“[Ruth Bader Ginsburg] said that women can do all things if given the opportunity, and I agree. … I was as capable and fearless as any man in the class.”
—Jennifer Carroll Foy, former Virginia delegate and gubernatorial candidate
When former Virginia delegate and gubernatorial candidate Jennifer Carroll Foy entered the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in 1999, female cadets were new on campus. Just two years before, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had authored a searing opinion for the court ruling that the all-male, state-funded institution violated the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment Equal Protection Clause by excluding women. As a Black woman, Foy knew when she stepped onto campus, there was no room for failure.
“It was definitely difficult,” says Foy. “I was constantly having to prove that I belonged. That I was worthy of a VMI degree. That I could withstand any of the challenges. Women had a more difficult time than the men did because all of the attention was on us. We couldn’t blend into the crowd. We couldn’t disappear. We couldn’t make mistakes. Eyes were constantly on you. And you had to constantly exceed expectations.”
The first generation of female cadets at VMI faced tremendous hostility from male cadets and alumni when they integrated the 160-year-old institution in the late 1990s. The administration gave them no accommodations.
“VMI didn’t change any of their standards. So when men got their heads shaved bald, I got my head shaved bald. They gave me a man’s uniform and for years I marched, sweat and bled beside over 1000 male cadets. They all knew my name. I was the only one who looked like me.”
Over 20 years later, women still face a “culture of institutional racism and sexism”—including frequent sexual assaults that the school does not adequately address—says a recently-released 152-page report based on an extensive investigation of VMI. Women and Black individuals are still underrepresented at the school. Today, women are only 11 percent of the school’s 1,698 cadets and Black cadets make up just 6 percent.
“I’ve hoped that it would have gotten better for the cadets that came behind me,” said Foy. “I’m very disappointed to find out that it has not.”
The report, written by lawyers at the law firm Barnes & Thornburg and commissioned by the state of Virginia, concluded that “institutional racism and sexism are present, tolerated and left unaddressed at VMI. The racist and misogynistic acts and outcomes uncovered during this investigation are disturbing.”
With VMI receiving more than $19.3 million in state funds for fiscal 2020-2021, along with $33 million toward a new aquatics center, the pressure for change at VMI is mounting.
“It’s not that different now being in the corporate world or in a boardroom or in the state house, where you still oftentimes find yourself navigating these spheres where you’re the only one who looks like you, comes from where you come from,” says Foy, who was elected to the Virginia House in 2017 and served until she resigned to run for Virginia governor in December of 2020.
A Culture of “Silence, Fear and Intimidation”
Foy says she decided to go to VMI on a bet.
“I didn’t know that there were colleges that I couldn’t attend, simply because I was female,” Foy told Ms. Her high school classmates told her “women don’t belong at an all-male military college … because we are born inferior, we have a place in society, and we need to stay in it. … Our brains are smaller.”
Even those close to Foy doubted her abilities. “My best [male] friend at the time, he was going to go to West Point, walked up to me and he said, ‘You know what Jen, I was going to go to West Point but now I’m going to go with you [to VMI] because I want to be there to watch you when you fail.’ … I looked at him and I said challenge accepted.”
She ended up graduating from VMI—he did not.
While Foy notes that graduating from VMI helped instill important values and time management and leadership skills, she never felt welcome. “When I was there, I was constantly reminded by other cadets that I was ruining their legacy—that I did not belong, that I was only there because of affirmative action.”
This year, VMI appointed its first female cadet—Kasey Meredith, who is white—as top military commander. She was greeted with derision and abuse from male cadets on social media. Foy says she is “disturbed and disappointed” to hear that the attitudes of some male cadets have not changed.
In addition to finding a culture of misogyny and racism at VMI, the Brown & Thornburg investigation found high rates of sexual assault. Fourteen percent of female cadets surveyed reported they had been sexually assaulted at VMI and 63 percent said another cadet had told them they had experienced sexual assault.
“Many female cadets reported a consistent fear of assault or harassment by their fellow male cadets,” said the report. “Many female cadets also feel that assault complaints are not or will not be taken seriously by the VMI administration or that a cadet will suffer retaliatory consequences for reporting them.”
The Washington Post interviewed a dozen current and former female VMI students, reporting, “They described an atmosphere of hostility toward women, with constant ridicule at their expense on Jodel [a social media app popular with VMI students], and an expectation of backlash from male cadets if they reported incidents in which they’ve been groped or raped.”
“I’m very disturbed and saddened that so many cadets have had to undergo absolutely atrocious behavior from other cadets,” said Foy. “Now is the time to really take this seriously and move forward.”
A Different Future?
In a public statement about the report, VMI’s superintendent Cedric T. Wins pledged to address sexism and racism at the institution. Without irony, Wins described the report as “an opportunity for the VMI community to come together as brother rats, fellow cadets, alumni and friends to make an already special place even more special.” (Emphasis added.)
In fact, VMI’s administration did not cooperate with the investigation, say lawyers at Barnes & Thornburg. “Despite a pledge of cooperation, VMI’s leadership sought to control the investigation, the message, and the report’s findings,” they stated. “VMI also sought to keep members of the VMI community, including current senior administrators, from participating in interviews, and it engaged in public messaging designed to encourage the VMI community to disbelieve and reject this report.”
Despite this resistance, Brown & Thornburg were able to conduct a thorough investigation with 2,496 individuals participating in surveys and 385 interviews. The law firm concluded that VMI needs to create a sweeping reform plan and to submit quarterly reports to the state of Virginia on its progress. They also urged Gov. Ralph Northam (D-Va.) and the General Assembly to appoint a committee with no ties to the school to evaluate those reports and address “any lack of substantial progress.”
Although Foy says she recognizes that VMI “has not taken all the necessary strides and steps to build an inclusive environment,” she remains hopeful that VMI will change their ways. “We [VMI] are small enough to where we can really address it,” said Foy. “Everything is on the line in that [VMI is] under a microscope and there is no option to fail at this.”
Last fall when reports of racism made headlines, Foy reached out to VMI with a list of eight proposals to address the racist and sexist culture at her alma mater. They accepted all but one, which would have required all allegations of racism to be brought to the Honor Court. Foy said VMI decided not to make racism an Honor Code violation because they believe that cadets, as young people, can be rehabilitated.
Foy hopes the school will take the new report seriously.
“I think there’s going to be robust changes because we don’t want leaders to deflect and to diminish these allegations. We need to take complete ownership of [the Brown & Thornburg report] and say, how do we do better?” said Foy. “Because VMI is a leadership institute at the end of the day, we have to lead the nation by building a safe inclusive institute of higher learning where our cadets feel protected and safe to come forth with any type of issues that they have and where we eliminate rape and sexual assault from the institute.”
Despite her optimism, Foy is realistic. “We still have a long way to go … women still have a fight, whether it’s protecting our bodily autonomy, whether we’re at the job, or we’re on college campuses. We still have to ensure that as we’re climbing up the ladder that we are pulling back for people who are coming behind us to make things better.”