Sunday, August 12, 2007

'Just like the guys': A decade of women at VMI

Ten years after they joined the grueling rat line at Virginia Military Institute, pioneering alumnae say they wouldn't trade the experience for anything.

Katie Bopp, 20, is a rising VMI senior. She says the mentoring system the first female cadets started has made her life easier at VMI. 'It's still tough to be at VMI, but I feel like I fit in.'

Photo by Jared Soares | The Roanoke Times

Katie Bopp, 20, is a rising VMI senior. She says the mentoring system the first female cadets started has made her life easier at VMI. 'It's still tough to be at VMI, but I feel like I fit in.'


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Listen to the reflections of two VMI graduates:

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Getting into VMI

To be accepted to Virginia Military Institute, prospective candidates must:

  • Be between 16 and 22 years old, high school graduates, unmarried and physically fit for enrollment in a ROTC program
  • Have a minimum 2.5 grade-point average (although the average GPA of students accepted is 3.3) and an SAT score of 1000
  • Extracurricular activities, athletics and letters of recommendation are also considered

Source: VMI admissions office

Natasha Miller doesn't usually wear her Virginia Military Institute class ring when she's working at her job as an engineer for a defense contractor in Washington, D.C.

"I'm around a lot of military people, and it just becomes a matter of having to go through and tell the story every single day," she said.

The story is a compelling one, about how Miller and 29 other women made history as the first female cadets to attend VMI in 1997, 10 years ago this month.

The year before, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state-supported school in Lexington had to end its 157-year all-male status and go coed or stop receiving taxpayer funds.

To those with even a passing knowledge of the rigorous mental and physical demands put on a VMI cadet, the hefty Super Bowl-like ring that graduates earn is a symbol of achievement, a badge of honor.

Men and women alike leave VMI taking to heart the words inscribed above the barracks entrance that are attributed to Civil War Confederate general and VMI instructor Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson: "You may be whatever you resolve to be."

A decade ago, Miller, now 30, set foot on the military school's post amid a barrage of national media attention not unlike the focus today on the woes of celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan.

Dozens of reporters and camera crews watched as incoming female cadets received their military haircuts and entered the rat line, the school's boot camp-style initiation for freshman cadets.

The question on everyone's mind then -- would women be able to hack it at VMI? -- seems academic a decade later, even as it resonates for the alumnae who made history.

On Saturday, 47 incoming female cadets are expected to enter VMI, including one who dropped out last year and is back to try it again. The size of this year's incoming class of women is second only to 2005, when 52 women matriculated.

So far, 425 incoming male cadets have placed deposits with the school to enter the grueling rat line.

About 28 percent of women end up dropping out, nearly 10 percent more than the male attrition rate.

When it comes to military service, on average about 43 percent of male and female cadets have been commissioned into military service over the past five years, a figure VMI hopes to increase to 70 percent by 2039.

This summer, Sarah McIntosh, 20, became the first female cadet still attending VMI to enter a combat zone. She's deployed with the Virginia Army National Guard to spend a year driving trucks to convoy supplies between Kuwait and Iraq.

Cadets look up to trailblazers

Katie Bopp, 20, is a rising VMI senior and a regimental captain for media relations, protocol and cadet recruiting for the student body, known as the corps of cadets. She believes the mentoring system those first women at VMI passed down to other female cadets has made her life easier at the institute.

"It's still tough to be at VMI, but I feel like I fit in," she said.

The first women at VMI were portrayed as pioneers and trailblazers, terms most of them hated then and still despise now.

"I had absolutely no desire to change VMI or to be a poster child for feminists in America," said Melissa Williams, who was part of the first female class.

Now living in Maine and about to start her third year of medical residency at the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine, Williams, 28, came to VMI because she was offered an academic scholarship.

Angela Winters, now Angela Scott, is a U.S. Army company commander who is married to a fellow Army officer and is about to deploy for her second tour of duty in Iraq later this month.

"As a cadet, I did not see myself as a pioneer and was extremely annoyed and embarrassed with any attention," she said from Fort Polk in Louisiana, where she is stationed with the 488th Combat Security Company.

But whether the alumnae like it or not, today's female cadets look up to those first women at VMI.

"I have much admiration for them, because they set the stage for me to come to VMI," Bopp said.

About half of the first class of women ended up graduating with the Class of 2001. A few others graduated before or after, and the rest either dropped out, were kicked out for honor code violations or had insufficient grade-point averages to continue at the school.

Those like Miller who made it to graduation day said the constant media attention made the rigors of VMI that much harder.

"We had to prove ourselves more than any of the guys," she said. "But the guys in our class had to endure a lot of crap because of us, too. All the media attention."

VMI also left a positive, indelible mark on her life.

"I really feel like it had a large impact on the person that I am today and just what I feel I can accomplish," Miller said. "Especially in the professional world, I feel like I can hold my own."

Many of the other alumnae feel the same way.

Williams looks back on her four years at VMI as "some of the best in my life" but hasn't forgotten how tough it was, for both women and men.

"I remember a young man coming to our room when we were all rats and breaking down in tears because he was so unhappy at VMI," she said. "That happened more than once with different folks. We were girls, and somehow it was OK to cry in front of us."

All of the alumnae interviewed for this story have established successful careers.

"Part of what put me where I am today and made me who I am today was my experience at the 'I,' " Scott said.

"I think that shows that the system is working," said Marshall Mundy, a Roanoke lawyer and 1956 VMI graduate who's also a member of the school's board of visitors.

Prior to 1997, VMI had prided itself since 1839 on molding generations of men into citizen soldiers amid Spartan living conditions designed to promote discipline and unity.

That changed in 1989, when a Northern Virginia high school student complained to federal officials that she couldn't apply to VMI because she wasn't male.

VMI waged a six-year court battle to stay all-male. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-1 that the state-supported school must admit women.

Bringing female cadets to VMI posed a number of issues that the school has tried to sort out. How would women fare in the storied rat line? Would the physical standards be the same for men and women? What about fraternization between female and male cadets in the barracks?

It's a question that the service academies and the military also have had to deal with over the years.

"Overall the assimilation of women has gone very, very well," Mundy said.

He describes his former classmates who opposed women coming to VMI as his "dinosaur buddies."

"I made some quote at the time that I caught hell for. I said something like, 'I'm pleased that VMI is going to join the 20th century before it's over,' " he recalled recently. "God, some of my buddies really did take me to task for that."

Ultimately, VMI created an assimilation policy for women designed to prevent hazing and harassment and create an equal standard for both genders.

"I don't like to use the term we're going to let them [women] fit in. We've got a level playing field," said retired Army Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, VMI's superintendent since 2003 and 1962 VMI graduate.

He describes the assimilation process as constantly evolving and getting better with time.

"We feel pretty good about the path we're on," he said last month.

In 2004, VMI hired Jackie Tugman, an '02 VMI graduate, as the school's first female recruiter.

"I hope that my experience as a cadet helps with recruiting and preparing the young women who are coming into VMI," she said. "I think it makes a difference when they hear about it from somebody who actually did it."

The physical appearance of female cadets is one of the most visible changes at the school. While female cadets once kept their hair cut short and wore uniforms with pants, they now tend to wear skirts more and grow their hair longer.

But it was a change women didn't embrace at first for fear that they wouldn't fit in with the male cadets.

"We had to urge them toward femininity," Peay said.

Kelly Sullivan, now 28 and a project manager for Time Warner Cable in Northern Virginia, looks back at pictures of herself from the Class of 2001 and laughs at how boyish she looked.

"You couldn't tell the difference between us," she said of herself and her brother rats.

Back then, when female cadets left the VMI post to go out into the real world, Sullivan said they turned heads when they entered women's restrooms because of their manly appearance.

VMI prepares for the future

Like any new direction, there have been bumps in the road at VMI over the past decade.

At least one female cadet has become pregnant, which is against school rules and grounds for dismissal. Eight years ago, the institute's top cadet, who had been tapped to be the corps of cadets' regimental commander, was expelled after allegations that he was demanding sex from freshman cadets.

Past and current female cadets say a host of other lesser, but still offensive, incidents of harassment have occurred at the school, something Peay says is being handled better now that female cadets feel more comfortable about reporting such behavior.

"If there's a problem, we move on it quickly," he said.

"The blatant stuff is gone," said VMI spokesman Stewart MacInnis.

Ten years ago, Sullivan, who roomed with Williams and attended VMI on a track scholarship, took it upon herself to hold regular meetings with the other female cadets to talk about issues and decide which matters they would report to the administration and which they would handle themselves.

"We were very careful not to cross the line when we didn't have to," she said. "Sometimes you would just keep running into the ignorance wall, where they [male cadets] just didn't want to change. But other times you were able to say, 'This is the deal. You can't treat me like this. There's no reason for you to treat me like this.' "

Bopp, who plans to enter the Air Force and become a doctor after she graduates, felt some hostility from men her first year as a rat but said overall the treatment of women has gotten better.

"I was really surprised to see how we really are treated just like the guys," she said. "When they say one corps, one standard, that's absolutely true."

A decade ago, those in favor of keeping VMI all-male predicted that the presence of women would be the demise of the nation's oldest state-supported military school.

VMI today is in the midst of a $300 million capital campaign to renovate its older buildings and update its classrooms to attract the next generation of male and female cadets. It has a strong alumni association and has received millions of dollars in endowment funds to help with efforts such as a new leadership and ethics center that broke ground this summer.

The massive building upgrades include new athletic fields and an addition to the barracks, but won't change the cadet lifestyle of sleeping on fold-up wooden cots in rooms without air conditioning and with bathroom facilities down the hall.

As for the overall acceptance of women, there are still those who think women don't belong at VMI or in the military.

"I meet alumni these days that shake my hand and say, 'I don't think that you guys should be at VMI,' " Sullivan said. "I just have to let it roll off my back."

Because of her outspokenness as a cadet, VMI officials sought out Sullivan to help with recruiting efforts at the school as well as efforts to keep new female recruits from dropping out. She also serves on the school's athletic board, the Keydet Club and the young alumni board.

Peay said VMI turns away two-thirds of the women who apply, about 80 so far this year. And while VMI works hard to keep those who come, he said the physical part of the school's military and athletic programs "wears you down. I do think today it's considerably more physical than my time here."

The future of women at VMI will likely rest in large part with women such as Bopp, who holds a 3.3 grade-point average, loves the discipline and structure of military life, and will be a mentor to one or two freshman rats this year.

"I'm excited to just share my wealth of knowledge of VMI and help these girls that are coming in," she said. "My goal this year is to really try and get these girls to stay."

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