United States v. Virginia,
518 U.S. 515 (1996)

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No.94-1941. Argued January 17, 1996-Decided June 26,1996*

Virginia Military Institute (VMI) is the sole single-sex school among Virginia's public institutions of higher learning. VMI's distinctive mission is to produce "citizen-soldiers," men prepared for leadership in civilian life and in military service. Using an "adversative method" of training not available elsewhere in Virginia, VMI endeavors to instill physical and mental discipline in its cadets and impart to them a strong moral code. Reflecting the high value alumni place on their VMI training, VMI has the largest per-student endowment of all public undergraduate institutions in the Nation. The United States sued Virginia and VMI, alleging that VMI's exclusively male admission policy violated the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. The District Court ruled in VMI's favor. The Fourth Circuit reversed and ordered Virginia to remedy the constitutional violation. In response, Virginia proposed a parallel program for women: Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership (VWIL), located at Mary Baldwin College, a private liberal arts school for women. The District Court found that Virginia's proposal satisfied the Constitution's equal protection requirement, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed. The appeals court deferentially reviewed Virginia's plan and determined that provision of single-gender educational options was a legitimate objective. Maintenance of single-sex programs, the court concluded, was essential to that objective. The court recognized, however, that its analysis risked bypassing equal protection scrutiny, so it fashioned an additional test, asking whether VMI and VWIL students would receive "substantively comparable" benefits. Although the Court of Appeals acknowledged that the VWIL degree lacked the historical benefit and prestige of a VMI degree, the court nevertheless found the educational opportunities at the two schools sufficiently comparable.


1. Parties who seek to defend gender-based government action must demonstrate an "exceedingly persuasive justification" for that action. E. g., Mississippi Univ. for Women v. Hogan, 458 U. S. 718,724. Nei-

*Together with No. 94-2107, Virginia et al. v. United States, also on certiorari to the same court.



ther federal nor state government acts compatibly with equal protection when a law or official policy denies to women, simply because they are women, full citizenship stature-equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society based on their individual talents and capacities. To meet the burden of justification, a State must show "at least that the [challenged] classification serves 'important governmental objectives and that the discriminatory means employed' are 'substantially related to the achievement of those objectives.''' Ibid., quoting Wengler v. Druggists Mut. Ins. Co., 446 U. S. 142, 150. The justification must be genuine, not hypothesized or invented post hoc in response to litigation. And it must not rely on overbroad generalizations about the different talents, capacities, or preferences of males and females. See, e. g., Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, 420 U. S. 636, 643, 648. The heightened review standard applicable to sex-based classifications does not make sex a proscribed classification, but it does mean that categorization by sex may not be used to create or perpetuate the legal, social, and economic inferiority of women. pp. 531-534.

2. Virginia's categorical exclusion of women from the educational opportunities VMI provides denies equal protection to women. Pp. 534-546.

(a) Virginia contends that single-sex education yields important educational benefits and that provision of an option for such education fosters diversity in educational approaches. Benign justifications proffered in defense of categorical exclusions, however, must describe actual state purposes, not rationalizations for actions in fact differently grounded. Virginia has not shown that VMI was established, or has been maintained, with a view to diversifying, by its categorical exclusion of women, educational opportunities within the Commonwealth. A purpose genuinely to advance an array of educational options is not served by VMI's historic and constant plan to afford a unique educational benefit only to males. However well this plan serves Virginia's sons, it makes no provision whatever for her daughters. Pp. 535-540.

(b) Virginia also argues that VMI's adversative method of training provides educational benefits that cannot be made available, unmodified, to women, and that alterations to accommodate women would necessarily be so drastic as to destroy VMI's program. It is uncontested that women's admission to VMI would require accommodations, primarily in arranging housing assignments and physical training programs for female cadets. It is also undisputed, however, that neither the goal of producing citizen-soldiers, VMI's raison d'etre, nor VMI's implementing methodology is inherently unsuitable to women. The District Court made "findings" on "gender-based developmental differences" that restate the opinions of Virginia's expert witnesses about typically male or typically female "tendencies." Courts, however, must take "a hard

Full Text of Opinion

Primary Holding

Military training facilities that segregate men from women without a compelling reason violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, even if the women’s facility is roughly comparable to the men’s facility.


The Virginia Military Institute had a policy that limited enrollment to men. The state argued that this restriction was appropriate because women would not be able to withstand the rigors of its training programs. However, it seemed to acknowledge that there might be a potential problem with its policy, since it created an alternative program for women at Mary Baldwin College. This program, known as the Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership, was woven into the structure of that women's-only liberal arts institution, which by its inherent nature created a very different experience from VMI.

Procedural History

US District Court for the Western District of Virginia - 852 F. Supp. 471 (W.D. Va. 1994)

Judgment for the defendants. The policy of admitting only men did not violate the Constitution.

US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit - 44 F.3d 1229 (4th Cir. 1995)

Affirmed. The Fourth Circuit agreed that this policy was not prohibited gender-based classification under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.



  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Author)
  • John Paul Stevens
  • Sandra Day O'Connor
  • Anthony M. Kennedy
  • David H. Souter
  • Stephen G. Breyer

Ginsburg was not convinced that the VWIL was equivalent to VMI in terms of either education and training or post-graduation advantages. She thus considered not only the program itself but the benefits that it would provide to its graduates in the long term. The standard of review in the majority opinion arguably seemed higher than the usual intermediate scrutiny for gender-based justifications, since Ginsburg stated that an exceedingly persuasive justification was required from the state.


  • William Hubbs Rehnquist (Author)

While Rehnquist agreed that this specific situation was unconstitutional, he felt that Virginia's separate-but-equal system could be acceptable if it had been implemented more diligently so that the quality of education between institutions was roughly comparable. This contrasted with Ginsburg's evident belief that the all-male policy was unconstitutional on its face, regardless of the alternatives offered by the state.


  • Antonin Scalia (Author)

Pointing out that the majority seemed to apply a standard higher than intermediate scrutiny, Scalia argued that it created doctrinal uncertainty by failing to use either intermediate or strict scrutiny. He also used this dissent as an opportunity to reiterate his opinion that the appropriate standard of review for gender-based classifications should be rational basis rather than any heightened standard.

Case Commentary

The standard of review in this case seemed higher than the usual intermediate scrutiny for gender discrimination, perhaps because women were completely excluded rather than merely treated differently. This decision relied in part on an examination of the historical record, which showed a systemic pattern in Virginia of hindering women from pursuing higher education. The Court thus found this policy especially suspicious in the context. VMI, which was the last all-male public university in the nation, nearly decided to go private rather than open its doors to women, but an 8-7 vote by its Board decided that admitting women was (barely) preferable to giving up its public status.

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