It was my friend and favorite reporter, Nina Totenberg, who broke the story in 1996. The Supreme Court had agreed to hear a case in which women were seeking admission into the Virginia Military Institute, or VMI.
“Good luck on that,” I thought to myself, remembering my year at Dartmouth, where I was well-known as the “cohog” who “F-ed the curve.” I wasn’t even a coed: just a participant on a 12-College Exchange at the college my grandfather played football for. It was the first year of coeducation, and if I learned one thing that first year — other than how to function in a room full of men — it was that you need to do more than take down the “men only” sign to make coeducation work.
You have to change the rules.
It was the next sentence that almost caused me to hit the car in front of me. Apparently, the state of Virginia was attempting to defeat the admission of women by claiming that the Virginia Women’s Leadership Institute established at Mary Baldwin College was both separate and equal.
I pulled over. It was the woman who had called me twice before we connected, leaving me feeling discourteous. She was a friend of a good friend. She wanted me to serve on a board. In those days, having proven that I could raise tens of millions of dollars for a losing candidate, there was no telling how much I could raise for a nonprofit cause. I had an easy answer: two small children.
“Is there any travel?” I asked. No travel. I should have asked why she wanted me to serve on a board for a school in Virginia with no travel. I should have asked why the state was funding an institute for women. It was entirely my fault. She must have assumed I knew.
I didn’t know. I just recognized the name. The calls had already started coming in. What was I doing on the “wrong side” of a gender discrimination case?
To be fair, I wasn’t exactly on the wrong side. I was definitely on the board, but the institute was not taking a position on whether women should be admitted to VMI.
It was taking the position that leadership training for young women is often very different than for young men: At the risk of oversimplifying, the boys come in thinking they are already men and need to be cut down to size; the girls come in already lacking in self-esteem, and the last thing they need is to be taken down a peg. Actually, the next to last thing. The last thing is being raped and not being able to complain about it.
It was said to be Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s favorite opinion, and it is easy to see why, in the eloquent call for equal protection of the laws. This was the first stage of liberal feminism: We would storm the barricades, beat them at their own game, and then we would change the rules for everyone.
But this is the headline of The Washington Post nearly 25 years later: “Derision, Misogyny, Sexual Assault: VMI Women Face Attacks On Campus and Online: Women at Virginia Military Institute describe an atmosphere of hostility and an expectation of backlash from male cadets if they report being groped or raped.”
The first woman has just been named the chief of the Cadet Corps. The things being said about her in the online forums frequented by cadets cannot be reprinted here.
Twenty-five years have passed. Where are the women on top who are supposed to be changing the rules? What happened to the argument that when you play by “boys’ rules,” the house is going to win nine times out of 10? And on the 10th, they say it’s unfair.
Rules set up for one group of people — let’s say, cisgender men — won’t necessarily work for everyone else. So long as we’re playing by boys’ rules, only the Hillarys and the Sheryls have a shot.
I think Sheryl Sandberg is a virtual miracle: mother, widow, chief operating officer, recently engaged. And Hillary just keeps on trucking. But for the rest of us, who have been leaning in so far the pavement looks like sky, it’s time we stood up and won the fight for the women of VMI, once and for all.