It’s a fact that seems incredible to female athletes at Virginia Military Institute these days.
Less than 25 years ago, women were not allowed to attend the Lexington college.
“It’s crazy for me to think about that because that’s really not that long ago,” said Ahliyah Williams, a member of the VMI women’s track and field team. “I’m blessed to be able to be one of those women who is able to go to VMI.”
The late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died last month, helped end VMI’s discriminatory policy.
In a 7-1 decision, the Supreme Court announced in June 1996 that VMI could no longer remain a publicly funded, single-sex school. Ginsburg, who had fought for gender equality since her days as a lawyer, wrote the majority opinion.
“There is no reason to believe that the admission of women capable of all the activities required of VMI cadets would destroy the Institute rather than enhance its capacity to serve ‘the more perfect Union,’ ” she wrote.
A year later, women began attending VMI.
Many of the women who have since graduated from VMI have been athletes. They are grateful to Ginsburg for the effect she had on their lives.
“The news of her passing was absolutely devastating,” said Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, a former VMI track and field athlete who is now a member of the Virginia House of Delegates and a Democratic candidate for governor. “We lost a legal giant, a one-woman revolution for equality across the board.”
Kelly Sullivan was among the inaugural class of 31 women to attend VMI in the 1997-98 school year.
“Justice Ginsburg had an immense impact on my life because she allowed me to do something that I would have never had the opportunity to do,” said Sullivan, who was also a track and field athlete. “I had this opportunity to go to this amazing school.”
Ginsburg paid a visit to VMI in 2017, when she was interviewed by her two biographers in front of a Cameron Hall audience of VMI cadets and female VMI graduates. She also met privately with some female cadets and graduates.
Shelby Barkley, then a standout on the VMI water polo team, got to talk to Ginsburg that day.
“It was huge to actually get to meet the person that fought for you and to thank her,” Barkley said.
Here is what some former and current VMI female athletes had to say about how Ginsburg and VMI changed their lives.
Ginsburg’s majority opinion in the VMI case was part of the acclaimed 2018 documentary “RBG.” Sullivan, who entered VMI in August 1997, was interviewed as part of that documentary.
“VMI … was incredibly hard. Every single day was a challenge,” Sullivan said last weekend. “You had to go out there and work really, really hard to not only prove to the … administration, the upperclassmen that you belong there but also proving it to yourself.
“There were [media] people that were constantly watching every move we made. … That made everything else at VMI so much harder, not just the constant push-ups and the Rat Line and the academics … but also just being a girl in college in your first year.”
Sullivan, who had a full track and field scholarship, competed as an individual as a VMI freshman before becoming part of the inaugural VMI women’s indoor and outdoor track and field teams as a sophomore.
The Georgia native took second in the weight throw at the 1999 Southern Conference indoor championships and was third in the hammer throw at the 1998, 2000 and 2001 SoCon outdoor championships.
“VMI has been the single best decision of my life — secondary to marrying my husband, I guess I should say,” she said with a laugh.
Sullivan attended Ginsburg’s 2017 appearance at Cameron Hall.
“It’s an impressive thing to hear to her speak. It gave me chills several times, especially when she talked about the fact that women would make VMI proud,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan got to meet Ginsburg that day. She told Ginsburg she was in the first class of women.
“She said, ‘Well, that must have been incredibly difficult.’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t think it’s any more difficult that being in the first class of women at Harvard Law [which included Ginsburg],” Sullivan said with a laugh. “She said, “I think you’ve got me beat.’
“I teared up.”
Sullivan, a Florida resident, is now the vice president of operations for a cable and internet provider.
Jennifer Carroll Foy
Carroll Foy, a 2003 VMI graduate, still holds the record for the best high jump (5 feet, 8 3/4 inches) in the history of the VMI women’s outdoor track and field program. Then known as Jennifer Carroll, she took second in the high jump at both the 2001 SoCon indoor and outdoor championships.
She was a Petersburg High School junior when the first class of female students attended VMI.
She and the other students in her Junior ROTC class at the high school watched one day as VMI was discussed on television.
“Some of the men in my class, they said things like, ‘Well, you know, women are born inferior,’ and that’s why we should not attend VMI,” said Carroll Foy, who lives in Woodbridge. “But I also heard the words of Justice Ginsburg when she said women can do all things if given the opportunity.
“I turned around and told the men in my class that I was going to go to VMI because I was just as strong and smart and powerful as any of the men in the class.
“My best friend, he was going to go to West Point, and he walked up to me and said, ‘I’m going to go with you when you go to VMI because I want to be there to watch you when you fail.’
“I looked at him and said, ‘Challenge accepted.’”
That boy and another boy in that Junior ROTC class joined her as VMI freshmen in the 1999-2000 school year.
“When they had their head shaved bald, I had my head shaved,” she said. “When they were given a man’s uniform, I was given a man’s uniform.”
Those other two boys from her Junior ROTC class did not end up graduating from VMI, but she did.
“VMI is not a great place to be, but it’s a wonderful place to be from,” said Carroll Foy, who had a track and field scholarship. “You have no freedom. You have no privacy. … There will be tough days.
“I would think about all the people that should be here that couldn’t be here, and thinking about blazing those trails and breaking down barriers just like Justice Ginsburg did. That would help motivate me to stay the course.
“That’s what Justice Ginsburg means to me — grit. She means resilience and resourcefulness and fighting for equality by any means necessary.”
She met a VMI track and field athlete named Jack Foy on her second day at VMI. He is now her husband.
Water polo became the seventh and most recent women’s team to be added by VMI in the 2011-12 school year.
Barkley scored a school-record 314 goals in her VMI water polo career before graduating in 2018. She earned All-America honorable mention as a senior.
The California native had planned to play for UCLA but changed her mind after a recruiting trip to VMI. She reaped a full water polo scholarship.
“When you go there, as a female in particular, you have to grow up really fast,” she said. “You have to keep up with the men that are around you. You have to take it just as well as they do, if not better. And then you’ve got to deal with a lot of other crap that comes your way in regards to how certain faculty there see you differently as a female — and obviously the cadets that are around you, a lot of them still don’t think that we belong.”
A few times during her freshman year, she called home in tears and asked her parents to come get her. But they told her to stick it out.
It was not until Ginsburg’s 2017 visit to VMI that Barkley learned of Ginsburg’s role in women finally being admitted to VMI.
“She really fought for us to be equal to these men at the school, even though a lot of the time we weren’t seen as such,” said Barkley, who is now a high school girls water polo coach in California.
“She was small in stature, but she had a big fight in her. For us, that’s huge, because we were the underdogs at that school. She was the face of that.”
There are 220 female cadets at VMI this school year, including 102 athletes.
One of them is Williams, a junior on the track and field team. She won the 400 meters at the SoCon indoor championships in March.
The Maryland native did research on Ginsburg after Ginsburg’s death.
“She has made such a huge change in VMI’s history, to pave the way for women to attend VMI,” said Williams, who has a track and field scholarship. “I’m part of a legacy with that.
“Especially as a minority, Black woman, it definitely opened the door. There is of course still work to be done concerning females and equality, but I feel like she’s definitely given me a path to continue to make change.”
A week after she arrived at VMI, she called home because she wanted to leave.
“As soon as I heard my mom’s voice, I started crying hysterically,” she said. “My mom … made sure to comfort me, but she also said I have to grow up and realize in life there’s hard decisions you have to make and there’s going to be battles in life that you just have to get over.”
She is glad she chose VMI.
“VMI is a tough place, but this has to do with women not being seen … because they think VMI is too tough for women,” she said. “Gender doesn’t make me different as far as how much education I can get, how hard I can work.”
Whitney Edwards -Roberson
VMI has fielded a women’s soccer team since 2003. One of the juniors on the team this school year is Edwards-Roberson, a two-year starter from Chesapeake.
“To be able to say that I’m a female and I go to VMI, that’s because of [Ginsburg] and her decision,” she said.
Edwards-Roberson, who has a partial soccer scholarship and a partial academic grant, chose VMI because she wanted to be where the “big dogs” were.
“If you want to be able to play on the same court, the same field as them, … you have to experience what they’re experiencing … to keep up in life,” she said. “When I say ‘them,’ I mean the top dogs in our society — the white men, of course. If I want to make an impact on this world, I have to be able to learn what they’re learning.”
Edwards-Roberson, who is Black, said being “a double minority at VMI is definitely the hardest challenge” for her.
“All VMI students have those moments when they’re doubting their decision a little because it is a really challenging place to get through,” she said. “The friendships that I built, … they helped me see the light at the end of the tunnel, see the bigger picture of why I’m here — my future.”
Carpenter is a senior on the women’s soccer team. The two-year starter joined the Keydets on a partial soccer scholarship and has since gained an Army ROTC scholarship as well.
The North Carolina native said picking VMI was the best decision she has ever made.
“My roommates and teammates and my boyfriend go here,” she said. “I wouldn’t know any of them without this.”
But the rigors of the Rat Line made her freshman year a challenge.
“It was horrible. I did not have a good time during the Rat Line,” she said. “But I knew that I could never leave this place. I had made so many friends.”
Carpenter plans to apply to law school. She was inspired to do so after visiting Morocco in the summer of 2019 and seeing how women were treated there.
“I knew with a law degree I would be able to do international law and help them,” she said.
“I went [over] there through … a scholarship the Army gives out, but I wouldn’t have been able to get it if I didn’t go to VMI.
“Thank you, Ruth.”