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


Part 3


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

Davis: And then they would sign our placque when we completed the task whether it was polish their shoes or run an errand or whatever it is that we had to do for them. And so we had to get special permission to be in the men's dorm to go up and down the hall to get this, and we had to find all of these people. we had a roster, and we had to find all of these people and do all of this stuff. It culminated in a run of series of events in the end too. I'm not going to say hazing, but it was along those lines where there was a lot of stuff you had to do. The cockroach thing was pretty demeaning.

Kennelly:: What was the cockroach thing?

Davis: Well, you had your arms behind your back, and you were kneeling, and there was this trough of something. I don't know what all was in it, and you had to swallow whatever this junk was. It didn't kill any of us. And then you had to lie on your back and kick your hands and feet and be a dead cockroach.

Well we did this thing, and I remember when we finished--it was the last thing we had to do--and I remember Bert and maybe Bobby and a couple of the guys that were trying out, they said at some point they were going to make a run for it. And one of them grabbed my shirt and said you know, so I felt I really belonged at this point. He grabbed my shirt and said, "Follow us." And so at this one point in the night, I was tapped on the shoulder and my shirt was grabbed, and I just followed these guys.

And we hid out all the way back. I don't know why we were doing this, 'cause there was something else awful that was going to happen, and we got out of it. All the freshmen did, and the upperclassmen are just laughing and rolling on the ground at this point. I'm sure that whatever they had threatened was never going to happen in the first place, but I was tipped off, and I felt that this was a good thing.

So we ran, and we hid in Pritchard for a while, and then we hid somewhere else, and eventually somewhere through the night we got back at our dorms and to me that was a really good night. It was a telling night, that I was one of the gang and that I was gonna make it. And the other two girls in this two-week thing, Jody broke her leg, so she was incompacitated, and Kim was sick. She didn't make the last run. But all three of us made it into AUSA, even though there were medical reasons for the other two not to be there that night. We got through that thing. There were things--we were the first women to get into AUSA, and then there was the first women to get into Arnold Air, and the first women to do the other stuff. This was the first, the first time we had gotten into a male organization at the Corps that was other than the units, and so that was telling because we went through the stuff that they went through, and it made a difference.

Kennelly:: Well when you describe it, it sounds sort of like from what I have read--when you talk about the purpose of having a rat system is to bring the freshmen together, so that they develop this .....

Davis: Right, and it worked. And that's what was growing through the first years was that acceptance of the men of the class of '77. And I even think there were some in the upperclassmen who saw the writing on the wall, and that was positive too. So it just took us being persistent and hammering away, and hanging in there. And the women who are trying to go into VMI and Citadel they need to go in it with an attitude that they are not going to be handed this thing. If they want it, they have to work for it and do what the guys are doing. And they can't expect or request special treatment 'cause "A" it's not going to work, and "B" they're not going to be accepted by the guys they are going through the program with, if they are not doing what the guys are doing. They really need to do the same thing.

Kennelly:: Well do you think it's good what they've done, like shave the women's head and things like that, I mean so then you don't have to deal with the hair in a sense?

Davis: Well you know all of this was learned after we did it. And we made a lot of the mistakes. We were separate. We were able to have our hair at shoulder length, and it wasn't different. To the men some of us had short haircuts anyway, so that wasn't a differentiating factor. And so, yes, I think those things are good.

I think that if you have a job whether it's in the military or wherever it is, you have to have certain criteria of a person physically. For the person to fly the plane they have to be at least five feet six for them to reach the pedals. We shouldn't be putting a four-foot eleven women in to drive a fighter pilot. We shouldn't be putting a four-foot eleven man in there flying this plane. So if you have standards and you have a job that requires x number of physical attributes or mental whatever, then the women and men are competitive for the same job, and the standards have to be the same for the men and women. If a women needs to haul a guy from the plane, she needs to be able to be strong enough and able enough to get her partner out. I would not want to be the guy in the plane with a four-foot eleven woman and have her try to haul me out of the plane. I mean even if she's a navigator and not the pilot, we're still talking survival here. So I would like the standards to be standard and not be waived.

Kennelly:: I suppose some of the young men who objected to having women in the Corps might be thinking in those terms. Is this a person who can function with me, and carry their weight literally?

Davis: Right, literally. I think that's important whether it's a four-foot eleven man or a four-foot eleven woman. If the four-foot eleven man is not able to do that job because he's four-foot eleven, we don't need to make an exception for the woman because the physical demands are still there.

That's one thing when I went up for a scholarship I was asked should women be in combat? I remember I was so naive and so gung ho and so excited about the whole thing, and I said yes we should be in combat, we should do this and we should do that, and I lived the Corps, and I would answer that question very differently now. No! Not everyone should be, not every man or women should be in combat. I would answer those questions differentally that were posed to me when I was 18. Even at 22 I would've answered them differentally because of my experience in the Corps.

It does need to be a functioning unit, and you do need to be able to count on everybody in that unit to do their part. And if you don't have the person that's qualified, it not only jeopardized the mission, but it could jeopardize someone's life. And to me that's what the military training was about, it wasn't just leadership and it wasn't just going out into the civilian world, it was also preparing people for eventuallity of war.

Kennelly:: So would that mean that if you were sayfour-foot eleven or you weighed 90 pounds, or whatever, if you were a certain weight this person would not be able to go into the Corps? Is that what you are saying?

Davis: Well there is a "cadet only" aspect of the Corps. The Corps is still open to where you could be in the Corps like a lot of the band people were and not be going in the ROTC track. You can still get the leadership skills, and you can still use the Corps in that regard. No, I wouldn't preclude them from being in the Corps. But if it was the military service and you were tracking on a certain path where there are certain requirements, I would think that would be vital that you would be able to adhere to the standards that were needed for that. But the Corps itself, no, you could be a cadet only and still be in the Corps and still do the program.

And I think anybody would benefit from being in the Corps. I think anybody would. From what you learn about how to work with people, what you learn about yourself, what limits you learn about yourself, what you find you can do that you didn't know you could do, I think a lot of women found that they had a lot more strength then they thought they had. I think especially for women it was a confidence builder, and its a leadership developer. It's the perfect classroom to develop leadership skills, both in following and in leading. I think that the Corps would be a good place for anybody to be in.

It's where you go after the Corps is where you would be concerned about the standards and that kind of thing. What track you would go in. If you were going in the Navy Seals, you obviously going to have to have physical requirements put on you that are going to be above and beyond, or the Rangers or anything else, above the average of the other Corps person would've had. So, I still think that anybody going into the Corps would benefit from the program.

Kennelly:: When you think back, are there some other incidents or times that stand out in your mind that you would like to mention or share? Any special moments?

Davis: Well, as I go on campus now, I'm working on campus now so I have a different perspective, but I can walk the drillfield or walk by the duck pond, and I have really good memories. Of the unit jailing, of the picnics we had at the duck pond, of running around the drill field in those combat boots trying to keep up with those guys, stuff like that. Drilling, just the Tuesday, Thursday drills, the things that we did. I look around, and I get flooded with a lot of memories that are real positive. There was a lot that was going on that was very positive.

So when I come back on campus, and I come on it everyday now. I didn't when I first came back. I worked at an elementary school, but I can just look around, and I can see buildings and memories of this thing coming together, of this process and how we started off with what seemed like a rag-tag bunch. We were from all over, various backgrounds, different motivations as to why we came into the Corps and what we wanted to accomplish from it. And watching us over the years work together, and split apart, some did, and it kind of came together, and there was a split at the end. And I think that watching all of that and reflecting on it 25 years later makes me wonder how it affected the other people. Not just how I reacted to what went on, but how other people felt about what had happened and what we went through.

We came from so many different schools and places in the country and we were trying to mold ourselves into a unit that worked together. And I think that's hard for women. It's a better thing to have them integrated into the male units. The concern I had when I asked that question in the commandant's office, said, the men will dominate, and the women will never get leadership positions. That was their fear, that was their concern, and I said, "I disagree. I think the women will bubble to the top if they are given the same choices and the same direction and the same treatment as the men. I think you'll find the women will bubble to the top just as the good men will bubble to the top, just as the good leaders will bubble to the top."

And I'd watch the Corps over the years, and that is true. The women who are capable and have the ability do bubble to the top. And they have made great strides, and they've left the university and some have gone off into the military and been fighter pilots and have done great things in the service. Other's have started businesses, other's are homemakers, but they've all applied their skills and done well. And I think that the people who had to go through it the first and go through all the ridiculousness and all the Mickey Mouse and go through all that stuff it was a good thing.

Kennelly:: Did you ever talk with the woman who was a commander after you about what you were doing?

Davis: Janet, no. I never caught up with Janet. I've talked with Fran. I hope I see her at the reunion. I don't know if I ever verbalized any of that to her. I know I felt it, and that's why I did what I did. But it's funny. It's because when my first sergeant said to me, "Why didn't you tell me what you doing?" I didn't give excuses, or rationalizations, or justifications as to why I said things and maybe that was a foreign concept to them. Maybe they weren't ready for that. But I didn't think at the time that I should have. But it's interesting that you ask that because I haven't seen Janet, and I really do hope at the reunion I'll be able to see some of these folks again.

Kennelly:: Do you think that the interview is available that you did when the other candidates came and interviewed you about your feelings?

Davis: I don't know if they did it in a formal setting or what they did. I know they took a lot of notes, I don't think it was recorded. I don't remember any mechanism, but I do know that they asked a lot of questions. And it was military weekend, and they were invited to the ball and the dance and all of that, so they wanted to have some fun too, so I'm sure that was part of their motivation of getting it over with so they could go have some fun too.

Kennelly:: Did you feel depersonalized as an individual in the Corps?

Davis: Yes, but I understood the rational behind it, and like I said, the girl who was very upset who was given demerits. That was very hard for her to be depersonalized. She was looking at it as I've fixed my hair, my uniform is beautiful, I polished my brass, I'm a good person. She was trying to stand out, whereas I knew we were trying to be one.

And I accepted that and understood that probably more readily than people that were....just because my brother had been at West Point, and we couldn't even visit him, he couldn't even leave for Thanksgiving. He was the class of '67. We had to go up and visit him. We could only see him--he was in his dress uniform--we could only see him very short periods of time on the weekend.

We lived in Pennsylvania at the time, and he was in New York. We would go up for the weekend. We would spend this whole time going up and this whole time coming back, and we would get 15 minutes with him. And he would have to be in a very reserved place. He couldn't even come home for Thanksgiving. He couldn't come home for Christmas that whole first year he was up there.

And the regulations--he couldn't have food in the room. They had hiding places that were phenomenal. He took a soap dish and had a string on it and had it go thru the light switch in the back, and he hung it down from the back of the light switch to hide his candy bar, one of those snickers or something. He was an artist at this. My father talked when he was at West Point about how they hid oranges, and they could smell them in the wall but couldn't find them. It was a game, and I knew how to play the game, and I knew how to take those depersonalized feelings and how to react to them.

But most women find that very hard. Because women don't think that way. And they want to stand out, or even a man who wants his own haircut or wants his own identity, and when your identity is taken away in the rat line or the mouse line, that's very hard. It's given back to you, but for you to have the process and learn what it's about, and it coming together, that process is hard and the women didn't like it at all.

Kennelly:: Were you allowed to go home to visit your family?

Davis: Yes, the Corps wasn't the same as West Point.

Kennelly:: And you could have candy bars in your room or food in your room if you wanted it?

Davis: Yes, oh yes. That wasn't the same thing. And actually we could have flowered sheets. That was approved. The question had never come up. He laughed. He said, "Well I'm in for a good year," 'cause the questions that come up he was not prepared for.

Kennelly:: Did you sometimes have to take responsibility sometimes as a class instead as individuals?

Davis: Yes, if the freshmen class, if something had happened, the freshmen class would be banned together, and there would be restriction. Maybe no freshmen would get a pass Friday night because of what happened or that type of thing was also to build _________. So that you didn't mess up and your buddies didn't mess up and you made sure your buddies didn't mess up cause you were gonna suffer. So, yes, that was standard.

Kennelly:: One term paper that I read said there were problems sometimes with short-term goals like having your shoes polished, taking precedence over long term goals, like success with academics. Did you find that.....

Davis: Well, it's always time management, and if you know how to do something, and you can find shorter time to do it. We had a tremendous amount of stuff to do and a short amount of time. And to me it wasn't even the polishing of the shoes. It was the endless meetings. I felt like we hashed and rehashed things over and over again, and you have to set out in that hall meeting with your back up against this wall, and you're listening to the same stuff and it changes, minuscule changes, from meeting to meeting, which to me was a phenomenal waste of time.

I wanted to get on with life, I wanted to get my studying done, I wanted to get my room ready, and get my uniform ironed. We had a lot to do and think about. And you couldn't be in a whole lot else except the Corps, and I was trying to work three jobs. I worked for a professor. I did the morning shift. I was up at four to serve the breakfast, and I was trying to pay my way while doing all of this, so I was really pressed for time. And to me these meetings were, I mean I could budget the shoe polishing and the academics, but to me the phenomenal waste of time freshmen year were those endless meetings. And that was difficult. They were required. Everybody had to be out there doing this stuff.

Kennelly:: Meetings within "L" Squadron?

Davis: Yes, it was "L" Squadron meetings. They would come down with another decree, and then the upperclassmen would have to deal with it, and then they would have to report it to us, and then there would be a discussion, and it went on and on and on. I have diaries of notes of the things that went on, and it was so ridiculous. So that part of it to me.....

I think the paper you are referring to was all about budgeting time, and I could budget the things I had control over, but I didn't have control over those meetings, and so when I was commander that was one thing I purposefully did. I streamlined meetings, and I was more to the point, and I didn't open up for a lot of discussion. And there was a reason for that. It wasn't because I was trying to be dictatorial or anything like that. I didn't want to waste their time. Their time was valuable. Let's get this problem figured out. This is how it's got to be. There isn't room for discussion. Let's move on. That may have been misconstrued. Also that may have been a source of frustration for people, but to me it was a gift. I was giving them time, getting this issue out of the way, and getting on with life.

Kennelly:: So, you were trying to help pay your way through school?

Davis: I paid for part of it. My parents paid tuition, and I paid books and the rest of it. So I worked at the dining hall, and I worked for a professor, and I tried to do odd jobs 'cause I didn't want my parents to pay the whole bill. They offered, and that's not what I wanted. And that's why I applied for a scholarship too. And I did get a scholarship through Howard Johnsons. I was studying for foods, and I got it for academics, and also you had to have an interview, and I applied.

Kennelly:: What was your major?

Davis: Human nutrition and foods, so I started with that. And the senior year I specialized in hotel restaurant and management, that was a new field that opened then, I think it opened in '76. That was a good track for me. It had science, business, and I took a lot of business courses, econ. and statistics, and so I could do the management part of a business as well as the food science.

Kennelly:: What are you doing at Tech now?

Davis: Now I'm working for the Undergraduate Honor System. I work in Squires, and it's not the Corps honor system. It's the university's undergraduate honor system. There are actually four honor systems on campus. There's one with the vet school, graduate school, undergraduate, and the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets. So I am just one of those four.

Kennelly:: Is there anything else you would like to add that comes to mind?

Davis: Little things.....in some of the publications like one from the Virginia Techgram in May of '75, some of the things that were printed back then were incorrect. It talks about Highty Tighties admitting women, and it talks about the first two women in the Highty Tighties, and actually Marilyn Helmeyer [class of 1977] was in before these two women came in.

And I guess one of the things I would like to see as well as Fran and Kim as we organize this reunion and try to pull things together, we would like to see an accurate reporting of what went on in those earlier days. So one of the things we are doing is we are asking people to give us information for a newsletter that we're going to publis. We've published several since we've graduated. We've done a newsletter, and then we'd like to bring together our collective minds and set some of the history straight and make sure people who were the first were the first because there was some misreporting even in the early days about what was going on and who did what and that kind of thing. I've seen it in publications that are not correct, so we'd like to kind of put our heads together and recreate the early days.

I know I wrote a diar,y and Fran wrote things throughout the year. Kim was an artist and she has lots of drawings from those early days. So we'd like to put that together and document what happened and where we were. So if anybody has information, we'd hope they'd give it to us before the reunion. We also hope that if we open it up to some of the other alumni, to some of the other people we could kind of put a history together of the early years. We'd really like to do that because we feel that there is a lot of inaccuracies throughout the years. They think that the newspaper is gospel, but it's not.

It says Highty Tighties admit women, and it talks about Stephany, and she wasn't. I love Stephany don't get me wrong, but Marilyn really blazed the trail because Marilyn loved to play and she really wanted to be in the band, and she is the reason women are in the Highty Tighties, so that wasn't correctly portrayed, so we would like to take care of that and fix that up.

And we are also in honor of this 25th anniversary, Fran, and Kim and I have spoken with T.O. Williams about putting together a scholarship, for an incoming freshman who would be coming into the Corps who might be a female who would want to come to the Corps, and we're trying to put together a $25,000 scholarship for that so we're going to kick it off in our reunion in November, and we're hoping by our 30th reunion to have that scholarship. So we're going to have a five-year window to do the collection and that sort of thing to see if people will support it, and we hope that they will. We feel that not only the women who were involved but the men who lived through this with us would want to commemorate this, the beginning of this, the pioneering days of this and would be willing to help us help other women come through. So we're working on getting the history, the scholarship and we just hope we have a good time getting together over the UVA weekend. Seeing everybody again and just reminiscing.

Kennelly:: Will the women march or anything?

Davis: From what I understand they are going to recognize them at the beginning of the game. I just heard that yesterday. They thought about the end of the game, but with the UVA game they have a feeling they will storm the field, and all of those little old ladies out there will get trampled on out there. They are going to bring the charter memebers on the field and talk about the commemoration. That's what the plan is. And then we have a gathering set at Owens Hall Friday night for everybody, a list of about 300 women. We have pretty accurate information about where they live. So it's great when they come back because they had positive experiences here and they gravitate back. And that's all I can think of.