From W-1 to the Highest Levels of Leadership
A look back on the women who shaped the Corps of Cadets from the 1970s to today
By Meagan Sheffield @mshef350
After Texas A&M fully opened its enrollment to women in 1969, it was only a matter of time before they were permitted to join the university’s oldest organization, the Corps of Cadets.
Throughout the 70s, senior military colleges began to lift their restrictions on women joining ROTC programs, including Virginia Tech in 1973 and the Military Service Academies in 1976.
In the fall of 1973, six junior cadets on the Corps Staff — John Chappelle, Steven Eberhard, Daniel Gibbs, Rickey Gray, Frederick Martin and Terry Rathert — secretly came together to develop a five-year plan to incorporate women into the Corps. The document, named the Minerva Plan after the Roman goddess of wisdom and war, would ultimately make A&M the second senior military school in the U.S. to admit women.
Establishing a precedent
Originally, the Minerva Plan established one unit, Company W-1, as a detachment of Corps Staff. The Minerva Plan also ruled that all women would join as “fish” no matter their classification. Unit leadership would be supervised by male underclassmen for four years, and women would not be allowed to join the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band, wear senior boots, carry a saber or participate in elite Corps organizations.
Fifty-one women enrolled in the Corps of Cadets in the fall of 1974. Steven “Don” Roper, Class of 1975, volunteered to be Company W-1’s first commanding officer. An article in The Battalion published during the first week of drill dubbed women in the Corps “Waggies,” a term that eventually took on a derogatory meaning.
During its first semester, the outfit members were given black name tags in place of uniforms and were scattered across campus in dorms and apartments. It was not until spring 1975 that a female uniform was designed and distributed, comprised of a polyester blouse and skirt, Army green jacket, black beret, black leather shoes and a black shoulder-strap purse.
The Minerva Plan was also altered for the first time during that semester. When it was time for final review, W-1 became an official outfit under the 3rd Battalion so that they would march with the Corps instead of in front with Corps Staff. At that time, outfit membership had dropped to 26 women.
The Minerva Plan was changed again when the W-1 cadets were given their proper ranks that April. Executive Officer Nancy A. Heart and 1st Sgt. Claire-Jean Atmar were the first women in Corps leadership positions beginning in fall 1975.
Also in 1975, the Women’s Drill Team was established as an alternative to women joining the Fish Drill Team, and Ruth Ann (Schumacher) Burns, Class of 1977, was named the commander.
Burns came from a military family and attended A&M as a non-reg for a year when she first arrived in 1973.
“I didn’t need the self-discipline, I had the good grades,” Burns said. “I wanted to be part of the tradition that makes A&M different — the Corps. I wanted the spirit, the camaraderie and the leadership opportunities that the Corps had to offer.”
Burns said her father initially discouraged her from joining because there were other ways for her to get a military commission with less resistance. However, according to Burns, he later became her greatest advocate and adviser, even all the way from her home in Pennsylvania.
Burns said she didn’t want to dwell on the negative experiences, but was grateful to those who helped the women even as many people opposed them.
“The male upperclassmen who were our chain of command and our advisers suffered just as much as we did,” Burns said. “W-1 is indebted to those who volunteered and disrupted their lives for leading and mentoring us in those first tenuous years. They deserve a lot of credit for going out of their comfort zones to see the women established in the Corps.”
Going into their second year as an outfit, W-1 was assigned to a dorm on the Quad — Spence Hall or Dorm 1.
W-1 officially became an all-female outfit in 1977 when Burns took the role of commanding officer. According to Burns, she was not the first choice. When she graduated, she was also the first woman from A&M to be commissioned into the armed forces.
“The girl who was supposed to be the commander had to bring her grades up during summer school and did not,” Burns said. “I did well at the six-week ROTC summer camp between my junior and senior year. I think they wanted someone on contract.”
Burns said she didn’t like A&M’s model of integrating women in the early years, but the unit persevered anyway.
“Change is hard,” Burns said. “Seek out those who will support you in your goals. Be positive, and always be grateful for the help you got along the way.”
Fighting for equal opportunity
At the end of the decade, more restrictions on women’s participation were gradually lifted, occasionally through intense pressure, and more women took leadership roles.
In 1978, women expanded to a second unit, Squadron 14, and female cadets were permitted to participate in Bonfire cut, as long as they worked in a segregated area and cut trees less than 12 inches in diameter. Previously, they were only allowed to work as “Cookie Crew” or “Water Wenches.”
Women were given the opportunity to wear senior boots in 1980, but Holick’s — the shop in College Station that had been making senior boots since they became a part of the uniform in the 1920s — refused to make female boots. Corps women often had to drive to Houston for their boots instead.
In 1981, Leaugeay C. “Beebe” Barnes, Class of 1982, was the first woman to join Parsons Mounted Cavalry.
Melanie Zentgraf, Class of 1980, joined the Corps in fall 1976, earned an Air Force ROTC scholarship and became first sergeant in Squadron 14 her junior year. When she tried out for the color guard, she was rejected despite her high rankings. When she attended Elephant Walk as a junior wearing senior boots — a prank often pulled by male juniors during the walk — 20 cadets surrounded her and forced her to remove her boots.
In 1979, Zentgraf filed a class action lawsuit against the Corps in 1979 on the basis of discrimination. The U.S. Department of Justice intervened, and an out-of-court settlement was reached in 1985 that required A&M to actively encourage women to join the Corps and its associated organizations.
In the fall of that year, freshmen Jennifer Peeler, Carol Rockwell and Andrea Abat became the first women to join the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band. Mandy (Schubert) Scott became the first female Deputy Corps Commander — the second highest student leadership position in the Corps — in 1987. Scott was also the first woman on Corps Staff and one of the first two women to join the Ross Volunteer Company.
Scott grew up in an Aggie family, and her father was a drum major in the Aggie Band. She said going to A&M was “always in the cards” for her. Scott remembers seeing an article in the Texas Aggie magazine before she left for college that mentioned a family sending their sons to the A&M Corps to gain leadership experience, while they sent their daughters to the University of Texas.
“I just felt like I would always regret it if I didn’t give [the Corps] a shot,” Scott said.
Scott said other women in her year and before her had also applied to and qualified for the Ross Volunteers, but the class before her had decided to finally seriously consider women for the role.
“I have heard that there were guys in the class of 1986 that said ‘we can’t keep ignoring this,’” Scott said. “Wherever you are — in a volunteer group, in corporate America, in the military — the more diverse the group or the team you have, the greater your chance of success.”
In 1990, W-1 and Squadron 14 were disbanded to form the first two co-ed units: Company G-1 and Squadron 9.
Lori Seelhoff, Class of 1993, entered into the Corps as part of Squadron 14. She was moved into Squadron 9 in 1990, and Squadron 5 in 1991 when Squadron 3 and 9 combined.
“Going to Squadron 9 was not too bad,” Seelhoff said. “Going into 5 was more difficult because we didn’t get a chance to meet each other and there was a lot of tension initially. It was tough, but we knew it was important to move forward.”
Seelhoff was one of two women in the Parsons Mounted Cavalry at the time. She was the veterinary sergeant and officer.
“We always told people ‘I’m not doing this because I want to prove a point to the guys; I’m not here to change things; I just want to participate,’” Seelhoff said.
In September of 1991, a female sophomore cadet reported that she was attacked by male members of the Cavalry, and throughout October, others came forward and shared their own stories of abuse ranging from insults to beatings and rape. However, the original accuser recanted her stories, making it unclear which stories were legitimate.
“I backed up the Cav, and my male buddies realized that I’m here for the unit,” Seelhoff said.
Leading in a new direction
Around the turn of the 21st century, women continued to pursue leadership positions in the Corps and were gradually faced with less backlash.
In 1999, Erica (Smith) Ketchen became the combined band commander, the first woman and African-American to hold that position.
Alyssa Michalke became the first female Corps commander in 2015, and Cecille Sorio was selected to take her place in 2016.
Michalke said she initially joined the Corps because of a scholarship offered to her and did not know much about the organization, which was about the size of her hometown. Michalke said although becoming commander was not her initial goal, peers in the class above her encouraged her to apply.
“The number one lesson I took away from all of that is that leadership is a service position,” Michalke said. “If you’re not willing to serve, you’re not going to be successful. I honestly would not be where I am at in my life without the Corps.”
Company E-2 was integrated in 2017, giving biology sophomore Mia Miller the opportunity to become the first mascot corporal. As of fall 2018, 16 percent of the 2,415-person Corps was female, and 36 of 44 outfits are now integrated.
Sorio is currently an officer in the Air Force and said she has met female cadets from the 70s who shared their stories.
“Fortunately for me, I never felt like being a female in the Corps was an anomaly,” Sorio said. “The way was paved for me, and I was lucky to be able to stand on the foundation other women before me were able to create.”