Women at the ramparts VMI decision: Supreme Court says separate program for females is not equal opportunity.

June 30, 1996

IN SWEEPING away justifications for elite, state-supported, all male military education at Virginia Military Institute, the Supreme Court issued a ringing denunciation of sexual discrimination. By a 7-to-1 majority, the court rejected lower court rulings that accepted a state-funded, less-rigorous program devised for women as an adequate substitute for the exclusion of women at VMI.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who as a private lawyer successfully argued women's rights cases, wrote for the majority, noting that "estimates of what is appropriate for most women, no longer justify denying opportunity to women whose talent and capacity place them outside the average description."

As Justice Ginsburg also noted, in its attempts to keep women out, VMI has never argued that its method of education even suits most men. Another pragmatic question, in an age when federal military academies have been accepting women for two decades, is whether the harsh, "adversative" atmosphere fostered at VMI is good preparation for the modern military where women are playing increasingly important roles.

The verdict on VMI was not unexpected -- lawyers arguing its case before the court in January were peppered with a number of chilly questions. But the court's firmness on the need for "skeptical scrutiny" of any government policy that treats men and women differently made a clear statement in favor of sexual equality.

Equality comes at a cost, and this case will bolster critics of single-sex education in general, especially state-supported single-sex institutions. Some observers even worry about the effect of the ruling on private single-sex education. There is a place for single-sex education -- but not when, as in the case of VMI, it comes at the expense of denying significant and tangible benefits to the excluded sex. Along with the Supreme Court majority, we believe it is possible to make the distinction.

` Pub date: 06/30/96

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