't regret not having done it. It would've been another. But I feel that the choices I've made and the family I've raised and where I've been and what I've done have been real positive.

Kennelly: How was that next year, your senior year?

Davis: That was so hard! Because I felt detached, yet I wanted to be over there, wanted to help and jump in, wanted to be a part of it, but knew I needed to give them space and that was hard. It was a difficult year, and I was rooming with a civilian. My boyfriend was in grad school (we didn't marry until October of '77). But it was difficult. To go to a football game and not be in the uniform and not be in the Corps, it was different.

But there was a lot of stuff that went on at the end, a lot of jealousy among some of the people that remained, and I felt for them to have their year and do their job I didn't need to be there. I thought it would be harder for them and the unit if I was because some of those people were some of the ones that were resentful of me having position my junior year. And so to me for the betterment of the unit and the program I felt that they needed that year. When I looked at it from a positive point of view I'm okay. But it was hard!

Kennelly: I wonder what the racial climate was when you came into the Corps as far as males and females?

Davis: There were very few black people at Tech. It was a very low percentage. We had a couple black people in the Corps, a gentlemen in "A" Company I remember dancing with at the Military Ball. He asked me, and I didn't think anything of it, but I did hear about it afterwards from certain people. And I roomed with our second commander Cheryl Butler who was a black woman--a delightful woman. I thought the world of her, and I heard about that too.

My husband was rooming freshman year with a black gentleman, and there still was a prejudice in '73, and I'm sure there still is now. You can look around, and it's not like it was in the sixties. I don't have a problem with race; it wasn't an issue. The woman I roomed with, Cheryl, was a delightful, talented, smart, wonderful woman. I enjoyed her company thoroughly. She was very bright. She was a math major for a while and switched over to art. She was very talented. She just decided to go to track one day and ended up being a champion. Everything she did, she did well. She was very efficient, delightful roommate--couldn't have asked for anything more. After lights were out one night, we stayed up all night doing each other's hair because she needed to straighten hers, and I needed a perm. We did fun stuff. Wonderful lady, very talented.

She went into the Air Force for a good long while. She was an air traffic controller and bounced around from Alaska to Eggland in Florida, so I kept up with her over the years. But there were some people that didn't like the fact that I roomed with a black woman. Tough. That is their problem not mine.

Kennelly: Did she express having frustrations?

Davis: She couldn't date anybody. There were very few people to pick from to date, and that was hard. She did find a gentleman she dated for a while, but they broke up before she left school, and I think that was a frustration she shared even when she was in the service.

She did end up marrying, and she is now in Oklahoma, and I just saw her a couple months ago. She flew through. Her sister was visiting her old school; she went to Radford. They overlapped by a few years when she came to Tech, so she looked great. The years just melted away.

We had a great reunion, Debbie Aires came a while back and Carol Christian came, and I love being here because when they come through I've gotten to see many of them, and that is so delightful to see how people are. Carol even helped Nat, and she was able to help him get some reserve points taken care of. She still has connections. These were all people that came to my wedding and you know we're still close and caring about each other. So, it's more than a soriority, the Corps is much more than that. You lived, you worked, you existed together. You depended on each other for a lot of things, and your ties to these people are very strong.

Kennelly: Do you think that Cheryl Buttler when she was commander the year ahead of you, now would that be difficult because she was a black woman......

Davis: We were rooming together that year also. She would express frustrations. She would come home from those meetings, and she didn't share a lot because she is a very private person, but it was still a woman thing, not because she was black. She had a very high intellect, and she would cut through a lot of the ridiculousness and try to get the meeting finished, and she would want to move right along.

And there were a lot of outdated rules that they didn't like. It was one of the one's when I went to a commanders' meeting, and they said we can't switch the uniform until this magic day in October, and I said that was designed years ago when the climate was different. If we need overcoats earlier, we need to just call overcoats and use some common sense. And you would've thought I shot their dog or something to be blasphemous for us to use some common sense and call a different uniform. I did it one day and got 15 demerits for calling overcoats for my women. And I had to go down and explain this to the commodant why I disobeyed. Well, I don't think I disobeyed. I just used common sense, and my women are out there in cold short skirts, and I called overcoats for the health and well-being of my unit, and if I'm going to get demerits for that then that's just ducky.

The demerits were pulled, and that caused friction because the person that gave them to me felt they should have stayed because I disobeyed. And I told them I didn't care if they kept them I don't mind to do guard duty. Guard duty to me was hysterical. I was the first person to be on senior guard, and here we are over there guarding their dorm, and no one guards our dorm. We had to rotate guards on dorms. I was the first woman on guard duty.

Kennelly: Your freshman year you did that?

Davis: No, first year on senior guard. Actually I don't know I just know I was the first woman on senior guard.

Kennelly: What was Pie Day?

Davis: That was Corps wide. You could pie the upperclassman of your choice. There were several people--we pied many people. We pied Sue Minor. She was the executive officer that dealt with the freshmen, so you always wanted to get her. They wear like a raincoat type of thing, and it was something we did during the spring.

Kennelly: But you don't pie male cadets?

Davis: You pied in your unit, I don't know if anyone ever did. It was mostly in your unit.

Kennelly: And was snow battle going on while you were there?

Davis: Yes. One thing I do remember is having snow fights. We would build up snow forts. The other thing was when I was there freshmen year, some cadet officer they moved to the tennis courts. They took his book cases, his clothes, and everything and took it out to the tennis courts and set it up as it was on the courts. So when he came back his room was outside; hewas pretty excited. That kind of thing usually happened after hours.

Kennelly: Someone said there was a tradition of "midnight Dixie" with the Highty Tighties?

Davis: They sang "Dixie," but I wasn't involved so I don't know.

Kennelly: So you weren't aware of that.

Davis : No.

Kennelly: Were there a lot of restrictions as far as going out at night during the week?

Davis: We had study hours during the week, I don't know that I can remember all the rules. I know from 7:30 'til 11:00 we were to be studying. Lights out were at 11:00 during the week. If you earned a pass, you would have it Friday or Saturday night, but you were back in studying on Sunday through Thursday. And the pass would be revoked if your QCA or grades were not up or if you got demerits during that week. Or you may not get a pass if your commander just decides the place looked rotten during this week. If you did not earn the pass, you did not get to go. If you were downtown, you had to be in your uniform 'til 5.

There were a lot of rules. You had to be back for formation which was at breakfast and dinner. Lunch you were on your own because everyone's schedule is so odd. You lined up and formed up and marched to breakfast and to dinner. Those were standard times. The flag went up before breakfast and down before dinner. You were at retreat and revelee. If you were going to an academic building, you were in uniform. Freshman did not go out during the week. You could go to class on Thursday night if you had a class. But you were expected to be studying in your room or lounge or library after dinner. You had a door card which had your schedule on it so they knew where you were. And if it was a time other than what your door card said, you had a note thing on there and you had to put where you were. So you were accountable for every minute of your day so people could find you.

Kennelly: So it wasn't really easy to be dating a civilian anyway?

Davis: Oh no, not freshman year.

Kennelly: There has been a lot about VMI in the press recently with the women. How do you see your experience compared to their experince. What thoughts you have even though it was a while back.

Davis: Well the press wasn't involved as much when we were doing our thing. There was recognition, and they certainly did interview Debbie and Shirley and the upperclassmen quite a bit when we came. But I think that the press took over with VMI and Citadel and got involved a lot and brought a lot of the issues to light.

I think the men felt a lot the same way at Tech as they do now at VMI in that they think that their way of life is going to change. They think that the women coming in is going ruin their traditions and ruin their Corps and change forever how they are going to operate. It is changing it to a certain extent because you are bringing a different gender in, and there is bound to be some change. But they are feeling a lot of the same feelings the men at Tech felt, and I think that's hard to deal with because it's fear of the unknown.

The press highlighted that and dove in on that, and I think that was hard on the men to to be stiff upperlipped and say yeah we want them in but we don't want them in, cause they really didn't. So I did feel kind of sorry for them, and they just needed to get over it cause it's going to happen anyway, and they need to learn to deal with it. And that was hard for the press, because they highlighted everything whether it was dating or whether the standards were going to change.

There were girls in our unit that were four foot eleven, and they were asked to carry a weapon and go on a field training exercise called a FTX, and carry a pack and get a sleeping bag up there and haul all of that stuff, and a four-foot-eleven women had trouble doing that. People help her out, I'm a five-foot six-inch woman, and I had trouble with that. I'm bigger than some of those little ones, but still it was difficult to do some of the physical things that were asked of us to do. So they're afraid, and they were afraid when we were doing it, just not highlighted as much.

Kennelly: Were there situations where people were standing out in the sun and passsing out......

Davis: There were three of us that tried out for AUSA, Association for United States Army. It was an association that my sister was in and my brother, and my father, and I thought you just joined. Well here it was different. You joined, but there was a two-week pledge period, and there was an initial tap period that they tapped on your door, and you had five minutes to be in your fatigues out there ready to run. Well I didn't know this okay. Three of us thought we were just going to join. Well they pounded on our door and told us to get into fatigues, and we had just been issued them and didn't know where everything was, so we're trying to dress, and everyone is trying to help us. It was frantic. We had five minutes to get out there. It was Kim, Jody, and I, and we're trying to get dressed. My boots didn't fit so.........

[End of Tape 1, side 2]

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