Transforming 'shedets' into 'keydets': an empirical study examining coeducation through the lens of gender polarization.

Author:Perdue, Abigail L.
Position:Introduction through III. Results and Discussion A. Perceptions of United States v. Virginia, p. 371-398
 
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"I live under the power of the fathers, and I have access only to so much of privilege or influence as the patriarchy is willing to accede to me, and only for so long as I will pay the price for male approval."

--Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich

"You have Shedets and cadets who are female. Female cadets are physically and academically squared away and deserve to be here. Shedets are the opposite."

--A VMI cadet (1)

ABSTRACT

On June 26, 1996, a seven-one majority of the U.S. Supreme Court held that the all-male admissions policy at the Virginia Military Institute ("VMI") violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. United States v. Virginia resulted in more than a mere change to an admissions policy; it fundamentally altered VMI's cultural landscape and had far-reaching implications on the Institution and its student body. As such, United States v. Virginia raised many difficult questions but provided few answers. First and foremost, what would it mean to be a woman at VMI, and how high a price would female cadets have to pay to be labeled "keydets " who deserve to be at VMI instead of "shedets "?

In an attempt to answer these complex questions, I collaborated with a sociologist and psychologist to survey VMI's student body via an anonymous online questionnaire. Three hundred sixty-four students responded, including 311 men and S3 women. This article is the first in a series arising from the empirical data collected in our quantitative impact analysis, which, to my knowledge, is the first and only study of its kind to illuminate the "not-so-happily-ever-after" of VMI's long and complex litigation story. In this article, I examine the perceived impact of coeducation, perceptions of why members of the opposite sex attend VMI, pressures to conform to prescriptive gender stereotypes of how feminine or how masculine a cadet should be, and perceptions of an expected adverse reaction to perceived violations of gender boundaries.

The article illuminates the impact of gender polarization on the gender identity formation of male and female cadets. It paints a picture of male cadets fiercely defending their traditionally masculine domain and the power and privilege that they derive from it. Fifteen years after the onset of coeducation, many male cadets still perceive female cadets as intruders who are more masculine than non-VMI women. To assimilate into VMI's stronghold of masculinity, "otherized" female cadets often employ gender strategies, such as emphatic sameness, to avoid accepting the demeaning status of feminine "shedet" within VMI's androcentric and gender polarized environment. Yet, in so doing, female cadets may inadvertently forfeit a vital part of their feminine gender identities. What remains unclear, however, is whether the price of assimilation comes at too high a cost.

INTRODUCTION

On June 26, 1996, a seven-one majority of the Supreme Court of the United States held that the all-male admissions policy at the Virginia Military Institute ("VMI") violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. (2) As author of the majority opinion in United States v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515 (1996), Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg--a longtime advocate of equal rights for women--rejected VMI's contention that coeducation would fundamentally alter the VMI experience and destroy VMI's unique adversative educational system. The following year, VMI became coeducational.

United States v. Virginia raised many difficult questions but provided few answers. First and foremost, what should equality at a coeducational VMI look like? Does equality require identical treatment of men and women, even where such treatment could potentially harm the individuals it aims to protect? (3) Or does equality necessitate, or at least permit, recognition of real differences? If yes, then who determines which differences are "real," and how is that determination made? What does such recognition look like, and when does it go too far?

In 2011, my co-researchers and I began to search for the answers to these complex and difficult questions. With VMI's permission, we surveyed VMI's entire student population--approximately 1,569 students--via an anonymous online questionnaire. (4) Three hundred sixty-four students responded, including three hundred eleven men (85.4%) and fifty-three women (14.6%). (5)

In this article, I explore what it means to be a woman at VMI and whether VMI is such a male-gendered institution that its cadets, both male and female, must also become gender-masculine to succeed. Put differently, how high a price must female cadets pay to be deemed "keydets" (6) who deserve to be at VMI instead of "shedets" who do not belong? (7) To answer these questions, I examine student attitudes regarding possible gender boundary violations in the context of coeducation as well as the potential impact of gender polarization on the gender identities of female cadets. (8) Specifically, I examine the perceived impact of coeducation, perceptions of why members of the opposite sex attend VMI, expectations of how feminine and how masculine a cadet should be and pressures to conform to those gender stereotypes, and perceptions of an expected adverse reaction--sex discrimination--to perceived violations of gender boundaries.

To interpret gender differences regarding the general attitude toward coeducation, I primarily focus on gender polarization, which is the separation of sex and gender into opposite poles representing masculine and feminine domains. Gender polarization often legitimates the place and power of men to the detriment of women. Due in part to Americans' tendency to view men and women through a gender polarized lens, many female cadets are perceived as "shedets" or "non-males" who are violating clear gender boundaries. Because women's attempts to assimilate into VMI's "cult of masculinity" threaten to undermine male privilege, they are often met with palpable resistance. (9)

  1. Background

    As Laura Brodie explains, "VMI is a very Southern school in a very Southern town." (10) VMI is often heralded as "the most challenging military school in the United States." (11) Perhaps no school in America offers the same brand of rigorous military training as VMI. (12)

    One cannot understand what VMI has become without first examining what it has been. As Dianne Avery opines, "it is not possible to understand VMI as an institution without appreciating the influence of the autonomous cadet culture in shaping and defining the school's traditions, as well as its larger values and goals." (13) In 1816, Virginia established three arsenals to store munitions assembled during the War of 1812 and staffed them with militiamen. (14) Two decades later, the citizens of Lexington, Virginia, decided to establish a military college there. (15) Its purpose was to replace "the present Guard, by another, composed of young men, from seventeen to twenty-four years of age, to perform the necessary duties of a guard, who would receive no pay, but, in lieu, have afforded to them the opportunities of a liberal education.'" (16)

    On March 22, 1836, the Virginia Legislature approved an act creating VMI. (17) On November 11, 1839, VMI opened its doors to twenty-three white males chosen from more than seventy applicants; two days later, five more students arrived. (18) And so began the nation's first state-sponsored military school. (19)

    Despite its designation as "the West Point of the South," (20) VMI's primary goal was:

    To produce educated and honorable men, prepared for the varied work of civil life, imbued with love of learning, confident in the functions and attitudes of leadership, possessing a high sense of public service, advocates of the American democracy and free enterprise system, and ready as citizen-soldiers to defend their country in time of national peril. (21) Unlike the federal service academies, (22) VMI's initial aim was to cultivate gentlemen, not to serve as a direct pipeline to the military. (23) In fact, VMI served as a teachers' college for many years and later became the first Southern school to offer courses in industrial chemistry and engineering. (24) VMI's primary goal, however, was always to produce citizen-soldiers and true gentlemen. Accordingly, the VMI Code of a Gentleman states:

    A Gentleman: Does not speak more than casually about his girlfriend ... Does not go to the lady's house if he is affected by alcohol ... Does not hail a lady from a club (Barracks) window ... Never discusses the merits or demerits of a lady ... Does not slap strangers on the back nor so much as lay a finger on a lady. (25) VMI took this mission seriously. It required Protestant students to attend Sunday services until 1973. (26) VMI prohibited alcohol and tobacco use on Post. (27) It also banned gambling and possession of cards. (28) VMI's initial resistance to coeducation can only be understood in light of its unique origins. As Laura Brodie opined, "VMI's Southern heritage and reverence for tradition have influenced its legal struggles, its planning for coeducation, and its approach toward men and women." (29)

    Described as a "cloistered society, full of private rituals, complex rules, and a language of confusing acronyms," VMI was the nation's last all-male military college...

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