When then 18 year-old Shannon Faulkner applied to The Citadel during her senior year in high school, she was not trying to be an international symbol of women's struggle for equality. Like thousands of students, she was merely applying to see if she could get into the most prestigious academic institution in South Carolina on her merits.
And indeed, The Citadel accepted Faulkner ten days later based on her outstanding grades, her athletic ability and her commitment to a military-style education. As soon as The Citadel found out Faulkner was female, however, her acceptance was revoked. At Faulkner's request, the high school guidance counselor had deleted all references to gender on the application.
South Carolina NOW has a special interest in the Faulkner case as one of its chapter leaders, Greenville NOW President Suzanne Coe, is lead counsel. Coe, along with attorney Valorie Vojdik, sensed the national importance of Faulkner's suit.
"This is an issue that needed to be addressed in South Carolina," said Coe. "Since Shannon had already been accepted by the Citadel we didn't have to litigate on her qualifications, this is only on gender." Faulkner's case is an important one to feminists, because it is so clearly a case of sex discrimination. Coe expects the case to reach the Supreme Court within the next year.
Vojdik says, "My motivation for taking the case was largely because I was appalled by the District Court decision in the Virginia Military Institute case, of the factual findings that women were weak and overly sensitive and unable to handle stress . . . the worst kind of stereotypes. I saw [this case] as an opportunity to set the record straight."
Faulkner sued The Citadel, which is a state-funded institution, for violating her 14th Amendment right to equal protection.
In an article for The New Yorker magazine on Faulkner's case, Backlash author Susan Faludi noted that while the all-male institution's "singular mission" was "making men" -- The Citadel is not without female influence. "There are female teachers improving cadets' minds, female administrators keeping their records and an all- female (and all African American) staff serving the meals in the mess hall. There is also the fact that female students make up 77 percent of the enrollment of the evening school, and many other female students attended summer school," said Faludi.
In May, attorneys argued for Faulkner's rightful place as a cadet, and not simply a day student. Her attorneys said that The Citadel's defense rested on the assumption that "they did not need to provide women with a military-style education because there are not enough women who want such an education." Faulkner's attorneys argued that the Citadel cannot justify offering a unique educational opportunity to men and not women, particularly because there is no parallel program for women (which was the justification used in the decision allowing the Virginia Military Institution to remain all-male by providing separate but equal facilities for women).
Although the judge ordered Faulkner's admission in July, the order was stayed by the Fourth Circuit. The school's appeal was scheduled to be heard in December.
Faulkner's arrival even as a day student at The Citadel (though not as a cadet) was met by many of her fellow classmates at the Academy with overt threats and cutting criticisms. The school newspaper referred to Faulkner as their own "divine bovine." Vandals spray painted ugly graffiti on her family's home and threw firecrackers on their front lawn.
Faulkner can clearly take the heat. One of the overt attacks against her was a T-shirt that depicts a group of male bulldogs -- The Citadel's mascot -- in cadet uniforms and one female bulldog in a red dress, above the caption "1,952 Bulldogs, 1 Bitch." Faulkner told activists at South Carolina NOW's state conference that she "proudly" wears a rhinestone pin that says "bitch."
The case and the hostile reactions to Faulkner's fight drew international media attention. Her attorneys say that the strong support from NOW activists and other women's rights and civil rights groups, along with the quieter understanding of the struggle for inclusion from some of the African American men at the Citadel has "kept Shannon strong."
While the ongoing battle has had a loyal following, it was the hair-shaving order from The Citadel that re-captured headlines, editorials and strong responses from both supporters and opponents. The Citadel said that Faulkner would have to shave her head just like the other male cadets. Faulkner's attorneys argued that women in other military institutions had short haircuts, not "knob" haircuts. In fact, the U.S. military and its ROTC program, which Faulkner would have to participate as a cadet, prohibit women from having drastic haircuts.
Her attorneys said the Citadel's order was arbitrary and punitive.
"It was not to try to increase her chances of bonding with the male cadets, but to deter other women from applying . . . It took on a whole tone of retribution," said Vojdik. Because the district judge refused to prohibit the Citadel from carrying through with this order, Faulkner will have to get the "knob" haircut if or when she becomes a cadet.