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One area where Strum's analysis is particularly strong is in tracing the history of anti-discrimination and equal rights law in the United States. She shows the jurisprudential evolution of the idea that, rather than women requiring special protection, all people are entitled to the rights and benefits of equal citizenship, regardless of sex. Indeed, following the trend of relevant Supreme Court cases as the author lays it out for us, it's hard to see how VMI's defenders could have believed the Court would ever do anything *but* order the publicly-funded military academy to admit women on an equal basis.
But believe it they did, and Strum shows how the two sides in the case were arguing fundamentally different points: VMI, that tax-funded single-sex education served a public good, and the Justice Department that, whether single-sex education is good or not, public funding of it (VMI being a government school) is unacceptable under the 14th Amendment. Neither side seemed fully to understand the other, and Strum does a thorough job of showing how the two sides in many ways failed to confront one another's arguments head-on.
Strum frames VMI as a defender of outmoded stereotypes and anachronistic ways of thinking (notably the 'women-as-lady' myth, as she calls it). It's a portrait VMI's defenders no doubt resent, but it's clear that their focus on 'how men learn' versus 'how women learn' was based more on differences between men and women *as groups* than on what kind of system might be best for any given *individual*. After all, as Strum points out, if VMI's adversative system isn't right or attractive for most women, the undeniable fact (based on the number of male high school seniors who apply to VMI relative to their number nationwide, for example) is that it's not right or attractive for most men, either.
This brings us to some areas I wished Strum had developed further. Most interesting was her assertion -- based on circumstantial evidence -- that the Bush Administration (Bush I) must have blocked the Justice Department from arguing that VMI's treasured adversative system was unnecessary for molding the kind of citizen-soldier leaders that VMI exists to produce. Certainly (as Ed Ruggero relates in 'Duty First: West Point and the Making of American Leaders'), the USMA ultimately decided its adversative system was actually counterproductive for that purpose, and so abandoned it. But Justice planted its flag on the (arguably weaker) ground that forcing VMI to admit women would not cause a fundamental change in the VMI system or ethos. The jury is still out about whether that's proven true.
Another question this book raised for me that Strum left entirely unaddressed was the appropriateness of cause-activists pursing their agenda on the bench. Specifically, Strum titles her chapter on Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 'The Advocate.' Justice Ginsburg (clearly the hero -- can we still say 'heroine'? -- of this book) spent her pre-Court career promoting a certain understanding of law and pursuing specific social and policy objectives. Once on the bench, judges assume a mantle of impartiality -- in exchange for which they enjoy the 'procedural consensus' Strum defines as the key to translating Court decisions into social change. And yet, Strum makes it clear that Ginsburg's jurisprudence in the VMI case was of a piece with her earlier work. Strum quotes another legal scholar describing the VMI decision as 'the vindication for [Ginsburg's] legal career ... the opinion she hoped the Court would one day arrive at when she first started arguing cases of discrimination in the 1960s' (p. 295). Is it right for judges (of any philosophical persuasion) to continue as advocates once they're on the bench? Public acceptance of that idea would seem to threaten the very 'procedural consensus' the advocates rely upon to achieve their goals.
That question aside, though, I enjoyed reading this comprehensive look at the VMI case. Despite clear indications of where she stands on the question, a few broad ideological brush strokes (conservatives are frequently described as 'angry'), and the occasional off-the-wall comment ('Nothing had been more central to the South than racism' [p. 102].) the author's presentation of both sides of this important case was, on the whole, equitable and balanced. As I said, it's hard to escape the conclusion that VMI's stand was doomed from the start. So long as government runs schools, they will be subject to the political process. And in 1996 as in 1864, VMI couldn't withstand the weight of Uncle Sam, no matter how much its defenders loved it, or how fervently they sacrificed to protect it.
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