In support of a legal pioneer

Though I can’t speak for VMI or the military, I feel it is important to support Nina Pillard in my personal capacity. This issue is necessarily personal to me, as I was nine years old in 1997 when the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) opened its doors to women. Professor Pillard’s work has helped bring our nation closer to the goal of full gender equality and has made a difference in my life and the lives of many others. And when the U.S. Senate holds a hearing on her nomination this Wednesday, I plan to be there in person to show my support.

People often ask what drew me to the Virginia Military Institute, as if my reasons would be any different than others on account of my gender. My answer is the same as many of my male classmates: I wanted a truly unique challenge that would prepare me to be a more capable military officer. After four years of truly unique challenges, I graduated from VMI in 2010, holding the same diploma as the male graduates and wearing the same uniform (except that I wore a skirt with my coatee). Then, I commissioned as an officer in the military, and I went on to law school at the University of Virginia.

Gender equality in the United States remains a goal instead of a reality. But little by little, glass ceilings are being shattered and doors are being opened. Sometimes this happens quietly, and progress can be so incremental that it's easy to forget each of the steps along the way.

A brilliant lawyer and Georgetown professor named Nina Pillard helped the nation take a step towards gender equality in 1997 when she succeeded in making a legal argument that VMI - a public institution - offered an important and specific opportunity to its cadets and it would be unconstitutional to discriminate against female applicants on the basis of sex.

In a 7-1 majority opinion written by Justice Ginsburg, the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Virginia that, "Virginia's categorical exclusion of women from the educational opportunities VMI provides denies equal protection to women." Professor Pillard's argument had prevailed, ending discrimination in the admissions process at VMI, and setting our nation's oldest state-supported military college on a path to equality.

VMI is greater than its past, and the spirit of the military college infuses its graduates with honor and pride. During a four-day-long, eighty-mile march with some of my classmates in my senior year, gender was a non-issue. We were brothers and sisters, embracing a challenge together. That was the theme of my experience at VMI: I had an equal chance to do what any of the men could do. I wouldn't have had this particularly irreplaceable college education but for the efforts of Nina Pillard and others like her who stand up for gender equality, and whose influence will improve generations to come.

In a week I will take the bar exam, my next step towards becoming a lawyer and military officer. But I will never forget the steps that were taken before I could take them myself: the steps toward equality of opportunity, equality in education, and equality of conscience. Therefore, I will be at Nina Pillard's Senate hearing, personally supporting her nomination for a seat on the D.C. Circuit Court.

Dobbins is a graduate of VMI and the University of Virginia Law School.