Does She Earn a Seat in the Classroom?: U.S. v. Virginia (1996)

In 1996, The Virginia Military Institute was a federally funded military college that offered rigorous academic and military courses to qualifying students. Admission was competitive, but there was one requirement that raised a constitutional issue: a male-only admission policy. 

After an anonymous complaint by a female high school student, the case went to court. The state of Virginia and the Virginia Military Institute argued that the educational benefits of single-sex education justified the Institute's exclusion of women. Additionally, they maintained that women simply could not meet the demanding standards they had in place. Admission of women into the program would require drastic accommodations and alterations to their curriculum. The courts rejected this argument, stating that Virginia's interest in single-sex education was an excuse created to systematically disclude female students on the basis of sex. 

Initially, in attempts to remedy the discriminative admissions policy, the Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership was founded. However, the all-womens training program was less-rigorous, less prestigious, and received far less funding than the all-male program. The Notorious RBG, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, argued that the school was a pale shadow of VMI in terms of the range of curricular choices and faculty stature, funding, prestige, alumni support and influence.

This segregated system was not unalike the mass segregation students experienced under “separate but equal” - the infamous ruling of Plessy v. Fergueson. Under “separate but equal” policies, virtually all grade levels - from kindergarten to law school - experienced an unequal distribution of funding, resources, and academic rigor. Students of color were not given the same opportunities to excel as their white peers. The Virginia Military Institute’s “remedy” was a separate but equal facility segregated on the basis of sex. 

Eventually, VMI’s board voted to admit women.

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