Meet Erin Claunch. A high school honor student and cross-country runner from Round Hill, Virginia, Claunch enrolled at Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in 1997 “to test my limits and see how far I can go.” A physics major, Claunch is preparing for a commission with the Air Force upon graduation, and she aspires to become an astronaut. She ranks fifteenth in her class of 298 and easily surpassed the uniform gender-neutral physical fitness standards: Sixty sit-ups in two minutes, five pull-ups and a one-mile run in less than twelve minutes. (She did eighty-four sit-ups, fifteen pull-ups and ran the course in less than eleven minutes.)
Quite a leap from Shannon Faulkner, who took on VMI’s brother institution, the Citadel, in 1993 and waged a protracted three-year court battle to be admitted to its Corps of Cadets, only to leave the school in tears after a week.
The Supreme Court’s 7-to-1 decision against VMI four years ago opened to women the last two all-male state-supported colleges in America. The schools’ cynical last-ditch efforts to preserve their single-sex status–pale-replica “leadership training” programs at nearby women’s colleges–were not to be understood, the schools tried to convince the courts, as separate but equal, yet rather as “distinct but superior.” (Imagine if West Point had tried to avoid coeducation by proposing that a few Vassar students march around in uniform once a week.)
In the four years since those barracks doors were thrown open, women haven’t exactly poured into the formerly all-male bastions of Southern chivalry and military manhood. Rather, it’s been a slow trickle. Today the US military is about 15 percent female. VMI claims to be 16 percent and the Citadel is a scant 4 percent. The enrollment and retention problem has been cause for serious consternation for VMI’s superintendent, Josiah Bunting III, who fought fiercely against women’s entry but is now determined to make their “assimilation” a resounding success. On the other hand, nothing could make the Citadel administrators happier than insuring that the school remain utterly inhospitable to women, turning a blind, if winking, eye away from their continued hazing. The difference between these two very similar schools makes for a fascinating story.
VMI and the Citadel are not your typical educational institutions. For one thing, they are both purposefully anachronistic Southern schools, looking back reverently to the Lost Cause, and they resent any federal official dictating on a state’s right to determine its own educational policies. Both trace their histories to before the Civil War–the Citadel was established in 1842, on the heels of Denmark Vesey’s ill-fated slave uprising, to insure Charleston’s wealthy slavetraders against any further “disturbances.” VMI, founded three years earlier in the town of Lexington, sent its cadets directly into battle in a minor skirmish in 1864. Stonewall Jackson, a relatively unpopular and taciturn instructor of natural philosophy for a few months at VMI, is today worshiped as its greatest hero; the central barracks are named for him, his statue stands proudly at its entrance (cadets salute him as they enter) and his relics, including his moth-eaten stuffed horse, Little Sorrell, occupy hallowed space in VMI’s museum.
Both schools provide a disciplined military atmosphere, although fewer than one-third of graduating cadets pursue a military career. VMI and the Citadel are what the great sociologist Erving Goffman called “total institutions,” in which academic study, residential life (the barracks) and military training are all integrated into a closed system in which cadets are immersed from the moment they set foot on campus. Both employ what they call an “adversative method,” which deliberately induces emotional and psychological stress. For first-year students, known as “rats” at VMI and “knobs” at the Citadel, the process entails a mixture, Laura Fairchild Brodie writes, “of bonding and bondage.” Each cadet is systematically stripped of individual identity, then slowly and deliberately rebuilt in the corporate mold. Heads are shaved (thus the nickname “knobs”); seemingly random and nonsensical orders are given, to be carried out unquestioningly; subordination to a training cadre of second-year students is relentless, merciless and brutal. One VMI alum claimed that the system prepared him to be a POW, not a soldier. “You don’t really graduate from VMI,” one daughter and sister of VMI grads said. “You survive it.” Think of Marine Corps boot camp run by unsupervised teenage boys. Think of that tree house with the sign that says No Gurls Allowed. If combat unleashes the dogs of war, VMI and Citadel cadets are its puppies.