Richard Nisley

Women in the Barracks: The VMI Case
History - American Released - Jun 15, 2019
It seems fitting that Ruth Bader Ginsburg should be the one to deliver the Supreme Court's decision in United States. v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515, 567 (1996). As a lawyer she had made a career of fighting for women's equality, the success of which brought her to the attention of President Bill Clinton who, in 1993, appointed her to a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. Now three years later, it was she who should deliver the High Court's opinion that, for the first time, allowed women to attend the hitherto all-male Virginia Military Institute (VMI). Could women endure the rigors imposed at this all-male state school? The story of the court case and what happened in the aftermath is the subject of "Women in the Barracks: the VMI Case and Equal Rights" by Philippa Strum. It's a fascinating story that cuts to the heart of gender equality. At 328 pages, the book is not overly long, and while there are facts aplenty, Professor Strum does not allow them to get in the way of what is a compellingly good read.

She begins with a history of the school, a proud institution that opened its doors not long after our nation's founding. The initial goal was to provide strong leaders for Virginia's state militia. After the Civil War, that goal changed to providing strong leaders for the U. S. military, and for Southern leaders–in business, law and politics.

The first male to register at all-male VMI was John Logan of Virginia in 1839; the first female was Beth Ann Hogan of Oregon in 1997. The heart of the story (to quote the author) "is about the changes in women's–and men's–roles during the more than 150 years of American history, particularly in the second half of the twentieth century." The story also reflects the place of the Supreme Court in American political life and "the way justices both stamp societal change with the legitimization of the Constitution and help shape further change."

Strum begins by describing the physical character of the school (the barracks are the central structure around which everything revolves), and what it's like to be a cadet; more specifically, to be a "Brother Rat" This includes virtually having no privacy, including no privacy in the bathroom–no partitions around toilets. The first test of freshman cadets is to endure the rigorous hazing process known as "the rat line," a tradition that the school was quite proud of (even though most administrators admitted they'd hated it while being a VMI cadet). In fact, it was the pride of being one of the last tough all male-schools (by this time Annapolis and West Point had long since integrated women into their culture) that fueled resistance among alumns and administrators. The admission of women would destroy the specialness of the VMI experience, they claimed. In fact, VMI had the option of becoming a private school to avoid admitting women to their ranks. However, the costs were prohibitive, thus in order to continue enjoying state funding VMI had no recourse but to admit women cadets.

The author follows the first women cadets through the dreaded "rat line," and in the co-ed barracks (the days of open toilets and showers ended with the arrival of women students), on through to graduation. The result was not near the disaster opponents believed it would be: most women met the tests of the dreaded "rat line," and succeeded beyond anyone's expectations. Several graduated with honors and a number brought distinction to the school in women's athletics.

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