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Equal Education Opportunity for Women: How Should It Be Defined?

Handout: A Case of Alleged Sex Discrimination

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U.S. v. Commonwealth of Virginia and Commonwealth of Virginia v. U.S.


An all-male, state-supported college, The Virginia Military Institute (VMI) emphasizes rigorous physical and mental training. All cadets are required to wear the same uniforms, live in the same austere quarters, attain the same level of physical fitness, and undergo the same constant scrutiny by other cadets.

In response to a complaint from a female high school student, the United States brought suit against Virginia and VMI for allegedly violating the prohibitions against sex discrimination.

The case went back and forth between the federal district and appeals courts. Finally, the Fourth Circuit ruled that establishment of a separate Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership (VMIL) satisfied the antisex bias provisions of the law. The court concluded that VMI and VWIL are substantially comparable because "both seek to teach discipline and prepare students for leadership. The missions are similar and the goals are the same. The mechanics for achieving the goals differ… but the difference is attributable to a professional judgement of how best to produce the same opportunity."

The Supreme Court granted both the government’s petition challenging the adequacy of Virginia’s parallel-program remedy and VMI’s separate petition as to whether or not the appellate court was correct in imposing a parallel program at all.

While conceding that some women may wish to attend VMI and could succeed there, Virginia nevertheless sought judicial deference to its single-sex policy to take into account the differing educational needs and interest of male and female students. The state noted that it supports not only four coeducational public colleges, but also a number of private institutions of higher learning, including four that are all-female and one that is all-male. Virginia also argues that the appeals court’s requirement for a college separate from VMI to be created for women disregards student needs and preferences, the professional judgment of educators, and the irrationality of having to expend limited public resources on a VWIL program – the demand for which is virtually nonexistent.

The government argued that Virginia has no law or written policy regarding single-sex education, that the exclusion of women from VMI is unconstitutional per se, and that the merits or demerits of single-sex education have no bearing on the case. The government also challenged the creation of VWIL as an equal entity because it does not insist upon the same level of harassment as VMI and there are no barracks at the facility. Students at VWIL live in housing provided by the sponsoring women’s college and are afforded a level of privacy not available at VMI.

>>Equal Education Opportunity for Women: How Should It Be Defined
>>Handout: Terms
>>Handout: A Case of Alleged Sex Discrimination
>>Handout: Background
>>Handout: The Fourteenth Amendment
>>Handout: Legal Factors Related to Equal Protection Cases
>>Handout: The Decision

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