VMI's New Rules Send the Wrong Message

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A new rule at the Virginia Military Institute has at least one women's legal group in an uproar. And their ire is perfectly understandable — if totally misdirected. The regulation, formally issued January 14th, demands the voluntary departure of cadets who get married, become pregnant, or cause someone else to become pregnant. Unfair, charges the National Women's Law Center; the new rules violate anti-discrimination laws established to protect pregnant women. The NWLC is right; the VMI rules are discriminatory — but not for the reasons the NWLC argues.

In fact, if VMI's new rule were solely concerned with pregnant women, it might be okay. After all, I don't know any pregnant women who are interested in performing grueling physical exertions while fighting off morning sickness. (A caveat: As someone who has not experienced the rigors of either pregnancy or VMI, I am speaking from a purely theoretical standpoint.)

But this rule is about more than keeping pregnant women out of the line of fire. It's about enforcing archaic rules in a way that discriminates against women — in more ways than one.

Case in point: the pregnancy stipulation cannot be equally enforced across gender lines. Women generally cannot hide a pregnancy. Men, on the other hand (as evidenced by eons of deadbeats) have a much easier time.

Then there's the issue of responsibility: According to this new rule, male cadets who impregnate a woman (and who actually admit to it) will be asked to leave VMI. That's patently absurd. Male cadets who are partner to a pregnancy should not only be permitted to stay, they should be forced to stay. How else are they going to provide for their new family? (And yes, they should be permitted to marry the mother of their child).

Finally, there's VMI's case against marriage, which has been in place for years under the cover of "don't ask, don't tell." So why the sudden interest in sniffing out cadet marriages? One reason, perhaps, is that a few years ago (despite the collective kicking and screaming of traditionalists), VMI admitted its first female students.

Bias against married women is hardly new: As recently as the 1960's, it was routine for school boards across the country to fire female teachers as soon as they married. The assumption, I guess, was that it was only a matter of time before a married woman would start popping out the kids and of course this very inconvenient past-time would interfere with the fulfillment of her chosen profession.

It sounds ridiculous, because it is ridiculous. Lots of marriages are long-lived and full without the presence of children; others are equally successful for years before would-be parents decide they're ready (financially, emotionally or otherwise) to welcome a new family member.

VMI's new rules don't reckon with this, and they need to. The school should at least ensure it makes and enforces rules that are fair across the great gender divide.