U.S. v. Virginia

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U.S. v. Virginia
518 U.S. 515
Decided: June 26, 1996

Otherwise known as the VMI Case, U.S. v. Virginia was a Supreme Court case that resulted in the opening of Virginia Military Institute to women.[1]

VMI is a state sponsored military academy that has traditionally attempted to model itself on West Point. By 1996, it was the last senior military collegeWikipedia to prohibit women from joining its cadet corps (the national service academies changed their policies about women in the 1970s). The college forbade entry to women on the grounds that most women were neither capable nor willing to undergo the "adversative" method" of training utilized at VMI, a method which supposedly "requires that the student discipline himself, to endure pain, physical and psychological".[2] There was a minor problem with VMI's position, however: it was a public university and the law prohibited public colleges from denying admission on the basis of sex. As a result, the United States brought a suit against the Commonwealth of Virginia, arguing that the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution forbade such discrimination. In the Supreme Court's opinion, Justice Ginsburg wrote that the effect of this prohibition's persistence and enforcement precluded even those women who were capable of withstanding VMI's training methods from attending the school. Viewing this action as stereotyping, the Supreme Court ordered VMI to accept female cadets, applying its intermediate scrutiny test.[3]

The holding pioneered the idea of "Intermediate scrutiny": the concept that the Court would inspect any classification on the basis of gender at a heightened level of review to determine whether a "compelling" state interest was being served by the classification. Such reviews would involve an inquiry into whether the classification was based on a "real difference" between men and women, or simply an imagined or stereotyped difference. In applying the test here, Justice Ginsburg noted that the reasons for pursuing single-sex education were not sufficient to outweigh the harm posed to women by forbidding them an education at VMI.

The Court noted that remedial programs, including a separate all-women parallel to VMI, were insufficient, building upon the language of Sweatt v. Painter to suggest that an educational institution is more than just a building, but a reputation that all genders & races deserve access to, and that no duplicate institution could possibly replicate.

Justice Scalia dissented, noting that the benefits of single-sex education outweighed any stereotyping harm.


VMI chose to comply with the ruling rather than privatize itself (primarily due to the costs involved). While VMI has since opened its doors to female cadets it only seems to have done so in a halfway manner. Unlike the US military, the service academies, and other public military colleges, VMI has not adopted gender-normative standards for physical training, meaning female cadets are judged on the same standards as their male counterparts. This is essentially a way of discriminating against all but the physically strongest female cadets, since failure to meet PT requirements could result in dismissal from the college. On the plus side, VMI explicitly prohibits gender based harassment of its cadets, which has helped to ease the transition to being co-ed.

Finally a group of disgruntled VMI alumni who did not agree with the court's ruling have formed a Neo-Confederate organization called Southern Military Institute, hoping to recapture the spirit of the VMI of the 19th Century (translation: all male and all white). Luckily these people don't actually have a campus or students.[4]


  1. U.S. v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515
  2. "SUPREME COURT HEARS ORAL ARGUMENT IN VMI CASE", The Civil Rights Monitor, Volume 8, No. 4, Art. 5. Winter 1986. <http://www.civilrights.org/monitor/vol8_no4/art5.html>.
  3. U.S. v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515, opinion of the Court by Justice Ginsburg.
  4. Southern Military Institute, About Us. south-mil-inst.org. Retrieved on 22 August 2016. "SMI will be steeped in southern tradition and will re-establish the all-male Corps of Cadets..."