FIRST class of female cadets graduates Saturday from Virginia Military Institute

Wednesday, May 16th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LEXINGTON, Va. (AP) _ In the fall of 1997, 30 young women stepped into Virginia Military Institute's previously all-male barracks. Their hair was shaved off, and they were issued the standard gray and white uniforms.

Twenty-five came as freshmen _ what the cadets call ``rats'' _ and became VMI's first true female class. On Saturday, 13 of them will graduate.

For many, the past four years haven't been easy.

``This is still very much a boys' locker room,'' said Kendra L. Russell, 21, of Chattanooga, Tenn. ``This institution still incubates a lot of resentment toward women.''

VMI was the last public military school for men in America. Since 1839, it had a been place where boys came to be molded into ``citizen-soldiers.'' Generals George Patton and George Marshall both learned to stand at attention here.

While other military schools began admitting women in the '70s and '80s, VMI resisted. Administrators finally complied under orders from the U.S. Supreme Court.

``We said all along that we'd only make minimal modifications to accommodate them,'' said Maj. Gen. Josiah Bunting, VMI superintendent. ``They would have to succeed in the same system as the men.''

The women _ including five upperclassmen who have since graduated _ shared space with about 1,300 men. Like their male counterparts, they were forced to walk in a line and cut their corners at right angles. They marched with rifles. They stared through the taunting that comes with being at the bottom of an extensive chain of command.

``I hated it,'' said Rachel Love, 22, from Emmaus, Pa. ``A lot of guys would get in your face, and be like, 'What are you looking at?'''

Everyone expects this type of treatment the first year. But the women said it wasn't simply an initiation.

``One guy came up to me and said, 'Get out of my school,''' said Megan K. Smith, 21, an electrical engineering major from Monument, Colo. ``I couldn't believe it.''

A few female cadets left after the first week. For those who remained, it became clear after rat year that they were never going to enjoy equal status.

``It really hit me once when I was watching TV with a group of guys,'' Russell said. ``It was a quiz show, and whenever a woman came on, she was instantly characterized as a bitch, a slut or a dog.''

Mike Zanetti, 20, said the tough treatment for women doesn't come from sexism.

``This is a place of complete equality. We all have the same uniform, the same hair cut,'' Zanetti said. ``But by their very nature women stick out. I really don't know why a girl would want to come here.''

It's a question the women have asked themselves.

``I had no idea what being singled out was like until I came here,'' Love said. ``I remember returning after a summer and just crying all the way down in the car.''

Eventually, the women found ways to cope.

``I had a problem doing pull-ups,'' said Erin Claunch, 21, of Round Hill, Va. ``So every day, I set the goal of doing 20.''

For Tennille Chisholm, 22, of Richmond, Va., coping meant simply calling her roommates by their first names instead of the surnames that male cadets traditionally use. ``And to maintain my femininity, I paint my toenails,'' Chisholm said.

Life got easier as more women began attending VMI. Claunch was appointed battalion commander, making her the third ranking cadet in the corps.

Many formed close friendships with guys in their company. Tamina Mars, 22, of Prince George, Va., said she couldn't wait to get back after leaving school for a semester to attend Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

``VCU was cool and all, but I missed all of my friends,'' Mars said. ``We go through something that nobody else knows about.''

In turn, the men learned how resilient women can be.

``I never cease to be amazed by the potential of some of them to outshine us guys,'' said sophomore M. Aaron Campbell, 20. ``They're strong academically, of course, and some girls just smoke us on the track team.''

By their senior year, there were about 65 female cadets _ still a tiny minority, but enough to field women's track and soccer teams.

Female cadets started e-mailing each other, and eventually they began meeting together. The support was essential in February, after a cadet became pregnant.

``Sometimes, women are put in a position that they will go to battle for each other, and this was one of those times,'' said Kelly Sullivan, 22, of Barnesville, Ga.

The pregnant cadet was allowed to stay in school.

In their final weeks, the 13 seniors have spent most of their time preparing for post-graduate life as teachers, scientists, and for some, as officers. They will leave a newly integrated school as its first female class, and despite the problems, most say they're already excited about the reunion.

``You know, it's been all right,'' Chisholm said. ``Our hair grew back, and I've made some of the best friends here I've ever had.''