by Lisa Bennett-Haigney
In one of its final decisions of the session, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-1 that the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), which is part of the state's university system, must admit women if it is to remain a public institution. VMI and The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina, were the last two publicly funded, all-male military institutions in the U.S. Both schools have waged lengthy, costly battles to retain their exclusionary policies.
NOW activists celebrated the decision on the steps of the Supreme Court. "VMI will have to open the doors of opportunity to the daughters of Virginia, as well as to the sons," said NOW Executive Vice President Kim Gandy, who coordinated NOW's participation in an amicus brief in the case.
Karen Johnson, NOW Vice President-Membership and a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, said, "Finally, we have an affirmation that the qualities important for military leaders -- integrity, tenacity and bravery -- have nothing to do with a person's sex."
Just days after the Supreme Court ruling The Citadel announced that it will immediately accept women into its Corps of Cadets for the fall semester. Last fall, Shannon Faulkner, a recipient of NOW's 1995 Woman of Courage Award, became the first woman to join male cadets at The Citadel. Faulkner left the military institute within a week, however, citing stress from her two-and-a-half-year court struggle, as well as harassment and isolation from the other cadets.
The VMI case began in 1989 when an unidentified woman was refused admission into VMI. The U.S. Department of Justice sued the state of Virginia and the school for violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. After losing an initial round in the case, the school responded by creating a "parallel program" for women, the Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership (VWIL), located at Mary Baldwin College, a private women's school.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the majority, stated that the VWIL program's "student body, faculty, course offerings, and facilities hardly match VMI's." Women in the VWIL are not offered the same adversative training and military lifestyle that bond VMI's citizen-soldiers, and they cannot take any courses in engineering or the advanced math and physics courses offered at VMI.
The Court also noted that VWIL students would not graduate with the advantage of a VMI degree and therefore cannot anticipate those benefits associated with the school's 157-year history. A VMI diploma carries with it the school's prestige and grants a lifetime of advantage within the powerful political and economic ties of the alumni network.
"Women seeking and fit for a VMI-quality education cannot be offered anything less, under the State's obligation to afford them genuinely equal protection," Ginsburg concluded.
NOW's celebration was also a demonstration to bring awareness to the issue of sex discrimination. In the amicus brief NOW signed, the Court was asked to raise gender discrimination to the same level of constitutional scrutiny as that of race discrimination.
Johnson stressed the need to judge race and gender discrimination equally. "I am black and I am female, and I can tell you that my sex affects me as much as my race," Johnson said. "You can't separate the two and shouldn't apply a different standard to the two."
The Supreme Court, in its ruling, did not apply "strict scrutiny," but did incorporate what Ginsburg referred to as "skeptical scrutiny." The decision said that the state must have an "exceedingly persuasive justification" for denying qualified women the unique education offered by institutions such as VMI.
Both students and leaders at VMI and The Citadel expressed their disappointment at having to admit women to their ranks. Privatization has been discussed, but it does not seem likely that the significant funding supplied by taxpayers can be replaced.
The Citadel admitted four women Aug. 24, and VMI officials have announced that the earliest women will be admitted is Fall '97.