Breaking Out. VMI and the Coming of Women.Breaking Out:
VMI and the Coming of Women


“A fascinating and highly readable story filled with striking insights into American gender roles and revolutions at the end of the twentieth century.” Drew Gilpin Faust, President of Harvard University, and author of Mothers of Invention

“These are serious and important questions… Brodie’s objectivity is admirable.” —Washington Post Book World

“Richly detailed and remarkably fair-minded—Breaking Out reads at times like a good novel.” — Richmond Times-Dispatch

"[An] engrossing, informed and even-handed analysis of the institution's 'assimilation' (the word carefully chosen by VMI's administration) of women...Nuanced and surprising."
- Publisher's Weekly

Perceptive and balanced.... [Brodie's] evenhandedness is magnificent. - The Washington Times





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 fulltime 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 roundtrip 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~' 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 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 prominent 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 I997, 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.