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.
Clearly, these are not schools for everyone–though virtually everyone who wants to attend can. Acceptance rates at both schools hover around 80 percent, ranking them among the nation’s least academically competitive schools–albeit with the most fiercely loyal alumni (VMI boasts the highest per capita endowment of any publicly supported college or university). The brutality of the adversative method implants a deeply felt bonding among the men; solidarity among cadets is intense, and graduates join what they lovingly call the world’s largest fraternity.
Two new books take us inside these bastions of Southern masculinity. Catherine Manegold’s In Glory’s Shadow offers an impressionist history of the school and its historical and cultural context as a citadel of Southern honor and male privilege. As an outsider with extensive access to historical documents and interviews with key players, Manegold, who covered the Citadel story for the New York Times, sees the school’s resistance to Shannon Faulkner’s admission into the Corps of Cadets as a morality play in miniature, a defining moment in the transformation of America. She provides an intricately detailed portrait of sadistic machismo, twisted by decades of insularity and insolent adolescence–a portrait that ends with the cadets’ shamefully triumphant celebration at Faulkner’s withdrawal, followed by a brief coda in which the school snarls and snaps at the prospect that others will take her place.
In Breaking Out, Laura Fairchild Brodie, an adjunct professor at VMI and wife of the school’s band leader, writes from the inside, chronicling, with excruciating attention to detail, the deliberations and preparations for women’s entry that followed the Supreme Court decision. VMI fought, valiant and bitter to the end, but when the end came, so too did its resistance. The difference between insider and outsider among the authors, though, is of less significance than the chronology each author unfolds–and the differences between two schools that on the surface appear so similar.
That surface gleams in the Southern sun like so many perfectly polished brass belt buckles, according to Manegold. The Citadel’s public face is all honor, glory and integrity, an antebellum world where men and women are addressed as “Sir” and “Ma’am.” “The success of the Citadel is no mystery” observed Bud Watts, the superintendent of the school during the litigation. “It results from the benefits of a well-rounded education which develops cadets academically, morally, spiritually, and physically; all within a framework of a demanding, strict, disciplined military environment. This experience builds character and self-confidence, instills integrity and honor.”
The shadow Citadel is something else entirely. Readers may recall Citadel alum Pat Conroy’s description in The Lords of Discipline, his fictional re-creation of cadet life:
We did not receive a college education at the Institute, we received an indoctrination, and all our courses were designed to make us malleable, unimaginative, uninquisitive citizens of the republic, impregnable to ideas–or thought–unsanctioned by authority…. It demanded limitless conformity from its sons, and we concurred blindly. We spent our four years as passionate true believers, catechists of our harsh and spiritually arctic milieu, studying, drilling, arguing in the barracks, cleaning our rooms, shining our shoes, writing on the latrine walls, writing papers, breaking down our rifles, and missing the point. The Institute was making us stupid; irretrievably, tragically, and infinitely stupid.
(Conroy was one of Faulkner’s staunchest supporters, sponsoring rallies in her support and eventually paying her tuition at a private college after she fled Charleston.)
In glory’s shadow lie unspeakable cruelties, meted out by cadets, unpoliced by the administration. “They say all this stuff about honor and discipline,” commented one cadet. “But it’s not honor. It’s boys taking boys and tearing them apart.”
This sanctimonious sadism evolved over the years. At first, the Citadel looked back in anger at the South’s defeat and ignominious humbling during Reconstruction. And for the next century and a half, smoldering Southern resentment fused with untrammeled adolescent masculinity. What was once a three-month hazing ordeal for freshmen gradually spanned the entire first year. None were spared the relentless torture; “in the end, they all broke.” By the early seventies, the culture of cruelty was out of control. Injuries to cadets were “not only common, but expected, especially broken wrists caused by attempts on the part of the freshmen to deflect the swats of upper classmen,” wrote one cadet in the school paper. And reformers invariably met defeat. Adm. James Stockdale, brought in to clean the school up in 1979, left in disgust after a year of frustrated reforms, saying the place reminded him of the North Vietnamese POW camp he had endured for eight years. At the Citadel, the inmates ran the asylum, and they nearly ran it into the ground.
By the time Faulkner applied, enrollments had dropped almost as far as morale. Here was a chance for the school to reinvent itself, to enter the twentieth century in its last decade. Instead, the Citadel and its supporters–students, administrators, alumni, Charleston loyalists–used every conceivable subterfuge to insure that Faulkner would not succeed. “Save the Males” appeared on bumper stickers and banners all over the state–as if one woman threatened an entire gender. (Well, Napoleon did apparently comment that “he who is full of courage and sang-froid before an enemy battery sometimes trembles before a skirt.”)
Faulkner’s case riveted the nation’s attention on this largely forgotten educational throwback to that antebellum fusion of Southern chivalry and viciousness. And, recounting those terrible weeks, Manegold’s book reveals for the first time why Faulkner really left. That Faulkner was reviled, scorned and harassed routinely, mocked with obscene T-shirts worn proudly all over the state, is well- known. And the way she was shunned and isolated is testament, albeit a twisted one, that the Citadel system works. “A lone wolf will find it impossible to survive within the Corps,” is the way the student handbook puts it. “Your classmates are your only companions…. These classmates are your sole source of support and aid at this time. They will be your friends for life.”
Not Shannon Faulkner’s friends for life. Frozen out, she had nowhere to turn for the support the school claims is essential for survival. The school wanted her to fail.
Much worse, though, is what actually happened. A few days before she left home for the Citadel, Faulkner was in a grocery store in her hometown when she was grabbed from behind by a man whose face she never saw. “I can’t touch you while you’re on campus,” he said to her. “But I can get to your parents. I know a place where I can watch them burn.” On her first day on campus, she heard that voice again, coming from a group of men near the entrance to the barracks. It was at that point that she lost her lunch and spent the rest of the week in the infirmary, unable to hold anything down. It wasn’t that she was overweight, out of shape or a girl; Shannon Faulkner suffered from battle stress.
Many observers thought Faulkner a failure who had demanded entry only to discover that she couldn’t make the grade. But her persistence over those three years of constant torment and threat, her steadfast resolve and impish sense of humor, suggested more courage than any of the male cadets at the Citadel would ever be called on to show. It was Faulkner–not the Citadel cadets–who had the right stuff, the stuff that makes for the honorable “citizen soldier.” She opened the door for other women, who have followed her into the Citadel, seeking its particular brand of physical and mental torture as a way to test their limits and to cement bonds of friendship and love born of mutual–and equal–victimization.
Manegold tells this story deftly, with an effective mix of perverse curiosity and growing disdain and horror. Her journalistic reportage is crisp and clear, but it’s mixed with moments when Manegold exults in her freedom from journalistic constraints. Occasionally, she lays on the metaphors thick as molasses, her prose becoming overladen with competing scents, like “mildew and magnolias,” and coincidences are accorded a portentous historical significance. And in the book’s finale, she relies on a series of anonymous, uncorroborated e-mail messages from a current cadet she identifies only as “V.”
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.”
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.”
VMI’s tale of successful assimilation provides ample evidence to rebut Stephanie Gutmann’s shrill and strident antifeminist polemic, The Kinder, Gentler Military. Gutmann argues that the costs of gender integration have been far greater than the benefits. Though one wants to ask “to whom?”
Gutmann rehearses the three classic arguments that have been deployed against women’s entry into every single public-sphere institution throughout our history. First, she claims, women just can’t do it. The average woman cannot perform adequately and effectively; gender integration means a double standard. (This tired and untrue canard is reminiscent of Harvard education professor Edward Clarke’s warning in 1873 that women are not mentally capable of withstanding the rigors of college education and that if women went to college their brains would grow bigger and heavier and their wombs would shrink.) Second, Gutmann argues that the presence of women pollutes the homosocial purity of military life, diluting the experience for the men (before the Tailhook harassment scandal, one pilot mournfully recalls, naval aviation was “a real brotherhood”). This leads to a softening of discipline and “unit cohesion”–that deep, binding, pure and non-erotic sacrificial love that the men feel toward one another. Gutmann expresses sympathy for the “shamefully unmilitary situation” of one benighted sergeant who now has to “mentor” young recruits “instead of the manly pursuit of bellowing at boys.” As a result, today’s military is one of America’s most politically correct institutions–overrun by GI Janes who can’t do enough push-ups and by rules that prevent the most egregious excesses (she actually provides a ringing, if tinny, defense of Tailhook as just boys being boys).
These are the standard victim-blaming complaints, and Gutmann repeats them thoughtlessly, before adding another: The presence of women makes it harder to get men to join up. How are they going to prove their manhood with women around doing the same thing? (That warfare itself has changed doesn’t enter into the discussion.) Her investigations turn up a host of career sailors and soldiers who agree that military heroism is attainable only after one passes through a training regimen of brutality and torture, of deliberately stripping away dignity and full-throttle spit-in-the-face screaming at the young recruit. Gutmann seems unable to find any military personnel who think gender integration is a good thing.
Gutmann is afraid that the new kinder, gentler military is also softer and weaker, that men have become “feminized” in their forced adherence to the new rules of decorum. She isn’t nostalgic for that world of Southern honor; she mourns the demise of military machismo, that brutal do-or-die-ism of the fiercest fighting force ever assembled. Phyllis Schlafly once called the Justice Department’s case against VMI a “no-holds-barred fight to feminize VMI waged by the radical feminists and their cohorts in the Federal Government.”
Such fears, though, have it exactly backward. Virtually all the research on women in the military–and women in every public arena formerly closed to them–finds the real problem to be the perceived masculinization of the women. Femininity is always questioned when women enter a new public arena, whether the military, the college classroom, the factory or the corporation. As the old adage puts it, men are unsexed by failure; women are unsexed by success. “This is VMI,” one female cadet put it, “where the men are men and so are the women.”
Of course, it’s a done deal anyway, and women are in the military–and police forces, fire departments, VMI and the Citadel–to stay. Gutmann recounts a telling exchange. During the Tailhook hearings, Barbara Pope, the only woman on the Navy’s investigation panel, began to mutter about old-boy networks, foot-dragging and clubbiness, all of which hampered the investigation. “What you don’t understand, Barbara,” Rear Adm. Mac Williams admonished her, “is that men in the Navy don’t want women in the Navy.” “Mac, you don’t get it,” she replied. “Yes, some men don’t want women in the Navy. Things were easier when women weren’t there. But if men can’t accept women and integrate women into the military, then they shouldn’t be there.”
And increasingly, they aren’t. Women are there, and the men are getting used to it. Just as those male journalists had to get used to women like Gutmann and Manegold in their ranks–though men had earlier issued dire warnings that women didn’t have the nose for hard journalism and that women wouldn’t be able to get a story because of the sexual tension with sources (who were, presumably, only men).
During one of my site visits to the Citadel, I had this exchange with a military captain, a woman who was on the staff of the psychological counseling services. She was describing her activities in the Air Force Reserves as a loadmaster on cargo planes during Desert Storm. When she began, her fellow reservists (male) were exceedingly chivalrous, giving her a wide berth, making sure not to touch or bump into her, and also did not include her in informal activities. She felt like an outsider. This, of course, made her uncomfortable, because she wanted to fit in.
Eventually, she said, their attitudes changed. “What caused this change?” I asked. “The fact that I was there, doing my job,” she answered. “Has this been good for you, to be free of such excesses of chivalry and to be treated as equally competent?” I asked. “Yes.” “And do you think it’s a good thing for the men to have changed in this way, to now be able to look at you as an equally competent member of their reserve team?” “Of course,” she said. “And do you think that they could have made such a change without your presence there, without your having been accepted into the reserves and willing to stick it out?” I asked. “No,” she said, somewhat flustered.
New players and new rules may, however, be just what is needed down at the ol’ PX. The reality is that cruel and inhuman punishment as masculine initiation–whether in the Marine Corps or at the schools where boys play soldier with no consequences–may have been functional for Braveheart, but even by Vietnam it was an anachronism, made palpably evident by the filmic evolutionary throwback John Rambo. The wars of the present and the future–whether in the Persian Gulf, Kosovo or somewhere else–will have far different rules of engagement and far different criteria for heroism.
Since the Supreme Court decision, life hasn’t been easy for women at either school. The Citadel remains beset with problems. Two of the first four women cadets left the school after their complaints of sexual harassment–they’d been doused with lighter fluid and then had matches tossed at their shirts, for one thing–were met with another circling of the wagons. And just recently Petra Lovetinska, the school’s top-ranking female cadet, was demoted. Apparently, there is a time-honored tradition that knobs are commanded by seniors to pour ketchup or salad dressing on the shoes of other seniors. (This, like most “traditions” at the Citadel, is probably no more than twenty years old.) Lovetinska didn’t particularly enjoy having the salad dressing poured on her, so she wiped her shoes on the cadet’s trousers. She–not the knob or the senior who put him up to it–was disciplined by the school. In other words, she was demoted for resisting this utterly sophomoric prank.
At VMI, it’s been equally unpleasant for both women and men, and roughly equal percentages drop out of the ratline. VMI accepted its defeat–if not exactly gracefully, at least with a certain amount of resigned integrity, neither bowing to “watered down” double standards nor resorting to vicious informal subterfuge. If the Citadel has remained unreconstructed, continuing to fight a rear-guard action like that rogue Tennessean Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate general (and former wealthy slaveowner) who is credited with founding the Ku Klux Klan, VMI has taken a more noble course, like that noble son of Virginia, Robert E. Lee, whose dignity in surrender provided a model of Southern honor for generations of young boys, North and South, to emulate.
And Erin Claunch? Well, just as Petra Lovetinska was being demoted at the Citadel, Claunch was selected as one of two battalion commanders at VMI, the second- highest military position at the school, leading half the Corps of Cadets. Was she selected because she was a woman? Hardly. After outperforming most of the men in the unchanged VMI physical fitness regimen, running cross-country and maintaining a 4.0 average, “it was just a matter of her being qualified for the job,” commented one of the male cadets who was on the selection board. Gender, insists Derek Bogdon, the cadet selected as the other battalion commander, is no longer an issue at VMI. “They’re our brother rats,” he says. “They went through the same thing that we did.”
Citadel loyalists and their sycophantic feminine followers like Stephanie Gutmann could learn a thing or two from Erin Claunch. Can women do it? Sir! Yes Sir!