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

Author:Perdue, Abigail L.
Position:III. Results and Discussion B. Indicators of the Existence of Gender Polarization through Conclusion, with footnotes, p. 399-432
  1. Indicators of the Existence of Gender Polarization

    Next, I examine potential indicators of the existence of gender polarization in the minds and attitudes of our respondents. Although "VMI is not for everyone," (151) at least some of the attitudes of VMI students toward gender roles comport with those typical of our gender-dichotomized American society. Indeed, the data indicates that like many Americans, respondents of both sexes may view the world through the lens of gender polarization.

    To assess the existence of gender polarization among respondents, the survey asked a series of questions, two of which will be discussed herein. Both questions pertain to the allocation of childcare decision-making, which many, if not most Americans usually perceive as being part of the female domain.

    58.62% of male respondents (170 men) said they would probably or definitely not stay home with a new child for at least the first six months. Although the decision to attend VMI, standing alone, arguably constitutes a deviation from the female gender norm and is atypical, surprisingly, 83.67% of women (41 cadets) indicated that they probably or definitely would stay home with a new child. Likewise, the vast majority of male and female respondents--78.40%--also agreed that mothers should be the ones to decide whether or not to stay home or take care of children for at least the first six months. These attitudes comport with a gender polarizing view of society in which childrearing resides within the woman's domain, and women serve as the primary caregivers to children. Thus, although this data is certainly not dispositive of the existence of gender polarizing attitudes among our respondents, it may at least indicate that despite the extraordinary nature of VMI, many of its cadets possess viewpoints of the opposite sex and of appropriate gender roles that are just as gender polarized as those of the average American. (154)

  2. Attitudes toward Coeducation

    I next examine student perceptions of coeducation and its impact on VMI.

    Perhaps not surprisingly, women are predictably in favor of coeducation (82.3%), but even two decades after the onset of United States v. Virginia, most men still oppose it (75.6%), with over half being strongly opposed. Male cadets appear to prefer a gender polarized and androcentric educational environment where females neither invade their male domain nor challenge their masculine gender identities. After all, if our gender polarized, androcentric American society traditionally associates attributes, such as physical weakness, with women, then what does it mean to the average male cadet when a woman survives the rigors of the Ratline, outperforms him during the physical fitness exam, or holds rank over him? In Saving the Males, Michael Kimmel, who served as the Department of Justice's expert witness on "masculinity" during United States v. Virginia, explores this peculiar question. He recounts overhearing a VMI cadre shouting to a male cadet, "What's wrong with you, skirt? There are women who can do more push-ups than you. When I was in the army, there was a woman who could do 100 push-ups. You can't even do fifty." (156) The anecdote suggests that at VMI, "woman" and all things feminine represent weakness, failure, and the low bar of performance--a denigrated status to avoid, not one to which to aspire. As such, no VMI cadet wants to be viewed as a "woman" or "skirt," least of all the female cadets.

    As shown in Table 4 above, the vast majority of male cadets--255 men or 82.26%-- stated that coeducation had negatively impacted VMI, with almost half indicating that it had had a "very negative" impact. Surprisingly, nine women, or 18% of female respondents, agreed that coeducation had negatively impacted VMI, even though coeducation made their attendance at VMI possible. Significantly, none of these students had ever attended VMI before it became coeducational, and the data do not capture the source of their opinions. As explained previously, it is possible that alumni, dykes, and/or relatives perpetuate potentially harmful institutional myths regarding the adverse impact of coeducation that effectively predispose cadets against it. Yet it is worth noting that roughly 15% of male students (46 men) believed VMI should have become coeducational. Perhaps most surprising is the fact that nearly 15% of female respondents (nine women) did not believe VMI should have admitted women or were neutral in that regard.

    Predictably, most women--82%--view coeducation as having had a positive impact at VMI. Most male cadets believe that coeducation has negatively impacted VMI and appear to prefer a gender-polarized environment where females cannot invade their masculine domain. However, not every man shared this view. Indeed, 13.9% of men (forty- three men) agreed that coeducation had had a positive impact. In 1998, one male cadet remarked, "VMI is about the honor code ... the alumni network ... the (mentoring) system, the big brother. It's about respecting those who have gone before you. If anyone tells you that VMI itself has changed [as a result of coeducation], then they don't know what VMI is all about." (158)

  3. Perceptions of the Reasons Why the Opposite Sex Attend VMI

    Examining student perceptions of the reasons that members of the opposite sex attend VMI sheds light on the dynamics underlying men's and women's sharply contrasting views regarding the impact of coeducation. Most men believe that women attend VMI "to prove something," "to feel equal," "because they are 'manly,'" "to get an education and commission," "to 'hunt' men," "because they are raging lesbians," "because of athletics," "to find husbands," "to get a VMI degree," "to be in a physically and mentally challenging environment," and "to get a military commission." Many of these perceptions are negative and relate to unsubstantiated (and arguably misguided) beliefs about the sexual orientation or sexual proclivities of most female cadets.

    Indeed, male cadets frequently made derogatory sexual references about female cadets, implying that they attend VMI because they are promiscuous or homosexual. Illustrative responses include: "they came here to hookup [sic] with very desperate men," "they want a place where it's easy to find men to have sex with," "easy sex apparently," "they are looking to get laid," "to sleep with as many guys as possible," "because they see hot guys in uniforms," "because they want to have a lot of sex," "to hook up with a bunch of guys," "promiscuity," "to find mates," "because they are raging lesbians who are seeking to change the world," and "attention." Similarly, another added:

    to make it easier for them to fool around. Where the ratio of male to female cadets is 5 to 1. Most women here have no desire to accept a military commission and are here on a free ride for athletics. Most of them are fat and fail to take care of themselves physically and freely chase men with little to no regard for their reputations. Sadly, these responses, taken as a whole, imply that at least some male cadets perceive many, if not all, female cadets as wanton women and/or "shedets" who do not deserve to be at VMI. (159)

    Responses also reflect the "badge of inferiority" with which many, if not most, female cadets are branded: (160)

    For the tiny fraction of legitimate female cadets, they apply for the same reason the majority of males did. However, there is a larger percentage that seeks only the name that comes with this place and believe they can simply quit when the going gets tough (and they were right, there was nothing that upperclassmen could do without putting their cadetship in danger), they are a disgrace. Additionally, there is a large number that applied to hook up with as many guys as they can manage, they are sluts and whores and a stain on the Institute. While male cadets often characterize women's motivations for attending VMI in a negative light or one entirely divorced from the reasons the women provide, female cadets tend to frame men's reasons for attending VMI more positively and in terms that relate to factors integral to the VMI Experience: preparedness for military service (e.g., "to get a military commission,"); male solidarity (e.g., "because of the brotherhood"); VMI's history of academic excellence and high ranking (e.g., "for the education"); and VMI's unique traditions (e.g., "because of the tradition"). (161) In sum, women tend to view men's decisions to attend VMI as stemming from their desires to serve in the military, to become leaders, to function in a male-dominated society, to have "bragging rights," and to demonstrate their masculinity. (162)

    These dramatically contrasting views regarding the opposite sex's reason for attendance likely result from men viewing female cadets as violating gender norms and boundaries. One obvious indication of this is the recurring reference to women as "raging lesbians" and as being "manly." In Gender Diversity, Serena Nanda observes that Americans tend to dichotomize what is feminine and masculine and to fuse sex (biological) and gender (a social construct). (163) Thus, men must look and act masculine, while women must appear and behave in traditionally feminine ways. Any attempt to breach this dichotomous and fused sex-gender cultural template is stigmatized and viewed as an instance of undesirable gender diversity. Some societies acknowledge more than two gender categories, thus tolerating male gender-variants (individuals who take on the culturally-framed characteristics of members of the other sex). For example, male gender-variants may dress or behave in feminine ways or handle traditionally feminine occupations, provided that these individuals stay within heterogenderal boundaries. Indeed, among the Mojave, some females become warriors and dress accordingly, while some males assume domestic roles. A number of these gender variants marry, but their gender...

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