Not long after L.E. Hurlbut retired from the Air Force and moved her family from Washington to this idyllic college town to become assistant commandant for cadet life at Virginia Military Institute, she began hearing complaints from some female students about her appearance.
Hurlbut, the second-highest ranking woman in the VMI administration, had spent 26 years in the Air Force, rising through the ranks from second lieutenant to colonel. She served 14 years at the Pentagon and two years at the White House -- and in all that time, she had never heard any complaints.
But at VMI, the women told Hurlbut she looked too good. She dressed smartly in her Air Force colonel's uniform, applied makeup before reporting for duty and preferred skirts to pants.
"I came on their turf and was being perhaps too female for them," Hurlbut said. "And there were some rocky times. When I asked them why they weren't wearing their skirts, they said that they didn't want to stand out, that they wanted to be one of the guys. It was a bit of a struggle to get them to regain their femininity."
As recently as 2001, when Hurlbut arrived at VMI, the concept of femininity on campus was completely foreign. For more than 160 years, VMI was a bastion of everything southern, military and male. In the last quarter of the 20th century, while the military and its service academies accepted women, promoted them and expanded their roles to combat, VMI stood resolutely still. VMI only began accepting women in 1996, when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the change, ending the school's bitter, six-year legal battle to keep its all-male status.
Now, the female cadets can easily be feminine and still gain acceptance. This fall, the eighth class of female cadets entered VMI. Administrators and male and female students said that a great deal of progress has been made in accepting women into the corps and that the goal is to increase the number of women. This year, 82 women are among 1,350 students at VMI.
"I think 82 women is too small," said retired Army Gen. J.H. Peay III, who became VMI superintendent in July 2003. "I'd like to get that number up. Maybe we can grow it to 100 in two to three years and then, in three to five years, maybe 130 to 150. The challenge is, really, twofold. You have to bring the right women in who want to be here -- women that have the academic credentials and the physical credentials -- and then you have to retain them."
Such a goal might have been impossible a few years ago, before Hurlbut and Peay arrived. Hurlbut views herself as an agent of change on campus, arriving five years after the first class of women. She found that some female cadets had surrendered a little bit of themselves by trying to fit in with the guys at VMI.
And so this agent of change, on a spring day in 2002, organized the first "Skirt Day" in VMI's history. A small number of female cadets, encouraged by Hurlbut, fell out for reveille that morning wearing school-issued skirts as part of their uniforms.
"There were a few catcalls and a few looks," Hurlbut recalled. "Most of the guys had never seen them in skirts. But we did it again the next day, and there were a few more women wearing them, and the reaction [among the men] was unremarkable. And now it is absolutely unremarkable."
For many women on campus, that kind of acceptance is a draw. "Women are not on the outside here," said Anya Kovarik, 20, a junior from Clayton, N.C., who was also accepted at West Point. "They are part of the corps. They are here. . . . It was honestly between West Point and here for me, and I was impressed with the physical training here and wanted a chance to compete on the same scale as the men."
Although students and administrators said VMI has made strides transforming to a co-ed college, issues still arise and resistance still exists among male students and alumni to accepting women fully as students and administrators.
Hurlbut found that out her first day on the job. Her office was on the first floor of the barracks, a facility containing rooms on four tiers that open out to a central courtyard. Not long after Hurlbut settled in behind her desk for the first time, she heard a group of male cadets outside using profane language. She went outside to correct their behavior. When she approached, wearing her Air Force colonel's uniform, the cadets, mostly seniors, refused to salute her. Her first instinct was to discipline them, but she didn't. Instead, she ordered them into her office.
"Well, it was stunning to me," she recalled, "because obviously I have never experienced that in my career. But part of me being here is about teaching and learning, and so I needed to learn why they weren't saluting. I needed to teach them what the appropriate behavior was. We talked about it. I let them vent all they wanted -- the fact that they didn't want me here, they didn't want women here -- and by the time we were done, we had a professional agreement that even though they didn't want me here, they had to keep their opinions to themselves and had to render the proper respect when they saw me."
They all saluted her before leaving her office.
Hurlbut grew up on a farm in Chazy, N.Y., near Lake Champlain, where New York, Canada and Vermont come together. She attended Arizona State University, in part, she jokes, to get away from brutal Upstate New York winters. She joined the ROTC and was a trailblazer, becoming the first ROTC woman commander in school history. She was commissioned in the Air Force on her 21st birthday.
When Hurlbut decided to retire from active duty, she found VMI appealing because it allowed her to continue her military affiliation. She liked the idea of working in a military setting and having a role of training future military leaders.
Hurlbut, who is married and has four children, said many of the female cadets see her as a mother figure whom they can talk to about everything from what classes they should take to the intense physical training they must undergo at VMI.
Since she has been at VMI, she has seen a change in the kinds of questions and problems women cadets bring to her office. "Initially," she said, "there were a lot [of] survival questions and they have evolved into more professionally based questions in terms of what position they should go for within the corps, what kind of job will get them better prepared for their future in military service."
Three years ago, she said, women at VMI still were unsure about how they fit in, and they didn't feel accepted by the male cadets.
"There was a huge difference for many of them who came from co-ed high schools and now suddenly they had to compete with men in areas where, perhaps, they never had to before," Hurlbut said. "And they found out that looking pretty at VMI doesn't get you anywhere. It is all about performance, which gets you the respect in the corps. If you are physically fit and academically proficient, you gain the respect of the corps."
Peay is considering changing the school's famous physical fitness test, making the standards different for men and women, as they are at the U.S. service academies. There is some resistance to that change -- and it is coming from the women. VMI requires that each cadet do 60 sit-ups in two minutes and five pull-ups and run 11/2 miles in less than 12 minutes. Their performance affects their academic grades, and they must take the fitness test twice a year for four years.
"In my opinion, they should stay the same," said Laura Mack of Defiance, Ohio, a 22-year-old senior majoring in international studies. "I really feel that way because the standard, as a minimum, is not unattainable by anybody. It is reasonable. Somebody might have to work a little bit harder, but just because you have to work harder doesn't mean that standards need to be lowered to meet your needs."
Peay graduated from VMI in 1962 and retired from the Army as a four-star general after serving as commander of the U.S. Central Command -- which oversees Iran, Iraq and the rest of the Persian Gulf, as well as Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Horn of Africa. He said resistance to having female cadets is lessening among the student body and alumni.
"But I want to minimize that statement," he said. "We are all good soldiers. The decision was made, we saluted and we are moving out and providing a quality program for young men and women."
VMI also is using athletics as a tool to recruit and retain women. Last year, the school started a Division I women's soccer team, and this year there are plans to add a swim team. The school has women's track and cross-country teams.
Another team started at VMI this year: a cheerleading team -- and it is co-ed. On a recent late afternoon, the team's practice in the basketball arena resembled a gymnastics event.
Heather Brown, co-captain of the team, said the squad includes a former football player, two members of the women's track team and two members of the rifle team. She said she thought it was important symbolically that the team consist of men and women cadets: "The standard at VMI is one corps, one standard, and that is where we are with this team," said Brown, 19, a junior from Centerville, Ohio, who is a pre-med student.
During the cheerleading team's home debut Sept. 11, a cadet yelled insults at the male cheerleaders.
"He was made to come here and watch practice," said Chad Martin, a member of the team. "I think he was a little embarrassed. He had to apologize to the whole team. We are all brothers here. Even the girls."
An indication of just how well Hurlbut thinks that VMI is assimilating women cadets can be found on the fourth floor of the military-style barracks, where the "rats," or freshmen, room.
Occupying one of the freshmen dorm rooms is Hurlbut's eldest child, Katherine Bopp. Hurlbut said it was her daughter's decision to attend VMI, one she endorsed wholeheartedly.
"It was an informed decision that she made, but I made sure that she understood what she was getting into," Hurlbut said. "This is not a normal college, which is both a blessing and a curse, depending on how you approach it. And she approached it as a blessing and she is doing remarkably well. I am as proud as can be of her."