The Magazine

Mother Rat

VMI shows the door to pregnant cadets.

Aug 6, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 44 • By ERIN SHELEY
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WHEN THE FIRST FEMALE CADETS signed their names in the matriculation roster of the Virginia Military Institute in 1997, proponents of women’s rights trumpeted the event as a great victory for equality. Satisfied with this conclusion to the years-long legal battle that forced the venerable all-male military college to admit women to its famed "ratline," the lawyers and the media packed up and left Lexington, Virginia. But the difficulties of co-education are just beginning for the school they’ve left behind. The day-to-day dilemmas of the co-ed VMI are perhaps nowhere more obvious than in a new code the school plans to implement in the fall: All cadets who mother—or father—a child will be required to leave the school.

Occasioned by the recent case of a VMI junior who elected to remain in the barracks until the seventh month of her pregnancy, the policy answers a question that, for the school’s assimilation committees, had been the ultimate hypothetical: What happens if a cadet gets pregnant? The dismissal policy was actually proposed when VMI was first planning for co-education but was scrapped in favor of a voluntary leave of absence for pregnant cadets.

In her book Breaking Out: VMI and the Coming of Women, Laura Brodie, who served on one of the assimilation committees, described that decision as evidence of how far the school "could go to acknowledge the practical realities of women’s lives without altering the essentials of VMI." But given that VMI features one of the most rigorous physical training regimens in the country and communal living quarters with next to no privacy, it is clear that the school’s "essentials" and the "realities" of pregnancy are anything but compatible.

The new VMI policy is unique among military schools. At South Carolina’s storied military college The Citadel—which was also litigated into co-education in the 1990s—pregnancy is deemed a "temporary disability," and a cadet may elect to remain enrolled, provided she does not miss more than three weeks of school per semester. Likewise, the federal service academies, which went co-ed in the late 1970s, allow for up to one year of leave. However, all these institutions seem to agree on one thing: It is not possible to reconcile pregnancy with the realities of a military education.

The code at The Citadel expresses this well: "Cadet life is stressful, physically demanding, and requires the full-time commitment of all cadets. Consequently, cadets, male or female, are not permitted to be married, nor are they permitted to have custody...of a child." In other words, even if a cadet does give birth, she must give up the custody of her child to remain in school.

In moving to expel cadets who become parents, VMI understands itself to be buttressing one of the most important principles it teaches cadets: responsibility. No military school has ever allowed its cadets to raise children while enrolled. To allow a cadet to remain in school after becoming a parent is thus, to a certain extent, to endorse the shirking of a more fundamental responsibility. VMI’s new policy keeps the school from tacitly encouraging the evasion of parental responsibility—at the risk, unfortunately, of encouraging abortion—but it also runs into a legal snag.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 forbids recipients of federal funds from excluding "any student from its education program or activity...on the basis of such student’s pregnancy. A recipient shall treat the same manner and under the same policies as any other temporary disability." Citadel spokeswoman Charlene Gunnels cites Title IX as the reason the South Carolina school did not consider a policy of dismissal for pregnancies when amending its own code for co-education.

Already the American Civil Liberties Union has sent VMI a letter advising them against the policy. But according to Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia ACLU, the group will file suit against the school only if the federal courts, which are still monitoring the school, or the Justice Department, which filed the original discrimination case, fail to do so. "I’m sure if a VMI student breaks his leg, he’s not required to leave the school," says Willis. "We also believe there’s an equal protection argument...because in reality such a policy would be implemented in a way that discriminates against women....The school may never know about men who impregnate women."

The language of the code will not be finalized until September, delaying legal threats for the moment. According to Randy Davis, spokesman for the Virginia attorney general’s office, which is assisting VMI in drafting the code, before the cadets "return in the fall, our office will work with them to make sure that the policy is constitutional."