Events

Women in the Barracks: The VMI Case and Equal Rights

May 21, 2002 // 12:00am

Justice Ginsburg was introduced by Wilson Center Director Lee Hamilton. She acknowledged the presence in the audience of Major-General Jeanne Holm (ret.), the first woman to become a two-star general in the U.S. military and author of Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution. In response to a question from Major-General Holm, Justice Ginsburg spoke about the nation's failure to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. She noted that Dwight D. Eisenhower had commented after World War II that in the event of another such war, women would have to be drafted just like men. In spite of support from Gen. Eisenhower and some other military leaders, however, the prospect of women being drafted was one of the two concerns that led ERA to founder. The second was the "potty problem": the unsupported fear that all bathrooms would have to be gender integrated.

Almost every constitution adopted around the world since World War II has the equivalent of an ERA, Justice Ginsburg continued. Responding to a query about the utility of such constitutional clauses in other countries, she noted that a major difference between the United States Constitution and those in many developing countries is that their constitutions are aspirational. They present a picture of the nation as the constitution's authors hoped it would become, emphasizing in particular equal economic rights to commodities as food, housing, and work The U.S. Constitution, by contrast, contains laws reflective of the society and designed to be applied immediately.

Justice Ginsburg, who wrote the Supreme Court's decision in the VMI case, then introduced Philippa Strum, author of Women in the Barracks. Dr. Strum described the genesis of the book as the question of why the Virginia Military Institute, whose alumni had served their country so well for 150 years, balked at meeting the needs of a new era in which women were legally equal with men. The Institute repeatedly claimed that women would "destroy" VMI in spite of the fact that VMI's self-described mission was to produce citizen-soldiers who would lead lives as civilians and be available to defend their country if that became necessary. Why was VMI so unwilling to permit women to share that identity?

The answer, she found, lay in the idea of VMI's leaders about "what women were," and the definition of women as the dangerous "other." Throughout much of the nation's history, women, the "other," were not permitted to vote, hold political office, or serve as jurors or soldiers. Part of the reason for the culture wars of the late 20th century was the challenge to that classification and the reliance of men such as VMI's leaders on a negative identity. They defined themselves not as who they were but who they were not – and the way they fought to protect that identity lies behind the story of the litigation, with General Josiah Bunting, VMI's superintendent, as one of its book ends, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the other.


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