Separate, Not Equal

You can tell a lot about a culture by the way its inhabitants eat. In the cavernous mess hall of The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., first-year cadets sit stiff-backed in their starched gray uniforms, their shoulders scrunched high in the awkward "brace" position, their shaved heads as bald as cue balls. The "knobs" may sit at the dinner table, but their chief task is to keep upperclassmen's water glasses constantly filled-even while the seniors hurl insults at them. Occasionally they get permission to swallow a bite of food, but their chins must stay tucked. Some knobs leave the mess hall as hungry as they went in.

Mealtime is very different at the South Carolina Institute for Leadership at Converse College, 200 miles away in Spartan-burg. In their faded jeans and sweat shirts, the female leaders of tomorrow are barely distinguishable from the other Converse women as they chat and laugh in the airy dining hall. Amid the crystal chandeliers and floral curtains one woman complained to a friend: "I was so tired-- I felt like saying to the teacher, 'I don't want to hear any more about the military!' "

Shannon Faulknez is history, but the battle to coeducate The Citadel rages on. Now the issue is whether the newly created all-female program at Converse is a match for the venerable 153-year-old military institution. If a federal court in Charleston finds that it is "substantively comparable," The Citadel will be allowed to stay all male. Once again, last week, the judge delayed the case, preferring to await marching orders from a higher authority. Those may come soon. Next month the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in a parallel case measuring the new Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership (VWIL) at Mary Baldwin College against the all-male Virginia Military Institute (VMI). The U.S. Justice Department has sided with the forces of coeducation, arguing that barring women from public institutions is plain sex discrimination. But the cases raise more subtle questions, too: can separate ever be equal in education? And if women don't benefit from taking communal showers, being verbally abused and having their egos stripped systematically, why do men?

'Girl Scouts': Founded in response to the court battles, the two women's programs are still in their fledgling stages--and that's just part of the problem, advocates for coeducation say. The entering SCIL class has only 22 women, and they share dorms and classes with regular students at Converse's downtown campus-a far cry from the imposing quadrangles and clipped parade grounds that are home to The Citadel's 2,000 cadets. The women march, drill and undergo ROTC training at nearby Wofford College, and had their own version of"Hell Week" during a four-day Outward Bound program. But there are few strict rules and no harsh discipline here, partly because there are no upperclassmen to inflict it. All in all, SCIL "is about as similar to The Citadel as the Girl Scouts," says attorney Val Vojdik. She was part of the legal team that represented Faulkner and is continuing the fight on behalf of a cadet at Oak Ridge Military Academy, 17-year-old Nancy Mellette.

The real difference between the programs is philosophical. SCIL and VWIL believe in positive reinforcement and nurturing-concepts as foreign as tea cozies to The Citadel and VMI. "We take a woman who says, 'I can't do math or calculus,' and we give her a sense of confidence that she can achieve anything," says Charles Gnerlich, SCIL's interim director. Converse president Sandra Thomas insists that the outcomes will be comparable, even if the methods aren't. "Sometimes men need to be beaten down to get a concept," she says. "A woman gets it the first time." Male brass at The Citadel and VMI couldn't agree more. Each school has invested $5 million to help their little-sister programs succeed. The men are not only grateful, they're admiring, too. Says The Citadel's Col. Terry Leedom of Converse's president: "Dr. Thomas is one cool cookie."

Still, Citadel leaders firmly believe that men learn better when they have to earn privileges like walking on the sidewalk. "The showers, the haircuts, the lack of privacy all create bonding," says Leedom. "If women entered here, the experience would be different." Some cadets insist they have a right to an all-male experience, and resent women's trying to end it.

Such arguments would be more persuasive if the nation's service academies-West Point, Annapolis, Colorado Springs--had not gone toed two decades ago. Or ff The Citadel and VMI were private clubs, not schools supported by state taxpayers. But South Carolina spent $8.8 million on The Citadel cadets last year. And a powerful corps of alumni is determined to keep the appropriations coming. "The network is heavy into campaign contributions and I think they're vindictive," says state Sen. Holly Cork with a sigh. "In fact, they're trying to punish me because I dared speak out against their institution."

Hair gel: Henry (Bubba) Kennedy Jr., head of the Association of Citadel Men, denies that a Citadel ring is an automatic ticket to the Southern power structure, though he has promised that Citadel alums will serve as mentors and contacts to SCIL grads. He also says the school's reputation for senseless hazing is outdated. "It was a brutal system in the 1960s, not one I was proud of," he concedes. But officials have tried to end such practices as sanctioning endless push-ups as punishment and letting knobs become malnourished.

Back in their own cheerfully cluttered rooms, as they pass around hair gel and cookies from home, most SCIL women say they have no desire to storm The Citadel as Faulkner did. And they are uniformly amazed at how their confidence has grown in just three months at Converse. "I can tell at home," says Rebecca Roland, 18. "I always felt inferior to my brother. I don't defer to him now." The women have asked for more military structure--like curfews, spiffier uniforms and clearer guidance on whom, when and how to salute. Gnerlich, a retired navy captain, says that "The first time I said 'room inspection,' they stared at me." Now the women want guidelines on how tidy to be. "We're still feeling our way along," he concedes. "Next year will be better."

If there is a next year. Should the courts force The Citadel and VMI to admit women, the legislatures may decide there is no reason to fund the female-only programs, and that may spell their demise. Some Citadel cadets, too, say they sense that their all-male days are numbered, and if Nancy Mellette arrives next fall, they know what duty requires. Says regimental commander Matt Pantarsi: "We will show her all the same respect we showed Shannon Faulkner."