- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 19, 2002

By Philippa Strum
University Press of Kansas, $34.95, 417 pages, illus.

Philippa Strum of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars has written an important book here in "Women in the Barracks: The VMI Case and Equal Rights." Rigorous, fair and generous, she chronicles the development of United States vs. Virginia. To write it, she interviewed attorneys for both the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and the Virginia Military Institute, Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia, and received outstanding support from VMI's cadets, staff, and faculty, including Josiah Bunting III, the superintendent.
Briefly, VMI was founded in 1836 as a state school to provide professional officers for the Virginia Militia. In 1976, the U.S. Service Academies admitted women to their corps of cadets. In 1986, VMI's Board of Visitors reiterated a males-only policy. In 1990, in order to attract more young men, it dropped the requirement that they had to accept a commission in the U. S. Armed Forces, and $9 million of its $25.6 million budget came from the State of Virginia.
In 1989, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division brought suit against VMI on behalf of a female high-school student who wished to attend, and in 1990 VMI filed a countersuit "asking that VMI's admissions policy be declared constitutional." (By this time, VMI was allowing women to take summer and evening classes, and had women faculty.)
The case was assigned to Judge Jackson L. Kiser, a Reagan appointee who had repeatedly refused to follow gender discrimination law and now did not grant summary judgment. Judge Kiser's opinion, which upheld diversity (even though women Virginians did not have access to the VMI system and method) and gender equality (without referring to any of the Supreme Court's substantive gender equality cases other than Mississippi University for Women vs. Hogan, which required "an exceedingly persuasive justification" for classification by gender that could not be based upon outmoded stereotypes) as legitimate goals, found VMI's all-male admissions policy constitutional.
In 1992, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Virginia had three choices: Integrate women into VMI, turn it into a private college, or create a separate but equal institution for women.
Opposed to integration and financially unable to go private, VMI and Virginia chose to create an equivalent program at luxurious, nearby Mary Baldwin College.
This program would not offer advanced math or physics, and students would have to travel to Missouri to study engineering. Even more telling, cadets at the proposed Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership, supposed to create a curriculum for women citizen-soldiers, would not wear uniforms or be subject to military discipline on most days. Nor would they be issued arms, unlike VMI cadets, who are issued M-14 rifles and bayonets, even thought the very definition of a citizen-soldier is her ability to defend her polity.
VMI also appealed to the Supreme Court. In 1996, the Court found VMI's refusal to admit women unconstitutional and subjected gender classifications to a heightened standard of skeptical scrutiny, very similar to the strict scrutiny standard reserved for race. Chief Justice Rhenquist, who had once rejected the idea that sex discrimination violated the equal protection clause, wrote a separate concurrence to the majority opinion, leaving Justice Scalia as the lone dissenter. Unable to privatize, VMI went coed.
On the surface, the VMI case was about single-sex education and the special ways most men as opposed to most women are thought to learn, and the ways that it is thought that young men, as opposed to young women, should learn, and do, and be. Philippa Strum, however, places single-sex education, both at VMI and in Virginia, in the larger contexts of Southern regionalism, including the corrosive influence of slavery upon the concepts of ladies and gentlemen, and the women's liberation movement, including the expanding roles for military women. In doing so, she destroys VMI's argument that to produce modern civilian and military leaders, it had to exclude women; in fact, to fulfill that mission, it had to include them.
There are some things that the author gets wrong. While she refers to VMI's adversative method, the induction of negative stress for its own sake, as a relentless insistence on perfection, her discussion of it leads the reader to believe that she agrees with its critics that it is sadistic. In fact, for those who can tolerate it, it produces indomitability, a beautiful virtue in its own right. Likewise, she is uncertain about VMI's requirement that women meet the same physical standards as men, despite the fact that the less you ask for, the less you get, or get their hair cut nearly as short as the men, despite the fact that the men had their heads shaved, and that strips a man of his individuality just as much as it does a woman.
Nevertheless, these are details. The writer makes clear the truism, that the differences between the sexes are trivial compared to those within the sexes.
She correctly observes that the heart of the VMI case was the question, if women can defend themselves, what, other than the act of impregnation, becomes the peculiarly male role? "Women in the Barracks" argues, nothing, and that is not only enough for the species, it is right and proper and just: for men and for women, for the lives we share, and for the people and the land we all so love.

Erin Solaro is a master's candidate in Norwich University's diplomacy and military science program. She is writing a thesis on the 127th Infantry during the Buna, Papua New Guinea campaign.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide