Fit to Serve

FOUNDED IN 1839, THE VIRGINIA MILITARY Institute commands 200 acres in the Shenandoah Valley, its campus lined with 19th-century buildings—most conspicuously the Old Barracks, a neo-Gothic structure resembling a medieval castle. Greeting recruits is a statue of the legendary Confederate general and VMI graduate “Stonewall” Jackson; and indeed, the school—which also produced the World War II general George C. Marshall—is steeped not only in military tradition but in the patriarchal ethos of the Old South. VMI remained racially segregated until 1968, and for years all freshmen—black and white—were required to participate in an annual re-enactment of the Civil War battle of New Market, Va., in 1864, when VMI cadets fighting for the Confederacy helped hold off a Union assault.

If VMI slouched reluctantly into the post–Jim Crow era, there was one form of segregation the school resolved fiercely to preserve: its status as a males-only institution—the last public military college that refused to admit women. But in 1996, 132 years after its forebears stymied the Yankees at New Market, VMI would bow to a more formidable foe—a 100-lb. Brooklyn-born grandmother who faced the school not on a battlefield but in the U.S. Supreme Court. The case, known as United States v. Virginia, remains a crown jewel of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s career and a monumental victory for gender equality.

For a century and a half, to be sure,

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