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First female West Point graduate reflects on historic anniversary

On May 28, 1980, dozens of women made history as the first to graduate from America's military academies
1980 Flashback: Women break military barrier 02:44

This feature, The Way It Was, resurfaces and explores past stories from the CBS News archives. If there's a topic you'd like to see, leave a suggestion in the comments section or send us a tweet at @CBSEveningNews.

NEW YORK -- They wouldn't make it, the men said; the math and science wouldn't interest them, the physical routine would be too tough and the opposition would drive them out. On May 28, 1980 -- 35 years ago Thursday -- the men behind those words were proven wrong as dozens of women tossed their caps alongside men at America's prestigious military academies.

The Class of 1980 broke ground as the first to have women graduate from the U.S. Military Academy (USMA), the Naval Academy, the Air Force Academy, and the Coast Guard Academy. Among those pioneering women was Andrea Hollen, the first female graduate from West Point.

"This is a symbolic day, but it's also a day for, I'd say, very careful consideration for exactly what we've done," said Hollen in a 1980 interview with correspondent Ike Pappas that aired on the "CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite."

Andrea Hollen receives her diploma from West Point in 1980, becoming the academy's first female graduate USMA
Andrea Hollen, U.S. Military Academy Class of 1980 USMA

Hollen, 56, has had nearly four decades to consider what she and her fellow female cadets accomplished.

CBS News caught up with her this week. Hollen told us "significant progress" has been made since her time at West Point when she had to overcome hostility from men.

"We faced a good bit of opposition to our presence at the Academy," said Hollen. "Much of it was very principled. It was rooted in a deep conviction that the academies are crucibles for combat leadership and because we weren't going on to take combat positions, we were taking slots that men should have been filling."

The men voiced their opposition to the women, some respectfully, others in unbecoming ways. One male cadet put it bluntly in 1976: "We don't want them around."

During Hollen's senior year she remembers male cadets adorning doors and bulletin boards with snippets of former Senator James Webb's article, "Why Women Can't Fight."

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"That article, which made the point that women would destroy unit morale and cohesion and lower military readiness, as you might imagine, caused quite a stir at all the academies," said Hollen. "I remember at the time being disappointed in that. But also a little discouraged along the lines of, 'Hmm , am I really doing the right thing?'"

In 2015 Hollen has no more doubts. She points to the accomplishments of her classmates in military and civilian life. Her class includes the likes of retired Brig. Gen. Anne Field McDonald, an Army aviator who served two combat tours; Pat Locke, the first black female West Point graduate who became a distinguished engineer; and Sue Fulton, the chair of the USMA's Board of Visitors.

While enrollment numbers have grown over the years, Hollen admits there's room for improvement. In 1980, 62 females graduated from West Point, representing 6.7 percent of the class. Last week, the Class of 2015 saw 162 women graduate, making up 16 percent of the class. Preliminary figures for the Class of 2019 show that number rising to 23 percent with a record 303 females.

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Still, groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Service Women's Action Network, believe the academies aren't admitting enough women and have sued the Department of Defense to release enrollment records they claim will show patterns of discrimination.

"We have a long way to go and I wouldn't be surprised if in the coming years women were up to a third of the academy," said Hollen. "I think the goal is to get women in leadership positions especially as these new opportunities open for women in combat units and in special operations units and the academies will have to respond to that."

Hollen applauded the DOD's 2013 order to rescind the rule that excluded women from direct combat. She attributes the decision, in part, to the "valor and distinction" women showed in their service post 9/11.

Nearly 1,000 cadets from the Class of 2015 graduated and commissioned during their graduation ceremony at Michie Stadium at West Point, May 23, 2015. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was the commencement speaker for West Point's 217th graduating class. Staff Sgt. Vito T. Bryant / USMA Public Affairs

As the military inches towards having more inclusive ranks, Hollen and the other members of the Class of 1980 are monitoring what could be the next symbolic hurdle to clear -- having women pass the Army's elite Ranger School; eight women are currently going through the course.

"At the time [1980] I thought women would never get to Ranger School and now that they're there, I'm elated," said Hollen. "The women in my class, we're following this very closely. We're rooting for them. We have such admiration for what they're doing. It'll be a big step."

U.S. Army Soldiers conduct the Darby Mile buddy run and an obstacle course during the Ranger Course on Fort Benning, Ga., April 21, 2015. Soldiers attend Ranger school to learn additional leadership and small unit technical and tactical skills in a physically and mentally demanding combat simulated environment. Pfc. Lewis, Antonio

Hollen spent 12 years in the military, serving much of that time in Europe in tactical positions as a company commander with the 3rd Infantry Division. But in 1992, an opportunity with the White House Communications Agency - one that required high security clearance - presented Hollen with a difficult choice: hide being gay or turn down the job.

"I realized that I would have had to have lied on the security clearance form to go on and take the assignment and I realized that I'd have to dissemble my way through the rest of my career and I just couldn't do that so I resigned from the military," said Hollen.

Andrea Hollen, 2015 Case Commons

Now living in Baltimore, Hollen is the Director of Analytics and Research for Case Commons, a New York City based technology start-up aimed at bringing the human services sector into the 21st century by providing workers with social network based software. It's a job that requires a good bit of math; so much for what they said back in 1980.

As a woman in a technology field Hollen finds herself in a pioneering position once again. In 2013, just 26 percent of computing jobs in the U.S. were held by women, down from 35 percent in 1990, according to the American Association of University Women. And tech giants like Facebook and Google have long faced criticism for not having more women in tech roles.

But with the same resilience and optimism she exhibited through her time at West Point, Hollen thinks the tech field will, too, overcome its challenges with the help from a new generation of pioneers.

"I'm heartened by how many women we have on staff at Case Commons, who are talented coders, statisticians, modelers and they're very actively involved in community programs that encourage girls to learn to code and get comfortable about technology, so I'm very optimistic about the future of women in tech."

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