New Fronts in The Citadel Battle

by Lisa Bennett-Haigney

The long, lone battle to become the first female in the Corps of Cadets at The Citadel took its toll on Shannon Faulkner, but her quest is being taken up by Nancy Mellette, a 17-year-old senior at Oak Ridge Military Academy in North Carolina.

 On Aug. 12, Shannon Faulkner became the first woman to walk through the gates of The Citadel to join the Corps of Cadets. Six days later her groundbreaking journey ended. After her brief, emotional announcement that she was withdrawing from the school, came the appalling, telling sight of cadets cheering, hugging one another, riding mattresses across the floors and jogging through the streets in formation chanting "We are . . . all male."

It was Faulkner's dream to attend the historic South Carolina military college, an institution that has produced a large share of her home state's political and professional elite. The Citadel and the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) remain this country's only state-funded, all-male military colleges.

Just weeks before making history, Faulkner delivered an inspiring address at the National NOW Conference in Columbus, Ohio, where she was presented with a Woman Of Courage Award. Faulkner also joined in a march and rally with more than 700 NOW activists who cheered "Go, Shannon, Go!"

 In 1993, Faulkner was accepted to The Citadel after omitting gender references from her transcript. The school rescinded her application upon discovering Faulkner is female, and a protracted legal battle ensued. "When I started this lawsuit, I was told I would never enter The Citadel," Faulkner said.

 As Faulkner's admission became imminent, she received numerous death threats, her parent's home was vandalized and bumper stickers and T-shirts referring to her as a "bitch" and a "whale" became popular in South Carolina.

The day before Faulkner was scheduled to arrive, The Citadel made a last appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia rejected the school's request to keep her out.

 Under order of Federal District Judge C. Weston Houck, Faulkner was escorted by four U.S. Marshals. Her private room was equipped with a dead-bolt lock and 24-hour video surveillance. Col. Terry Leedom, spokesman for The Citadel, told The New York Times that he was not worried about a cadet harming Faulkner, "But it's extra protection for us in case some harm does come to her."

Suzanne Coe, Faulkner's lawyer and Greenville, S.C. NOW president, calls the environment Shannon entered one of "sanctioned hate."

Faulkner was one of five cadets who collapsed in 100-degree heat the first day and were taken to the infirmary. Faulkner remained there most of the week. The media followed her every move, speculating on her weight and physical condition.

 "When Shannon Faulkner was marching during hell week exercises with other cadets, she was the only cadet marching with extra weight on her shoulders, with the eyes of an entire nation on her," said NOW National Secretary Karen Johnson, a retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel.

On Friday, Aug. 18, Faulkner resigned from The Citadel to tend to her emotional and physical health, citing the crushing stress that had built up during her two-and-a-half-year fight. She was one of 35 cadets who dropped out the first week although that fact was rarely mentioned in the media.

 "She had no one to talk to, no one to be her friend," said M.K. Smith, South Carolina NOW State Coordinator. "When the gates closed, it all caved in on her." In contrast, when 119 women entered the first co-ed West Point class without a fight in 1976, many of them felt alone and half quit before graduating.

 On CNN Crossfire and in two dozen other major media interviews, National NOW's Johnson said Faulkner is "still a winner" for facing down "more than two years of unprecedented hostility."

In a September appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show, Faulkner expressed her growing disillusionment with the people who "didn't care specifically what was best for me." Lawyer Suzanne Coe says they are still on good terms and that Faulkner called her afterward to assure Coe the comment was not directed at her.

Coe hopes to represent several plaintiffs as she continues with the case, and on Oct. 3 Judge Houck allowed Nancy Mellette to officially join the suit. Mellette has a 96 grade average and 11 letters in sports. Her father is a Citadel graduate and her brother is a senior and cadet corps officer. "I'm prepared to do whatever comes up in a situation at The Citadel, and I can do just about anything," Mellette said, according to USA Today.

 Judge Houck is set to rule in November on The Citadel's alternative program, the South Carolina Institute of Leadership for Women at Converse College, where some 20 women now attend. While Suzanne Coe has faith that this "parallel program" will be ruled unconstitutional, she is also confident that The Citadel will appeal, despite the millions of dollars it has already spent on its legal battle.

 The Virginia Military Institute also inducted its first female class this August at the alternative Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership at Mary Baldwin College. The Justice Department has appealed to the Supreme Court, noting the "patently unequal" design of the program. Faulkner's lawyers have also appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the VMI case and a decision should be handed down before next summer's recess.

 For Faulkner, the education that she so ardently sought has been derailed for now, but those around her believe she will rebound. In fact, Faulkner says if other women joined her, she would consider reapplying to The Citadel.

NOW's Smith says people in South Carolina have not demonstrated the same hostility toward Nancy Mellette. "I don't know what Shannon did to antagonize them," Smith said, "except to be the first."

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