Brother Rats Strike Back


July 30, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- When you make a living telling people what you think, you expect that people will write to tell you what they think of what you think. It's a fair enough exchange except that you're often outnumbered. Writer, 1; Readers, 101, that sort of thing.

So it happened with a recent column in which I dissented from Judge Jackson Kiser's opinion upholding the all-male Virginia Military Institute. He said the state-supported school could legally ban women from its hallowed, Stonewall Jackson-haunted grounds.

The judge considered VMI, home of the brave, true and the rat line, an endangered species worth saving from the egalitarian hordes. He said the school marched to the beat of a different drummer. I said the drummer was a playing a tune as out-of-sync with the law as Jim Crow.

In any case, if the VMI alumni office wants to check on the whereabouts of its alumni, I can be of service. The rat line breeds loyalty, although not always legibility.

My favorite note came on the back of a fund-raising letter to a Brother Rat from the class of 1946. ''Euphoria is still high down here as the news has finally sunk in that we have indeed defeated the latest incursion of the forces of evil from up north.'' He went on to defend VMI, saying ''Lock-step Waring Blender society is fine for Americans but we in Virginia are used to something better.''

There was indeed a good deal of what I would call Southern chauvinism in my mailbag. Some of it was rather basic as in the note from Atlanta, ''I read the attached in the Atlanta Constitution . . . and promptly threw up.''

Others, like the Virginian from Lynchburg, were understanding. He attacked me for helping to ''produce bloated egos and unisex feminists who attempt to subvert the wisdom of our forebears and mutate a genetic code and disposition.'' Then he held out an olive branch: ''Possibly your attitude is explained by your perspective. You are not a Virginian or a Southerner. . . . Intellectually, not being a Virginian or Southerner can be stultifying.''

Not all chauvinism was Southern. A Pittsburgh man expressed a not-entirely-unique opinion: ''You and your feminist cohorts are a menace to our society and are a very bad influence on the American public as well as our young women.'' Nor is that sentiment all-male. A woman from Rochester, New York, wanted to know ''just when women will stop their eternal whining and self-pity.''

Among the letters were, as always, serious and subtle questions. Writers asked, for example, whether there isn't any room for separate in the pursuit of equal. Some talked about the girl who sued to be a Boy Scout. Others talked about Mills College and Chatham College, which have both opted to remain single-sex and female.

As a correspondent from Delhi, New York, wrote, ''My question is simple: Why must every option be open to everyone? We live in a country full of opportunity. . . . Rather than creating a new option for women . . . the institution of coeducation at VMI would, in fact, destroy an option for young men.''

This is new argument that turns the old argument on its head. It is now often said that a push for one kind of diversity -- the inclusion of women, minorities -- is actually a push against another kind of diversity -- the all-male school, club, etc.

I think there is room, or rooms, for separate experiences. The girl who was bored would have been better off livening up the Girl Scouts than suing the Boy Scouts. I'd rather see separate but equally funded college sports than one ''co-ed'' team that included an occasional extraordinary female and left the other women on the bench.

But in fact we have a kind of compromise built into our system. If Mills and Wellesley and Chatham Colleges want to remain single-sex, it's their own business. Not because they are women's colleges, but because they are private.

So too for VMI. This institute gets some $8 million a year -- roughly one third of its budget -- from the state of Virginia. Judge Kiser's tortured reasoning notwithstanding, the law reflects our social decision that our sons and daughters of all races and religions should have an equal opportunity to attend any school supported by the taxpayers. We shouldn't have to pay for a school that categorically bans our daughters.

''What's wrong with being different?'' asks a VMI grad, class of '88, from Rome, New York.

Dear Grad, if you want VMI to stay all-male, then it should go private. Drop a note to the Commander. I'll even donate my used-stamp collection.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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