VMI’s male cadets were berating her; the 1997 Hell Week photo went viral
The Washington Post August 18, 2022
Megan Smith was lost.
It was Aug. 20, 1997, a landmark week at the Virginia Military Institute. After a fierce battle that had gone all the way to the Supreme Court, the nation’s oldest state-supported military college had finally admitted women.
Smith was one of them. Inside the school’s Gothic Revival barracks, the 17-year-old from Colorado was trying to survive Hell Week and VMI’s “rat line” — the intense boot camp-style training for freshmen, known on the Lexington campus as “rats.”
But when Smith hustled the wrong way along an open porch overlooking the barracks courtyard, she was suddenly surrounded. Four beefy male upperclassmen in gray tunic-style uniforms and crisp white pants got her in face. The 5-4, 120-pound freshman — one of 30 women at a school that had admitted only men for nearly 158 years — looked straight ahead as the cadets berated her. One man’s mouth was fully open in a scream. A second upperclassman was so irate that a thick furrow puffed up over his eyebrows. A third man’s vein bulged from his ear to the top of his buzz-cut.
Why, they demanded, are you not with members of your company, F-Troop? What are you doing with Golf, an all-male company?
The exchange lasted maybe a minute. But Nancy Andrews, then a Washington Post staff photographer, caught the moment in an image seen around the world that symbolized VMI’s struggle to accept women into its ranks.
Twenty-five years later, the woman in the photo — who now goes by her married name, Megan Portavoce — thinks many people misinterpret what was happening to her.
“When people look at that photo, they say I looked liked a plucked chicken and that I was scared. But I didn’t feel scared,” said Portavoce, 42, a European patent attorney who lives in southern France, near the city of Marseille. “I think the photo is often taken out of context. It’s used as proof of harassment toward women. But it was equal opportunity harassment that day.”
The male freshmen were being verbally abused, too, she said. “Everyone gets yelled at. They just find something to needle you with, to get under your skin. It’s part of the system of testing everyone.”
But she acknowledged that the test for women didn’t end after Hell Week or their time as freshman rats. She and her female classmates encountered resistance and misogyny all four years on campus.
And women at VMI still face hostility a quarter-century later, a state-ordered investigation last year found, even as the school prepares to mark the anniversary of coeducation next month and works to make the campus more welcoming to female cadets.
“Sometimes,” Portavoce recalled, “my classmates and I, we’d say, ‘Why did we come here? Why did we want to do this?’ “
One of her roommates, Rachel Peterson, remembers male cadets whispering slurs in their ears or shouting at them indiscriminately in the barracks.
Among the ugly names once hurled at Portavoce: “Whore” and “slut.”
From France, Portavoce (pronounced “POR-ta-vohs”) has followed the fallout from the state-funded investigation, which found last year that VMI had tolerated “a racist and sexist culture” and failed to adequately address sexual assault. Since the probe, VMI has hired its first chief diversity officer, expanded its Title IX staff and plans other initiatives to improve the culture for women, who made up 14 percent of the school’s 1,650 cadets last year.
Last year, the college celebrated the appointment of Kasey Meredith as the corps’ first-ever female regimental commander, VMI’s highest-ranking cadet. But the milestone was tainted after VMI students mocked Meredith relentlessly on the anonymous social media app Jodel, saying she’d been picked only out of “bull---t politics” or as a “publicity stunt.” Meredith graduated in May and commissioned into the Marine Corps.
The modern-day misogyny has surprised Portavoce, who graduated from VMI in 2001.
“I did think, over time, it would getter better, not worse,” she said. “We expected to have it the worst. And to find out that it’s still like that is disappointing.”
But she doesn’t regret choosing VMI.
“I’m glad I went there,” Portavoce said. “I got a good education. I think it was worth it. Would I go again? I think I would. Whatever people wanted to say about me back then didn’t define the experience. That was their problem, not mine.”
Portavoce was still in elementary school when the legal fight began to force VMI to open its doors to women.
It started with an anonymous complaint to the Justice Department in 1989 from a Virginia high school girl who wanted to go VMI. It ended on June 26, 1996, when the Supreme Court ruled 7-1 that VMI’s all-male policy violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the late justice who authored the majority opinion, wrote that though the college “serves the State’s sons, it makes no provision whatever for her daughters. That is not equal protection.”
Now VMI’s Board of Visitors faced what its members viewed as an agonizing choice. The federal service academies had gone coed in 1976. VMI’s chief rival, The Citadel, had reluctantly enrolled its first female student into its corps of cadets in 1995, although she dropped out of the military college in Charleston, S.C., days later.
VMI’s board debated whether the school, founded in 1839, should abandon taxpayer funds and become a private institution to preserve its all-male corps — or remain public and go coed. In September 1996, the divided board opted to stay public and accept women. The vote was 9 to 8.
Once its path was set, the college had to renovate — and recruit. In the fall of 1996, it sent out mailers to more than 35,000 high school girls, according to the 2001 book, “Breaking Out: VMI and the Coming of Women,” by Laura Brodie.
One of the recipients of VMI’s recruitment materials was a teenager at Lewis-Palmer High School in Monument, Colo., about an hour south of Denver.
Portavoce was a senior already gravitating toward a military career. Her father, Edward Smith, had served in the Army and later joined the State Department, taking the family all over the world, from East Germany to Ecuador.
Portavoce wanted to serve her country, too, she said. Although she lived about 15 minutes from the Air Force Academy, she applied to the Naval Academy because of her interest in oceans, engineering and submarines.
Then VMI contacted her, offering a weekend visit for prospective students. She signed up and found herself unfazed at the prospect of being in the first group of students to break VMI’s gender barrier.
“I thought, ‘OK, I can do this,’ “ Portavoce recalled. “My parents were concerned about sexual harassment and hazing, but they talked with a friend who was teaching there, and he reassured them that VMI was doing everything to prepare for women.”
A week later, she got turned down by the Naval Academy, and VMI promised a free academic ride.
When she arrived on campus in August 1997, she signed her name in VMI’s matriculation book, joining 16,000 male cadets listed in the college’s leather-bound ledgers.
More than 250 journalists, photographers, video cameramen and sound technicians chronicled matriculation day, according to “Breaking Out.”
Two days later, it was time for Hell Week. The new cadets were greeted inside a barracks courtyard with all sorts of taunts from the upperclassmen. “You’re dead!” they shouted. “You’re gonna lose, rat!”
Portavoce and the other rats were hustled up stairs for a series of exercises. That’s when she got mixed up in the wrong company and encountered the four hulking upperclassmen.
Andrews, The Post photographer perched across the barracks courtyard, used a 500mm lens to capture the moment.
“What you’re striving for as a photographer is to feel the event,” said Andrews, now an independent journalist who lives in Pittsburgh. “The guy in the photo with his blood vessel bulging — that is a visual way of showing the intensity.”
Ralph “Woody” Cromley, a 6-2, 190-pound junior from Florida, was the guy with the bulging vein — and the only man in the photo who agreed to talk to The Post.
“You can obviously tell from the picture I was engaged in the conversation,” said Cromley, now a 45-year-old active-duty military officer. “But as long as she was a rat, I wasn’t going to have a casual conversation with her. We weren’t singling her out because she was a woman. We were abiding by our training. And she stood there like any other male rat would have.”
By the standards of 1997, the Hell Week photo went viral.
On Aug. 21, a black-and-white version appeared on the front of The Post’s Metro section. The newspaper also published it, along with several other photos from that day, in a gallery on its nascent website. The image landed in numerous outlets: The Chicago Tribune, USA TODAY, Newsweek and the New York Times.
The next morning, Portavoce was eating breakfast in the cafeteria when an upperclassman plunked The Post down next to her plate. You’re famous, he declared.
“I thought to myself, ‘Oh, great, that’s a problem I don’t need,’ “ Portavoce said.
Back in Colorado, her parents, who’d heard from friends in Germany, Japan and England about the photograph, felt a certain a pride in their daughter’s ability to keep her cool.
“She had that determined jaw line,” said her father, Edward Smith, now 84. “She seemed to be saying, ‘I am going to listen to these guys, and I am not going to be cowed by them.’ “
The photo prompted an outpouring of letters. One man wished Portavoce luck, referred to a John Wayne quote, and, after signing his name, wrote, “P.S. I’m not after a date. I’m married and I’m 74 years old.” A woman from Alaska said her 6-year-old daughter saw the picture on her local newspaper’s front page: “Her comment was, and I quote: ‘She must be one tough girl to stand up to all those boys!’ “
Over the next four years, Portavoce and her classmates broke barriers and confronted sexism.
At the end of their sophomore year, in May 1999, VMI expelled a rising senior — who was slated to become the corps’ regimental commander — for “allegedly using his position to pressure freshman women for sex,” The Post reported at the time.
When Portavoce joined the college’s cheerleading team, she and others were frequently taunted by VMI students, who threw peanuts during games and shouted, “You suck” and “Go home.” She remembers being called “whore” and “slut.” According to the school newspaper, the Cadet, a petition delivered to VMI’s superintendent called for “an end to the rat cheerleaders.”
“Sexual tension may arise after upperclassmen see female rats maneuvering while wearing short skirts,” the petition stated.
Rachel Peterson, who shared a room with Portavoce, remembers lots of men wearing “Save the Males” T-shirts. Also popular: a poster of a woman clad in what appears to be a VMI uniform but opened to draw attention to her barely concealed chest and midriff. “Women out of uniform. . .a gratifying spectacle,” the poster read in all-caps.
“We weren’t permitted to have anything on the walls. [The poster] was more like something that was shown and then put away,” said Peterson, 43, a middle school teacher in North Carolina. “There were plenty of supportive men at VMI, but I would be shocked if any of the women in my class could say they were completely accepted 100%.”
At 19, Portavoce apparently triggered male cadets with a wardrobe choice. “Skirt Stirs Up Controversy,” read the Cadet’s front-page headline. According to the article, Portavoce was seen several times on campus wearing a VMI-issued skirt.
“A powder keg erupted,” the student newspaper reported, when a male upperclassman tried to send her up for disciplinary charges on the grounds she was dressed improperly outside of barracks - and that she was possibly violating guidelines that said, “female cadets will be issued a gray wool skirt for occasions where a skirt is appropriate.”
But within 48 hours, the case fizzled out. The college clarified that skirts could be worn with “any appropriate uniform combination” except for formations. Her roommate, Gussie Lord - now one of three women on the college’s 17-member Board of Visitors — was outraged, telling the Cadet at the time, “I can’t believe this bull----. We didn’t come here to be men.”
Lord, now 42, said she understands why some male cadets pushed back against accommodations for female students, such as permission to wear skirts or certain jewelry. “It’s my understanding that before women came, the corps of cadets was told nothing would change. But you can have slightly different uniforms and still have one standard for a coed corps of cadets. The important things — the honor code, the adversative training method, the spartan barracks — didn’t change,” Lord said. “Navigating VMI as a young woman, and figuring out how to be a young woman in that environment, was challenging.”
Portavoce said she considered leaving VMI as a freshman but stuck it out.
“It was gratifying to get all the way through it,” Portavoce said. “When we got through the rat line, you think the hard part is over, but then you get to the next year, and find out there are new issues with our haircuts or skirts, and then the year after that, with male rats not listening to female upperclassmen. It just felt like we had issue after issue. It wasn’t going to be like the graduation of our class was going to magically end those problems. The resentment would still linger.”
On Saturday, May 19, 2001, she and 12 other women who’d entered VMI four years earlier graduated. Some of the original 30 were transfer students who’d already gotten their diplomas. Others had dropped out. And two had been expelled for violating the college’s honor code.
It was a momentous day for VMI’s Class of 2001. Sen. John McCain gave the graduation address, acknowledging the “ladies” among the graduates.
That morning, The Post had published a new photo of Portavoce, captured as she was practicing for graduation. Once again, she was surrounded by men. But this time, none of them was shouting at her. Instead, she was dressed in uniform, looking at the camera. Her lips were set and her arms were crossed, resting over a belt buckle that read, “VMI.”