RICHMOND -- It all seems so familiar. Once again this gracious old city is deeply involved in litigation over a policy of state-sanctioned discrimination. Ghostly banners bear a worn device. Their legend proclaims "tradition." It is Virginia's most enduring product.
Tradition is now imperiled. Since its founding in 1839, the Virginia Military Institute at Lexington has enrolled men only. Last February the Department of Justice filed suit to compel VMI to enroll women also. Remarkably, the department has no client: not a single young woman has applied for admission. Though no true case or controversy exists, a trial has been set for early April in the U.S. District Court at Roanoke. Meanwhile the case has turned into what Virginians define as a fine, fat how d'ya do.
Politics naturally has raised its pretty head. Virginia's Gov. Douglas Wilder, who learned the meaning of discrimination by personal experience, is running unabashedly for the vice presidential nomination on the Democratic ticket of 1992. When the VMI suit began, he first sought to wiggle out by saying he had no real authority over state-supported VMI. Last month, after thinking over the political implications, Wilder did what he had been expected to do all along. He came down firmly in favor of letting the women in; he denied VMI the assistance of state counsel in defending its discriminatory policy; and he threatened to withhold VMI's state appropriation if the shenanigans didn't stop.
This put Wilder once again on the side of the political angels. It also created a delicate problem for Virginia's attorney general, Mary Sue Terry. She is running to succeed him. VMI's alumni constitute the wealthiest, most politically active, most gung-ho defenders of tradition in a state that thrives upon tradition. Terry's problem has been to respond to the suit, mollify the women's vote, pacify the alumni and uphold the Constitution without actually appearing to do so. And she has been trying to do all these things at the same time.
Memory rolls back. For more than 70 years following The War, the South preserved racial segregation under the rubric of "separate but equal." That legalistic facade began to collapse in 1938, when the Supreme Court ordered Lloyd Gaines admitted to the law school of the University of Missouri.
The crusher came in 1950 with the case of G. W. McLaurin in Oklahoma. The black graduate student had sought to take his doctorate in education. The university grudgingly offered to let him in, provided he sat at a separate desk in an anteroom, studied at a balcony desk in the library, and ate at a separate table at a different time in the cafeteria.
Chief Justice Fred Vinson wiped out these conditions with a stroke of his pen. The right to genuinely equal education is a personal right. Black students must share equally in every benefit, privilege or program offered to white students. No institution of higher learning may discriminate on account of race.
The same 14th Amendment principles that apply to race apply to sex. Given these precedents, it is inconceivable that the trial court will uphold VMI's male-only policy as a matter of constitutional law. There is a slim chance VMI may prevail on the statutory ground that an amendment to the Civil Rights Act permits undergraduate institutions that historically have been all-male or all-female to stay that way.
VMI's supporters are bombarding the Richmond papers. Do "Sister Rats" want equality? Then let 'em have it: same latrines, same showers, same open doors, same shaved heads, same Spartan discipline. If this course is followed, said a reader in Midlothian, casting chivalry to the winds, "I do not believe the female presence will present a long-term problem."
At the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, 474 women are among the 4,366 cadets. At the Naval Academy in Annapolis one finds 415 women among the 4,420 midshipmen. Both schools have admitted women since 1976. If coeducation creates any problems, they are kept under wraps.
VMI, with only 1,300 cadets, would have problems adjusting to young women, and young women assuredly would have problems adjusting to VMI. But law is law, and if a daring and determined young lady seeks entrance, VMI will have to take her in. This will mean showers and latrines that are separate but equal, and so we will go full circle, back to the doctrines of 1866. One thinks of Yogi Berra, who looked with incredulity upon some recurring phenomenon: "It's deja vu all over again."