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15566 Helga Grodzinski Reviews “The Stone Frigate,” by 14390 Kate Armstrong

Review of The Stone Frigate, by Kate Armstrong

By 15566 Helga Grodzinski

Kate Armstrong was a feisty young woman who entered the Royal Military College of Canada in 1980 as part of the first 32 women to be admitted. She anticipated RMC as a chance to do something extraordinary and an escape from a traumatic childhood; what she found was an institution still operating like it was 1950 and openly hostile to her very presence.

That it has taken the first female cadet at RMC 38 years to find the strength to tell her story is itself telling. Some of the first women to attend are still actively trying to forget their experiences. They will find this a troubling, perhaps triggering, book. People with limited knowledge of RMC will be shocked. Those who loved and tried to be allies to these women will be infuriated. As for those in senior leadership positions who failed to protect these women and those who made their lives hell, what will they feel? A shred of regret? Some embarrassment perhaps? Or a dogged insistence that they were simply men of their time and place, and did nothing wrong?

Ms. Armstrong is clear that the book is a narrative constructed from memory. She admits that not all of her peers shared her experience: some had it worse; others seemed insulated from it. She did have good times. She had male allies. Sometimes the chain of command tried to do the right thing; often, though, they failed. She has changed names and identifying characteristics; but many who were at RMC at the time will nonetheless recognize certain incidents and individuals with painful clarity. Her prose is direct, economical, a matter-of-fact account of rampant, unchecked abuse. She viscerally captures the effects of omnipresent, casual misogyny; the isolation; the self-doubt; the inability to trust; the sting of betrayal; the gut-twisting fear that every moment could bring punishment for some obscure or imagined infraction; the danger inherent in falling in love. All while trying to avoid dreaded academic failure. Trying to survive—physically, mentally, emotionally—four years of horrendous pressure.

There were many who sought by whatever means necessary to ensure failure of the “experiment” of women at RMC. They failed: Kate, and 20 more of the First 32, persevered and graduated, paving the way for subsequent generations of female cadets. And while the women are here to stay, dark shadows remain. At her class reunion in 2014, Kate spoke to a fourth year female cadet who explained, “It’s the friends who rape. You’d think it would be the mean ones or the women haters. They might, too, but the friends are the ones who can destroy a person.”

Critics will caution about applying the lens of today to the actions of nearly 40 years ago. Indeed, following the implementation of the Canadian Human Rights Act, 1980 was a time when women were entering many male-dominated fields and those women might also have received rough receptions. The author does not apply a modern lens, nor does she claim RMC to have been any worse or better than anywhere else. She simply tells the truth: what was done to her and her peers, how it made her feel, and how it impacted her life. A courageous act.

Helga Grodzinski graduated from RMC in 1986, amongst the third class of women and remains grateful to the formidable women who forged the path. She is working on a history of women at Canadian Military Colleges.


  • Claire Bramma

    March 4, 2019 at 10:41 pm

    Thanks for the review Helga. I am certainly one of the many female RMC cadets who have benefited from “those who have gone before” and I feel indebted to those who have sacrificed and faced unthinkable situations.

  • Mitch MacLeod 13139

    March 5, 2019 at 12:17 am

    Riveting read. I bought a Kindle version this aft,and just finished it. Could readily identify several Class of 81 classmates given I was in The Frigate all but my last year, the good guy and the not so good.Sort of like reading a real life version of “The Help” except the time and place has been confirmed. And yes nice see someone else thinks some of the staff we endured were turds. As I commented a few weeks ago when exerpts of my career were published, “to those who made life difficult, I endured.” A salute to Kate who did likewise.

  • Chantal Fraser

    March 5, 2019 at 2:59 pm

    Great review Helga! I also found this book to be excellent, even though some chapters my me feel like puking. Not because I experienced what Kate did, but rather reading about the abuse Kate experienced in her home starting at the age of 5. No child should have to suffer as Kate did.
    I had the privilege of growing up in a family that valued it’s children, and told us we could be anything we wanted to be, pursue any career we wanted, and stand on our own merits. That helped set me up to succeed at mil col and throughout my military career and now as an entrepreneur.
    As I stated on another post about this book, I thank all the women who attended mil col before me and my cohorts attended (CMR was a 6 year journey; I repeated second year).
    My time at CMR St-Jean-sur-Richelieu was intense, but overall an excellent experience. My mother had to leave the military when she was 6 months pregnant with me, as being married was acceptable for serving women, but being a mother was not. Forty years later, I was completing my MBA at RMC, while on maternity/parental leave with my third child. We’ve come a long way!
    While currently serving women in the military are still reporting abuse (very brave of you!), I still think that the Canadian military offers excellent career opportunities for people of all genders.
    Chantal Fraser, MBA
    LCol (Ret’d)

  • Mike Siska

    March 5, 2019 at 3:52 pm

    Excellent book review Helen…I entered RRMC in 1959 much prior to the entry of women in the tri-services college. Needless to say, College was a challenging grind for many without the problems that were experienced by the first female class. Sadley the same problems are reported in the military today and the challenges of gender differences within the militay, including the college, will require continue attention and
    vigilance…a trail blazing story well worth reading by all cadets and ex-cadets.

  • Dorothy Hector 14444

    March 5, 2019 at 11:46 pm

    Thanks Helga, I read the book in one overnight sitting filled with anxiety and concern of what it might include and the repercussions it might bring for my own psyche. Kate is an amazing woman, who did an awesome job in the telling of her story. I am proud of my classmate for her courage. She is a great author!

  • Vince Fagnan 16429

    March 6, 2019 at 5:16 pm

    Thanks for the review Helga. I look forward to reading the book. I can only image what those years were like – they did set the conditions for my years at the college (1984-1988), where I saw remarkable change in many areas.