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VMI and the Coming of Women

Written by Laura Fairchild BrodieAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Laura Fairchild Brodie

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On Sale: February 24, 2010
Pages: 384 | ISBN: 978-0-307-55488-8
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

On July 26, 1996, the United States Supreme Court nullified the single-sex admissions policy of the Virginia Military Institute, the last all-male military college in America. Capturing the voices of female and male cadets, administrators, faculty, and alumni, Laura Brodie tells the story of the Institute's intense planning for the inclusion of women and the problems and triumphs of the first year of coeducation.
Brodie takes us into the meetings where every aspect of life at VMI was analyzed from the per-spective of a woman's presence: housing, clothing, haircuts, dating, and the infamous "Ratline"—the months of physical exertion, minimal sleep, and verbal harassment to which entering cadets are subjected. Throughout the process the administration's aim was to integrate women successfully without making adjustments to VMI's physical standards or giving up its tradition of education under extreme stress.
No other military college had done so much to prepare. But would it work? With everyone on the Post, we hold our breath as Brodie takes us through Hell Night, the unrelenting months of the Ratline, the fraternization, hazing, and authority issues that arose, the furtive sexual encounters, the resentments and, for the women, the daily difficulties of maintaining a feminine identity in a predominantly male world. Despite the challenges, we see the women ultimately making a place for themselves. Though new problems continue to arise, Brodie's lively and inspiring account makes it clear that VMI's story is an important and timely one of institutional transformation.

Excerpt

INTRODUCTION

I am the band director's wife.

At first glance, that might seem irrelevant. This is not a book about snare drums and spit valves and John Philip Sousa. What lies ahead is an insider's view of a deliberately anachronistic Southern institution confronting the facts of sexual equality in the twenty-first century. More specifically, this is the story of the Virginia Military Institute, and the internal challenges it faced as it relinquished its status as the last all-male military college in the United States. The key players are a group of young women tackling a male-oriented system of education, and a community of administrators, alumni, faculty, and male cadets, all struggling to integrate women into their world, on their terms.

Why does my own background matter? Because no one can talk about VMI without getting personal. In the seven years that the Institute spent waging a legal war to defend its males-only admissions policy, neutrality was a luxury few could afford. The issues were too emotional, too inflammatory. Should women be at VMI? How far should our nation's military colleges, as well as the armed services, go to accommodate women? What does equality between the sexes really mean when translated into practical terms?

Answers to these questions depend on each individual's perspective. Are you a man or a woman? Were you born and bred in Virginia? Are you a Yankee? Have you ever fought in a war? What do you know about military training? Have you ever seen VMI? The questions quickly become accusations.

I come to this story with as much personal baggage as any human being. My biases are all the more relevant because I was not only a witness to, but an occasional participant in, several of the events at hand-joining in committee debates, mingling at cocktail parties, teaching English to the last all-male "rat mass" in VMI's history. In the pages that follow I will occasionally metamorphose from narrator to character, Jekyll to Hyde, stepping out of the shadows to provide a more intimate, first-person view. To make that view clear, an introduction is necessary.

And so, as I was saying, I am the band director's wife.

I am also a doctor of English literature, a part-time professor, a full-time mother. But for my present purposes, these facts are secondary. What matters is that for the past ten years I have attended every Parents' Weekend concert at VMI. I have traveled with the band to Paris, to New York, to Mardi Gras in New Orleans (imagine thirty-eight hours round-trip on a bus with fifty cadets). I have watched VMI's Corps march in full regalia at dozens of Friday afternoon parades, framed on the left by the flat peak of House Mountain, and on the right by the early twilight reflected in the windows of the barracks. I have sat within ear-splitting distance of the VMI pep band at basketball and football games, cheering for the "Keydets," and I once spent $120 on a long white dress and a pair of elbow-length gloves, so that I could stand next to my husband underneath a giant replica of the VMI Class Ring, as he was dubbed an honorary member of the Class of 1992.

In other words, I am a member of the VMI Family.

Many colleges use a family metaphor to describe the relations among students, faculty, alumni, parents, and staff, but few take the metaphor as seriously as VMI. One former VMI official used to invoke the Family so often -- "We must communicate with the Family," "The Family will not like this" -- that a conversation with him felt like a scene from The Stepford Wives.

At VMI, "Family" is a literal term. Many of the cadets are sons, grandsons, nephews, or cousins of former graduates. Most of the administrators are alumni, as are many of the professors. In 1995 the Dean of the Faculty distributed a memo stating that VMI's faculty needed to hire more women, more minorities, and more alumni (none of whom were women, and few of whom were minorities). The memo confirmed a larger institutional belief that only those who have lived through VMI's system can understand it. VMI is a cloistered society, full of private rituals, complex rules, and a language of confusing acronyms. It can take months to distinguish between the EC, the GC, SRC, and the VFT. It can take years to fathom why any college freshman would voluntarily submit to VMI's seven-month system of daily abuse known as the "ratline."

Hand-in-hand with this elusive spirit comes a wariness toward outsiders. During its long road to the Supreme Court, VMI was often vilified by commentators whose knowledge of the school was superficial. As a result, the Institute began to circle its wagons even tighter.

Without some status as a VMI insider, I would never have been allowed to research this book. The last female intellectual whom VMI welcomed into its fold was an anthropologist who impressed a few administrators with her tribal interpretations of the school's muddiest rituals. But as the court case neared completion, this short-term visitor to the Post was touted in the papers as an expert on VMI, espousing a viewpoint so full of doubts that the Commandant, who had befriended her, thought "Never again." Indeed, anyone who has ever read Susan Faludi's scathing critique of The Citadel ["The Naked Citadel," The New Yorker, September 5, 1994.] might wonder why any military college would allow a feminist writer into its midst.
And I am a feminist. Not a man-hater, not a witch, not an inflexible opponent of all things patriarchal, but a supporter of a society equally fair to its mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. I intentionally described myself as "feminist" in a letter submitted to VMI's Superintendent, Major General Josiah S. Bunting III, shortly after the Supreme Court ruled against VMI, when I sought his permission to undertake an oral history of the Institute's transition to coeducation. I knew that the word triggers alarm bells in the minds of most VMI officials. Bunting, however, did not flinch. Instead, he invited me to join his committee on coeducation, adding "You have read Carol Gilligan, haven't you?" Apparently Bunting thought it would be useful to have someone with a knowledge of women's studies joining the debate, someone who knew Gilligan's theories about the self-esteem problems among female adolescents. Not to mention the fact that my presence on the committee would double the number of women in the room. Bunting did not seem fazed by the knowledge that the person now chronicling VMI's actions would be coming from a feminist background. After all, I was Mrs. Brodie. I was the band director's wife.

I mention my ideological background for two reasons: to lay my cards on the table and to emphasize that what follows is not a piece of propaganda for VMI. Despite my ties to the Institute, my husband's occasional refrain of "please don't get me fired," my fondness for most of the people involved (believe it or not, VMI is filled with well-intentioned, intelligent, likable people), my role has always been that of a concerned skeptic, committed to honesty, not adulation.

Like most people who are well acquainted with VMI, I have spent my moments loathing the place. But I have also witnessed events that were fascinating, funny, and admirable. None more admirable than the manner in which hundreds of people on VMI's Post -- from cadets, to faculty, to laundry workers -- all came together to prepare for the arrival of women. Many did not agree with the Supreme Court's ruling that nullified the Institute's single-sex admissions policy. Many feared that the mixture of women and men in VMI's barracks would be explosive. But the vast majority determined to try their best to make coeducation work. This book is about them. In keeping with my original plans for an oral history, the narrative that follows is filled with the voices of administrators, cadets, and faculty. Their stories and opinions color the first half, which covers VMI's year of planning for coeducation, and they are especially predominant in the second half, which looks at the women's first year at VMI.

The pages ahead provide only the opening chapters in an ongoing story. Whether VMI's transition to coeducation will ultimately result in success or scandal, whether its first female graduates will look back on their alma mater with devotion or disillusionment, will remain for the future to determine. However, the first act in this drama has been played out. The role of this book is to offer a window into an unusual institutional culture, to describe what was involved in bringing women into that culture, and to survey some of VMI's earliest responses to a new era in its history.

When Lieutenant General Winfield S. Scott, former Superintendent of the Air Force Academy, visited VMI in the spring of 1997, he declared that no other military college had done so much to prepare for the arrival of women. At the same time, no other military college planned to do so little to alter its system. In its determination to offer women the same harsh model of physical and mental stress applied to men, VMI became a case study in higher education and a microcosm for national debate about men and women, single- and dual-sex military training, and the benefits and drawbacks of tradition and change.

These are the issues that drive the narrative that follows, but to approach them we must first survey VMI's history. For it is the culture of VMI that will dominate the pages ahead, and to appreciate the Institute's present, you must know something about its past.

Let us go then, you and I, to the place where I take all visitors who come to Lexington, Virginia -- the doors of Jackson Memorial Hall, at the center of VMI's Post.


From the Hardcover edition.
Laura Fairchild Brodie|Author Q&A

About Laura Fairchild Brodie

Laura Fairchild Brodie - Breaking Out

Photo © Fran Seurier/Images Out of

Laura Fairchild Brodie, who served on one of VMI's assimilation committees, received her B.A. from Harvard and her Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. She has taught at the University of Virginia, Hollins College, VMI, and Washington and Lee University. With her husband and three young daughters, she lives in Lexington, Virginia.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Laura Fairchild Brodie, author of Breaking Out: VMI and the Coming of Women

Q: How did you come to write BREAKING OUT?

A: My husband had been the band director at VMI for almost ten years before I started this project, so I was very familiar with VMI, and well-acquainted with a lot of cadets, faculty, and administrators. The court case over VMI's admissions policy had begun just one year after our arrival at VMI, and I had watched it evolve while I was working on a PhD in English literature at the University of Virginia. After I finished my dissertation I knew that I wanted another intellectual challenge -- something that would exercise my writing skills -- and the best story in town was VMI. Well before the court case was decided I informed Colonel Mike Bissell, (who eventually headed VMI's assimilation of women), that whichever way the case went, I wanted to do some sort of research project. Bissell was very supportive. He told me to await the outcome of the case, and then speak to General Bunting, VMI's Superintendent. When I appoached General Bunting in August of 1996, he was so enthusiastic about the notion of someone chronicling VMI's transition to coeducation, that he invited me to join his Executive Committee for Coeducation. Since that time, everyone at VMI has been very supportive of my work.

Q: Can you give us a brief history of the Supreme Court case that effectively forced VMI to go co-ed?

A: In March of 1989 an anonymous female high school student filed a complaint with the U. S. Justice Department, stating that she had been turned away when requesting admissions materials from VMI. That complaint initiated a seven-year legal battle. VMI won the first round when Judge Jackson Kiser, in Roanoke, Virginia, accepted the Institute's arguments for why it's all-male status did not violate the constitution. Judge Kiser's ruling was later overturned by an Appeals Court in Richmond, but that court gave VMI the option of finding a creative way to accommodate young women who wanted a publicly funded military education. And so VMI established the Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership at Mary Baldwin College, which is a small women's college about 30 miles from VMI. VWIL continues to exist today, and the women who attend its program take ROTC classes at VMI. Still, in June of 1996 the Supreme Court ruled that VWIL was not an adequate remedy for VMI's constitutional problems. That ruling led to the admission of women at VMI and The Citadel.

Q: What was VMI's initial reaction to the Supreme Court decision?
A: The reactions varied widely from person to person. A lot of people associated with VMI had been expecting this for a long time, and although they worried that VMI, in going coed, might lose the key feature that made it unique, they also felt that change was inevitable. There were other alumni, however, who were adamantly opposed to the admission of women, and who, in the summer of 1996, supported a campaign to make the school private. Breaking Out contains a chapter that describes the privatization campaign.
Q: How did VMI manage to carry out the transformation to coeducation so smoothly? What were the key elements of their strategy?
A: VMI's transformation into a coed military college is still underway, and the process hasn't been entirely smooth. Some people perceive that VMI's assimilation of women has been unusually successful, because they compare VMI's experiences with the problems that The Citadel faced after that college admitted women. It would be more accurate to compare VMI's current circumstances to the federal academies' assimilation of women in the mid 1970s, or to the experiences of Norwich University or Texas A&M. Those schools found that the most difficult problems associated with coeducation did not come in the early years, when they were on their guard, but in later years, as they became more complacent. VMI will need to continually guard against complacency. The big thing VMI has in its favor is the amount of planning that went into the Institute's assimilation of women. A enormous amount of time, money and manpower was devoted to the process. More than half of Breaking Out focuses on VMI's planning for coeducation, because that aspect of the story is really unique.
Q: What were the greatest obstacles for VMI in the shift to coeducation?
A: The greatest challenges VMI faced, and is still facing today, center on trying to change people's attitudes. VMI is a college that loves its traditions, and "change" is a concept that makes a lot of people at VMI very uncomfortable. There were several tangible changes that VMI had to implement in order to prepare for female cadets -- building more restrooms and locker rooms for women, more private examination rooms at the hospital, better security lighting on Post. But these changes were easy when compared to the problem of changing attitudes among those cadets and alumni who are most adamantly opposed to coeducation at VMI. Some of these men will never look upon women at VMI with anything other than gloom, and occasional hostility. But most of the male cadets are more open, more willing to give the women a chance, so long as the women are willing to work hard.
Q: Your behind the scenes portrait of VMI reveals the real life of rats and cadets -- the students, even the first year students, seem so serious and focused. Where does this maturity come from?
A: VMI's cadets are very serious about certain things, such as the Institute's Honor Code. But I doubt that many VMI professors or administrators would choose the word "mature" to describe their students. VMI's cadets can be just as sophomoric as their peers at other colleges, especially when it comes to fraternity-style stunts. And like most students nationwide, many of them are not arriving at college with mature study habits or a mature approach toward developing their minds.
Still, the one thing that several cadets have pointed out to me is that in coming to VMI they have deliberately chosen a life of discipline, in contrast with many of their high school friends, whom they perceive as having gone to college to pursue a life of partying.
Q: What draws women to VMI?
A: Most women seem to come to VMI for the same reasons as the men. Some of them grew up in military families and want a military career. Maybe they didn't get into the federal academies, or maybe they prefer a smaller military school. Some of the women are Virginians who were drawn by VMI's reputation or tradition, and by its closely-knit community. Most of them are looking for a challenge, something out of the ordinary. Of course, some skeptics have voiced the opinion that women who apply to a school like VMI must be interested because they want to meet men. And I'm sure that there are a few women who are attracted to VMI because of its 11 to 1 male-female ratio. But if husband-hunting was any woman's chief reason for coming to VMI, she wouldn't last long in the ratline. I think the women who are succeeding at VMI have come for good reasons.
Q: Can you describe the ratline?
A: Because I have not lived through it, my knowledge of the ratline is superficial, limited to the stories that the cadets have told me, and the scenes I have witnessed. I can, however, say that the ratline is an extremely intense six-to-seven month immersion into an alien culture. It involves a lot of sacrifices -- rats have to give up their clothes, their hair, their cars, their TVs, their telephones, their privacy, their freedom. They are subjected to a heavy dose of harassment from upperclassmen who can drop them for pushups, quiz them on VMI trivia, yell in their faces. And they face a myriad of mental and physical challenges, from memorizing the information in their Rat Bibles, to marching for fifteen miles in combat boots. Part of the goal is to get 400 diverse young people to bond together in one "mass," because no one can complete the ratline without the help of their "Brother Rats." Each year about twenty-percent of the rats leave VMI. The cadets I've met who have done the best are those who arrive at VMI in good physical shape and, most importantly, with a healthy sense of humor.
Q: How many female students are there now at VMI? How many female students is the college hoping to draw each year?
A: There are currently 59 female cadets at VMI. Three incoming classes have included women. When VMI was planning for coeducation, its administrators sometimes talked about reaching a day when 10 percent of the Corps of Cadets would be female. That would mean retaining approximately 120 women, a tough goal for a school like VMI. Although VMI has been averaging approximately thirty new female matriculants each year, attrition eats away at their numbers, just as it does with the men.
Q: When the first women arrived, the media swarmed VMI. How did this affect the lives of the students?
A: The cadets tended to view the reporters as a nuisance -- one more camera taking pictures of them as they did their pushups. Some of the male cadets were resentful of the extra attention that the women were getting, while most of the women tried to be as unobtrusive as possible. One of the reasons that the cadets were so open with me was because I was not a reporter. Still, the presence of the media was not a bad thing for VMI. It's not often that a small school like VMI gets that sort of national attention, and the reporters were, for the most part, very fair and even complimentary of VMI's efforts.
Q: What could other schools learn from VMI's experience of co-education?
A: I think VMI is still the student, not the teacher. VMI still has a lot to learn from the other military colleges around the nation that admitted women many years ago. But at the same time, there are several lessons to be gleaned from effort that VMI expended to prepare for women, and other military colleges around the country will have to see how VMI's women respond to the Institute's adversative style of training, in order to gauge what sort of military training is most effective for men and women.
Q: What would you hope readers would learn from your portrait of VMI?
A: I would hope that readers outside VMI would find a compelling human interest story here, and perhaps discover that there is more to a school like VMI than just a bunch of military stereotypes. Among VMI's community, I would hope that this book would provide a useful historical record of all the work that went into the assimilation of women, so that everyone at VMI, and especially each new class of cadets, might continue to try and make it work.

Praise

Praise

?Perceptive and balance.... [Brodie?s] evenhandedness is magnificent.??Washington Times

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