The laid-back college town of Lexington, Va., cherishes its Revolutionary and Civil War history along with its local eccentrics. And the state-supported Virginia Military Institute is just part of the community -- albeit a part of the community where women need not apply.
Any day now, after six years of legal wrangling, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether VMI has been violating the Constitution by refusing to admit women and, if so, what should be done about that.
But in Lexington, the residents -- even those who support women's rights and believe VMI's policies can't be defended -- take a more neighborly view.
They wish the old traditions would remain undisturbed. They don't want to see their community changed. And they resent that the government swooped down to make an issue here.
"I hate to have things dictated to us," says Dottie Hostetter, a saleswoman who believes women should be able to go to any school they like but wishes VMI could remain as it is.
"My sense is, the community wants VMI to be left alone to do what it wants to do," says H. E. "Buddy" Derrick Jr., elected last week to his third term as mayor.
"I understand why the government would raise the issue," says Doug Chase, who writes a column for the weekly News-Gazette. "But I wonder why we're worried about the one-of-a-kind snail darter and not the one-of-a-kind VMI."
VMI and The Citadel, in South Carolina, are the only two single-sex military colleges financed by state government. Because public money is used, the Justice Department says, the schools must heed the 14th Amendment's guarantees of equal protection and admit women.
VMI counters that diverse educational experiences are important and that VMI provides what no other Virginia school can: a tough, all-male military education. It's not for everyone, VMI says. But why can't it remain for the men who want it?
"We have a system here which we feel works, is excellent, for some young men," says Mike Strickler, the VMI spokesman. "There are some things in life that don't need to be changed. If women are introduced, certain things will change."
Interested as the city is in preserving VMI, the controversy has not provoked lots of heat in the community.
Lexington, its residents say, isn't the kind of place to make a lot of noise or stage demonstrations, if only because it doesn't like to offend.
The city has been talking more about the accidental shooting death of a 10-year-old and the cancer death of a civic leader than about the Supreme Court.
"We're polite," says Doug Harwood, known as the town muckraker for his monthly Rockbridge Advocate (slogan: "Independent as a Hog on Ice"). "We don't do marches here."
Sense of tradition
Residents describe the city as conservative, but the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson won a Democratic primary here.
"It's a funny place," says Harwood, who graduated from Lexington's Washington and Lee University and stayed. "As long as you don't get in someone's face, people will tolerate you."
So VMI generally is accepted for what it is.
No, it does not admit women. Yes, its merciless method of breaking down new cadets strikes some as silly machismo.
But VMI and its culture are as much a part of Lexington as its brick sidewalks and gracious old homes and shrines to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
The city covers just 2 1/2 square miles, with more than half of that area occupied by VMI and Washington and Lee. The population, is about 7,500 -- and that includes all the college students, Derrick, the mayor, says.
The city is so small and the colleges so important that anything that affects VMI will affect the town.
"If their nose itches," Derrick says, "I'm going to sneeze."
The residents most vocal on the issue tend to be the fiercely devoted VMI alumni and their families.
From her downtown gift shop, Sis Warner, wife of one VMI alumnus and mother of another, sold bumper stickers that read, "Save the Males," and T-shirts that featured a woman's silhouette with a red slash across it.
"The problem with most people -- whether it's reporters, judges, the Supreme Court, feminists -- they don't really know anything about VMI," Warner says. "They just made decisions about it."
Charge of tokenism
Even the irreverent Harwood, who doesn't find much to admire about VMI, calls the Justice Department's focus "unbelievably cynical and wretched."
The case, begun under a Republican administration, was "tokenism," Harwood says, a lawsuit the White House could wave whenever its dedication to minority rights was questioned.
"Let's go down and pick on a Podunk school," Harwood says. "Let's cut women's rights. Let's cut blacks' rights. But watch us topple VMI."
Strickler says women are not demanding entry to VMI. High school girls do inquire, he acknowledges, but they are simply told that women are not admitted. The Justice Department says its inquiry began in 1989 when a high school girl complained that she could not apply to the college.
Effort to appease