A nomination from a federal lawmaker is required for most applicants to the Military Academy at West Point, the Naval Academy and the Air Force Academy, institutions where some advocates say female enrollment remains low, considering how gender barriers have been falling across the armed services.
Representatives of some congressional members say the low numbers reflect a correspondingly small number of female applicants.
The Connecticut Veterans Legal Center did the analysis with the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School by reviewing data obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests on nominations made by members of the current Congress.
From the 1994-1995 application cycle to the 2019-2020 cycle, it found 21% of their nominees overall have been women. That percentage has risen steadily over the last decade, from 17% in 2009-2010 to 26% for the upcoming academic year.
Lory Manning, director of government operations for the Service Women's Action Network, said more congressional offices should update their recruiting efforts to reflect the repeal of rules excluding women from combat and other duties.
"It's possible some of the procedures are sort of locked in and nobody has had the bright idea of 'Oh, the law has changed, policies have changed, maybe we ought to take a new look at nomination procedures,'" she said.
The academies, which were required to admit women under a law signed by then-President Gerald Ford, provide a cost-free education, and students upon graduation are commissioned as junior officers with requirements to serve a minimum number of years.
Currently, women represent about 22% of cadets at West Point, 27% of Naval Academy students and around 22% of Air Force Academy cadets. At the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, which does not require congressional nominations, the student body is 36% female.
The Naval Academy does not have a specific goal or target for the percentage of women among the Brigade of Midshipmen, according to Michael Brady, a spokesman. He said the academy strives to "continue to attract qualified women candidates from across the nation" interested in leadership roles with the Navy and Marine Corps.
At West Point, Col. Deborah McDonald, the director of admissions, said it has taken steps to increase the percentage of female applicants, including recruitment mailings written for high school girls that note West Point women have gone on to become generals, astronauts and executives.
The analysis by the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center focused on nominations by the 438 current members and delegates of Congress who have submitted over 10 nominations. It found that 49 of them had female nominations rates of 15% or lower.
Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, was among the senators with the lowest female nomination rates, at 13%, according to the analysis. But a spokeswoman, Caroline Tabler, said that in 2017 he nominated more than 90% of total female applicants and less than 50% of male applicants and that he also nominated a greater percentage of female applicants than males in 2018.
"Regardless, students who attend the U.S. service academies and go on to serve their country in uniform - male or female - are the pride of Arkansas, and Senator Cotton encourages more young people to explore the application process," she said.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Hawaii Democrat, was among senators who nominate women most frequently, at a rate of 38%, according to the analysis. She said she makes it a point to ensure her selection panel includes at least one woman.
"We have a long way to go still before there is equality between men and women, but the fact that there are so many qualified young women applying, being nominated, and getting accepted is a positive trend and one that I hope will continue," Hirono said.
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