Female ROTC Member Challenges Stereotypes

Catherine Brown '14 Aims to Join Elite Marine Corps

Catherine A. Brown, Navy ROTC Midshipman
Jacob S. Beech, Amy Friedman, and Jennifer R. Rolfes

Although most Wednesdays are reserved for leadership training, today is inspection day at the MIT Reserve Officers’ Training Corps Unit and time for ROTC cadets to take the grueling Combat Fitness Test.

It’s an uncharacteristically warm November morning, but the cadets’ breath still shows in the crisp air.

The midshipmen (the common title for any ROTC cadet who is still in college) fall in line and stand at attention. They move their arms out and back repeatedly until they are standing at what seems a perfectly measured and uniform distance from one another. None of them shake; none yawn. One of the inspectors coughs in the cold air, but the expression on his face quickly returns to its prior, stony look.

Catherine A. Brown ’14 stands at least a foot shorter than every man on the field this morning and at least six inches shorter than most of the women. But she doesn’t seem intimidated in the slightest as one of her fellow midshipmen looks her up and down, assessing the uniform she hasn’t worn in weeks. Her face doesn’t change much, but she says something quietly that makes the inspector break into a short laugh. He looks her up and down and, at the last moment, picks a single piece of lint off her hat.

After the rest of the cadets are inspected they are told to “fall out,” and they all let out an easier breath.


Brown helps set up the football field for the day’s test, and Pat Cassidy, the battalion’s commanding officer and a senior at Tufts, assesses who is missing. This day, the ROTC cadets will be tested in their ability to run 880 yards, lift and carry ammo, and move during battle by participating in a complex obstacle course. The maximum times and number of lifts are more grueling for the male cadets than the females. Historically, physical fitness tests such as these and ideas about women’s physical abilities have served as hurdles to their full participation in the military.

According to a report released by the Women’s Memorial Foundation in 2010, women make up 16 percent Navy personnel, 13.5 percent of the Army, and only 7.5 percent of the Marine Corps. Women remain prohibited from serving in combat roles in the U.S. military, though they have made some gains and are allowed to serve, for example, on submarines and as fighter pilots.

Despite these restrictions, the line between men and women in uniform has begun to increasingly blur as women soldiers have fought and died in significant numbers in both Iraq and Afghanistan. According to iCasualties, an independent group that tracks military casualties, 30 American female service members have died in Afghanistan. Of those, 19 died as a result of hostile action. In Iraq, 108 women have died. Of those, 63 died in hostilities.

According to ROTC’s website, women have been “an integral part of the Army ROTC since school year 1972,” but during that time less has been expected of them. The CFT, Combat Fitness Test, is an excellent example of this. The times for a “perfect score” are lower for female cadets than male ones, and each is measured based on what the expected “best” for their gender is.

Brown, however, consistently blows these scores out of the water, scoring closer to the men’s top scores than what is expected for female cadets. In this, she is an exemplar for what military women can do.


The Combat Fitness Test begins with a run.

“Y’all ready for the worst 8 minutes of your life?” Major Craig Giorgis adds under his breath to one of the sergeants.

“We will be timing you and recording those numbers,” a sergeant says with a smile. “So run quickly.”

When the run begins Brown is at the back, but in short order she has darted to the front of the pack.