Give the Virginia Military Institute an "A" for wisdom, and give female cadets an "A" for perseverance in Year 1 of open enrollment.
The percentage of women who entered the institution as freshmen and graduated from freshman "rat" status to earn the coveted title of cadet was roughly the same as the percentage of men who became cadets.Seven of the 30 women (23 percent) who enrolled in September dropped out. The rate was slightly higher than that of the men (74 of the 430 male freshmen, or 17 percent, left).
What could have been a highly contentious situation turned into a win-win one because VMI administrators decided to accept a 1996 Supreme Court ruling gracefully.
After VMI waged a six-year, $14 million fight against coeducation, the Supreme Court ruled that VMI could not exclude women and still accept public money. Like a good military institution, VMI realized the battle had been lost and it was time to move on.
It learned from the mistakes of others and wasn't about to be a source of embarrassment like The Citadel was after Shannon Faulkner broke the gender barrier there in 1995.
VMI had a year to prepare for the first women and used its time and resources wisely. It hired a female admissions officer and a female assistant commandant and sought advice from the nation's military academies, which dealt with the gender issue years earlier. Incoming freshmen received videos showing the kind of life they would lead at VMI, which included scenes of cadets screaming into the faces of the freshmen "rats."
But while providing such additions as curtains on all barracks and building separate bathrooms for the women, VMI did not relax its rigorous physical standards (which included short hair for women).
By meeting those tough standards, the women earned respect as well as their stripes.
Noted Ebony McElory, 18, as quoted by the Associated Press, "I just stuck it out like a guy would. I'm just a normal cadet." Sticking it out meant numerous sit-ups and push-ups, a multitude of drills and obstacle course exercises culminated by a forced 15-mile march in the snow that was capped off by a grueling climb up a steep, muddy hill.
That kind of dedication isn't determined by gender, which is clearly what the first class of VMI women proved.