LEXINGTON – Sitting in the shade of an elm tree on the parade grounds of Virginia Military Institute, Anglea Li savored her last moments of tranquility Saturday afternoon as she prepared to enter the school’s infamous rat line.
“I’m excited and a little nervous,” the aspiring cadet from Richmond said as she waited in the stifling heat for the physical and mental challenges that lay ahead. “I know that’s normal and it’s going to be OK because other people have done it.”
Other women have done it, too, in numbers that have grown every year since the first coed class was admitted to VMI 20 years ago this weekend, following a lengthy court fight that ended with the U.S. Supreme Court striking down the state-supported school’s all-male tradition.
Of the 504 rats — as VMI calls its first-year cadets — that matriculated Saturday, 63 were women.
That’s more than twice the 30 who made history in 1997 as the first women to enter the rat line, and the second-largest number for a class since then. Women now make up about 11 percent of VMI’s corps of cadets, and by most accounts their presence is no longer an issue.
“Everybody is put on a level playing field,” said Patrick Doolin, a first classman and member of the cadre, a group of cadets who will put Li and her fellow rats through boot camp-like training that will last through early next year.
“That’s the value of VMI,” he said. “You put everyone in the same environment and you rise to your own merit.”
On this Matriculation Day, there was no national media blitz like the one 20 years ago, when critics of the Supreme Court decision were saying that lowering standards to accommodate women would be the death of VMI.
“We used to call it the fishbowl because we knew that everybody was watching,” Kelly Sullivan, a member of the inaugural female class, said in an interview earlier in the week.
“Every year that I’m away from VMI, I recognize more and more how big the pressure was.”
Sullivan, who now works as a regional operations lead for Google Fiber Inc. in Atlanta, said she does not consider herself or her classmates to be pioneers.
“We were just young ladies who wanted the experience and challenge of VMI,” she said. “We wanted to go to a military school that instilled honor and discipline and integrity. It was the same challenge that men wanted when they entered VMI.”
But Sullivan and the 29 others had to go it alone, with no female upperclassmen to look to for support in a system that was slow to change its ways.
“I don’t even want to imagine how much courage it took,” said Brigitta Hendren, a second classman at VMI. “To me it was easy because the road had already been paved.”
Gussie Lord, another member of the class from 1997, said her relationship with the other female rats was critical in surviving the VMI environment.
In an email, Lord remembered a December when she and her roommates cut down a small tree in the woods behind the VMI post. They stuck the tree in a combat boot, decorated it and had a gift exchange.
“VMI cadets can only have certain things in their rooms and we had it up for a week or so — people would come in and ask, “How do you guys have a Christmas tree?!?!” Lord wrote.
“I don’t think we ever did get boned for it,” she wrote, referring to the disciplinary action that can come for violating the school’s strict code of conduct.
Twenty years later, VMI still has relatively few female cadets compared to other military schools.
The nation’s military service academies rank higher — from 15 percent for the Army to 35 percent for the Coast Guard — but those institutions pay full tuition to students in return for an active-duty service obligation.
At the Citadel, where coeducation got off to a rocky start in 1995 when a sole female who sued to get in quickly dropped out under intense pressure, women currently make up about 7 percent of the student body.
VMI has made some changes to accommodate women, such as allowing them to keep their hair a little longer than the crew cuts sported by male cadets. The fitness standards have also been tweaked in some cases to acknowledge some physical realities, with males required to do a minimum of five pull-ups and women one.
But overall, school officials say their demanding requirements apply to both sexes.
“We have a four-star general in charge here and he’s satisfied that we’re meeting the mission,” VMI spokesman Stewart MacInnis said. “VMI is doing a good job of preparing young people, both men and women, for service in the military.”
And women have held their own, according to figures provided by the school.
The average retention rate for the classes that graduated from 2013 to 2016 was 69 percent for men. Women in those same classes had a retention rate of 66 percent.
For Lord, one of her favorite memories from VMI was passing the fitness test.
“I had always failed the pull-ups (the minimum was 5), and my last semester I decided to really make an effort to pass,” she wrote in an email. “So I worked on it all semester and did 7 pullups—I was very happy and proud about it.”
“Then the woman behind me in line — she was a third classman — jumped up to the bar and did 17! I had to laugh at myself and thought that I should have worked harder, but I was very proud of her.”
Since then, 431 women have graduated from VMI.
“Every time a woman matriculates to VMI, she’s making history,” Sullivan said.
“There aren’t that many of us, and when I talk to them I say, “This isn’t just about you. This is about continuing to be a part of an amazing group of women who have made history. It’s about continuing the legacy of VMI.”