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Janey Got Her Gun | The Nation

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Janey Got Her Gun

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Compared with this, Breaking Out reads more like a required textbook, as Brodie recounts every deliberation, discussion and debate that preoccupied VMI after 1996, when it was forced to admit women. "If we're going to do it, we're going to do it well--extraordinarily well," Bunting promised. "We will have to effect a cultural change, an attitudinal change, many of us in ourselves: doubt, skepticism, cynicism, sorrow are not a fertile soil in which to plant the seeds of a new coeducational VMI."

Michael Kimmel served as the Justice Department's expert witness on gender issues in the VMI and Citadel litigation.

About the Author

Michael Kimmel
Michael Kimmel is a professor of sociology at SUNY, Stony Brook, his books include Manhood in America (Free Press) and...

Some of the difference between the two schools can be traced to their leadership. The Citadel grumbled toward coeducation with indifferent and ineffective leaders, while VMI engaged one of its most illustrious alums. A Rhodes scholar and highly decorated Vietnam soldier, Bunting sees himself as a military figure cast in a classical, somewhat flamboyant mold, who leads his troops into battle by day and reads Ovid in the original by candlelight in his tent. He'd also been president of a women's college (Briarcliffe), a men's college (Hampden-Sydney) and presided as headmaster of the transition from all-boys to coed at a private school in Lawrenceville. Having testified for both VMI and the Citadel at trial--it was Bunting who claimed famously that women would be "a toxic kind of virus" that would destroy the mystical bonding among the men--he now seemed to do a complete about-face. If women were coming, he said, we want them to be as fully assimilated into the corps as possible.

"Assimilated," however, does not mean integrated. The corps was not going to change one jot for these women. If they wanted VMI, they were going to get it. No holds barred. In the VMI view of the world, equality means sameness.

To make this coeducational VMI succeed, Bunting had to bring everyone along, some willingly, others kicking and screaming. That included the school's fiercely loyal alumni, who seriously tried to raise more than $200 million to take the school private rather than admit women; faculty, who largely welcomed the change; cadets, who feared the watering down of their training and thus their reputation as men (the last all-male class called itself LCWB, or Last Class With Balls); and groundskeepers, laundry workers and food staff, all of whom would have to accept the new regime.

Committees debated endlessly. Topics ranged from the most central to the most trivial. Physical training requirements remained unchanged, and women struggled to make their quota of five pull-ups (West Point, using gender-norming, only requires women to do a flex arm hang). The honor code remained untouched; academics actually improved with the addition of new majors in psychology and criminal justice; and, most important, the brutal daily routines of the "ratline" were not altered at all.

Bunting prepared the corps to see women as the beneficiaries, not the cause, of the new regime. The brass instituted strict policies on sexual harassment, fraternization and hazing, and also brought in women cadets from Norwich and Texas A&M to serve as mentors to the female rats. (In my research, the first women cadets at West Point identified the absence of role models and mentors as one of the more serious problems they faced.)

At the other end of the spectrum were the seemingly trivial details. Should the women's uniforms have breast pockets like the men's? (Too much attention drawn to anatomy or too different from men's uniforms?) What kinds of swimsuits should the women wear during compulsory swimming classes? (The school proposed baggy black sacks with padded cups for the bras, because they didn't want anyone embarrassed when they got cold leaving the pool. They settled on a modest compromise somewhere between Baywatch and Coney Island circa 1910.)

What about their hair? Should the women cadets also get their heads shaved? To shave the women struck some as "malicious compliance"--a vindictive, punitive equality of the sexes that makes the men look bald and the women look like freaks. Cutting the men's hair takes away their individuality, but not their manhood; for women it takes away their femininity and exaggerates their individuality. On the other hand, if equality means sameness, then what's good for the gander is what the goose is going to get, like it or not. (At the Citadel, three of the first four female cadets followed Demi Moore's lead in G.I. Jane and shaved their own heads.)

But if heaven is in the details, so, too, is hell. Some officials, Brodie writes, "seemed to want to create an environment in which they could spare the cadets the embarrassing moments that come with having a body." The all-male committees seemed utterly preoccupied--and woefully misinformed--about menstruation, for example. Should female rats be given medical leave during their periods? Would the women need private showers? (At the Merchant Marine Academy, the school installed private showers when women came, and the women promptly tore down the stall separators.) What about tampon machines in the bathrooms? (After all, the men didn't have them.) Should they be free or coin-operated? Images of once-modest women with blood trickling down their legs in gang showers was simply too much to bear.

Much of Brodie's book provides an exhaustive and exhausting catalogue of the elaborate discussions over every unbearably mundane item of clothing, training regimen and dorm life. I'm not sure casual readers will be as engrossed as I was with the minutes of meetings to discuss shower stalls, but I was fascinated and occasionally appalled at the thorough--and occasionally thoroughly silly--attention to detail. By the end of the book I had developed a grudging but genuine respect for the school and for Bunting's resolve to preserve its traditions and have women succeed there. And, Brodie argues, it paid off. After just a few weeks of ratline training, one upperclassman said he only "saw a rat. I didn't see male or female; their gender was just transformed into one single rat."

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