Justice Ginsburg Speaks at VMI, an Institute She Transformed

Jan 31, 2017

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg visits Virginia Military Institute in Lexington on Wednesday, February 1. This is significant because Justice Ginsburg had a profound impact on the school by writing the majority opinion in a landmark case that forced the all male Institute to admit women. WMRA’s Jessie Knadler examines the impacts of that case.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg doesn’t really do public appearances. She’s not known for giving interviews. So it’s really telling that the 83-year-old Justice is coming to VMI to speak before the entire corps of cadets on Wednesday.

The VMI case is called United States v. Virginia. Justice Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion that found the state-run school’s all male admission policy to be unconstitutional. It’s regarded as her most important decision on the high court.

IRIN CARMON:   The VMI case was in some ways the culmination of all her work.

Irin Carmon is coauthor of Notorious RBG.

CARMON:  Long before Justice Ginsburg was a Supreme Court Justice, she was an important women’s rights litigator. She co-founded the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. And she actually transformed our constitutional understanding of gender. Before she got to work, it was completely legal for the government to discriminate on the basis of gender.

VMI’s remedy at the time was to start a sister program at Mary Baldwin. But Justice Ginsburg wrote that would be a “pale shadow” in terms of course offerings, faculty, funding, prestige and alumni support for women.

The ruling was met with major opposition from VMI’s passionate alumni base and all-male corps.  But administrators knew they had to get on board to avoid the mistakes made by the Citadel when trying to assimilate women a few years prior. Here’s VMI spokesman Stewart MacInnis.

STEWART MACINNIS:  When the Supreme Court made that ruling, VMI embraced the ruling and set about doing the best job it could at integrating women into the corps.

They had no choice but to embrace the ruling, but that was it. The school wasn’t going to change anything else.

LAURA BRODIE:  VMI didn’t like to use the word ‘co-educational.’

Laura Brodie is the author of Breaking Out: VMI and the Coming of Women. She was one of the few women to sit in on executive meetings about the transition at the time. 

BRODIE:  They said that the Supreme Court did not require them to create a system of education that was made for men and women. All the Supreme Court required of them was to let women enter their culture as it was.

GUSSIE LORD: The physical standards were exactly the same, the PT standards were exactly the same…

Gussie Lord, class of ’01, was part of that first wave of female cadets. She was an English major and is now an environmental lawyer in D.C.

LORD:  We were expected to act, you know, sort of exactly like the guys did. I think that’s fine. But it’s not realistic.

Still, she rose to the occasion.

LORD:  Personally, I did feel like I had a responsibility from a feminist standpoint to do a good job to the women who would follow us, to sort of set the tone, and set the standard, and show that we could succeed at VMI.

Today, women make up a mere 11 percent of the student body, so it is still pretty much a men’s college. But for those who get through it, a VMI diploma, especially for women, can carry a lot of weight.

LORD:  Some of the things she said in that case, for example, VMI having a reputation that provides specific benefits to its graduates, I think are true. My VMI diploma has opened up a lot of doors for me. My VMI experience has stayed with me. I always have been and always will be grateful to have had that experience.

Lord is one of a few female alumni who will be attending Wednesday’s event. Army Major Angela Scott, class of ’01 who now works for a general and heads to work at the Pentagon this summer, will be there with her two young daughters in tow.

ANGELA SCOTT:  At the time, I was too naïve and sheltered to realize the impact that Justice Ginsburg had on everything, and the impact she would have on my life but I can tell you since then I’ve been a very quiet but passionate advocate for equal opportunity, not just for women but across the board. So getting to see someone that had such a large part in igniting a fire in me, is a pretty neat experience.

Wednesday’s event is open to the public. Justice Ginsburg will also participate in a private event at Washington & Lee University’s law school next door.