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.