Change, Resistance & Change

On good days it seems that we may be moving toward a society that respects all gender and gender choices. Read a newspaper or watch the news – rules, rights and expectations around gender issues are changing and being more inclusive. On other days, less optimism feels appropriate. Reflection reminds us about how slow and difficult change can be.

I recently came across Catherine S. Manegold’s In Glory’s Shadow: Shannon Faulkner, The Citadel, and a Changing America. The book brings back memories of a story that dominated headlines. For those who do not recall, or are too young to know, Faulkner was the first woman to sue to join The Citadel‘s all-male corps of cadets. It was years of drama, conflict and resistance. And it wasn’t all that long ago.

The Citadel is a state-supported military college in Charleston, South Carolina. It was founded in the early 1800s, a result of the attempted Denmark Vesey slave rebellion. The Citadel was established to train young white men to keep whites in power. It has been a beacon of a certain set of traditional values ever since. The Citadel’s corps of cadets was all male for decades, even after the larger institution became coeducational. Faulkner was denied entrance to the corps in the early 1990s. She eventually prevailed through a protracted public and legal battle. Faulkner enrolled in 1995, overcoming massive resistance and a legal case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. However, the victory in many ways was represented as Pyrrhic; a few days after starting the corps, Faulkner left.

Manegold, a journalist, wrote this book in 1999. It is not a biography of Faulkner, who was a catalyst for change, so much as a study of the Citadel and its culture. Through that effort, we better understand Faulkner – and the massive, hysterical, violent reaction to her wanting to attend and join the institution’s all-male corps of cadets. It is also an interesting window on a drama that is grounded in a resistance to gender equity.

Manegold writes with a flourish. She avoids short sentences and instead lets her prose expand and wander. She is after something hard to explain: how a protected and praised culture of hazing, violence and hyper-machismo that would be called toxic masculinity today grew and flourished. For decades on decades, the Citadel corps lived as a world of its own, featuring young men punishing younger men in pursuit of tradition, group identity, honor and something else. The hazing was extreme. Headed by retired military, The Citadel’s corps and the larger institution was a bastion of a particular kind of machismo.

While this book is not academic history, it explains a great deal about how sub-cultures at colleges can grow or be controlled. The leadership at the Citadel over the decades made half-hearted attempts to reign in the hazing and violence of the corps, but never really brought it to heel. Instead, the retired military men who ran the institution tempered their concerns with admiration for the fighting spirit of the cadets. If you couple the complaints and winks with the influence of the alumni and traditionalists who saw the corps as resisting change and representing something special, it is possible to comprehend things that otherwise might seem inexplicable. For example, the drop out rate of cadets was high, with many young men truly suffering through the process. There were even neo-Nazi hazing rituals taking place at The Citadel through the 1980s.

Manegold contrasts the local Charleston story with the broader efforts at gender equality, focusing on the New York lawyers who helped Faulkner’s case. She does an excellent job profiling Shannon Faulkner, a child of South Carolina who hailed from a different heritage and tradition than those that regularly attended The Citadel. Faulkner was a young woman with a stubborn streak who thought that if men could do it, she should get the chance to do so, too. Faulkner and her family and friends endured all manner of violence, threats and hate through the fight. The battle was ugly.

Manegold’s research makes it abundantly clear that leaving Citadel was a choice that many cadets made over the years. Faulkner’s departure was, in many ways, to be expected. The following year, a few women did enroll in the corps and stay to complete. Manegold explores the nuances that successful female cadets had to navigate in a culture – and world. In the decades since, more women have joined the corps. In 2018, a woman became regimental commander of the corps.

Looking back to the 1990s, why such resistance to change? What drove the fear of opening up this opportunity to women? Manegold wrestles with teh question, trying to understand the resistance, writing about honor, discrimination and tradition. She does not call it out, but it is clear that the Citadel and its corps never truly unpacked the tangled next of values driving the corps of cadets. The culture was originally organized around an identified threat – slaves – and exclusionary thinking was woven throughout its culture. Its internal practices of hazing and extreme competition were designed to whittle out participants, leaving a small group that validated what it had done – and would do.

This kind of dynamic is not uncommon when we see exclusion – by gender, by race, by religion, by whatever – driving a group. It is a cycle of power, identity, and self-justification. Central to that is often the need for some other group to be identified as a threat. Change is experienced as loss, the possible loss of power and privilege stirs deep fear, and fear usually leads to bad behavior. Those that opposed the introduction of women to The Citadel’s corps were scared – terrified, really, that their organization and culture would not have the internal strength and values to adapt.

Institutions of higher education, which are default about students’ growth, have a special obligation to look at any and all exclusionary practices carefully. That extends to all that we do.

And when it comes to women and the military – the real military – I would like to pay tribute to Shannon Kent. She died in a bomb attack in Syria. Officially a Navy Chief Petty Officer, Kent was a cryptologic technician, a member of Special Operations, and five-tour military veteran. She spoke five languages, multiple Arabic dialects, and could meet all the wild physical requirements for her to be deployed with Navy Seals. More than a thousand people attended a memorial service for her. She was also a mom of two boys. Kent was a warrior and a hero.

David Potash

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