At the age of 18 Shannon Faulkner had a dream. She wanted to see what Hell was like. It was a struggle to get there but last week, aged 20, she made it - whereupon she decided Hell wasn't for her, turned around and went home.
Hell is a South Carolina military college, the Citadel, which has been an all-male preserve during the 153 years of its existence. Ms Faulkner spent two years in court battles to be admitted. On Monday she turned up at the college to begin her first week of basic training. "Hell Week", the cadets call it.
The temperature was 100 degrees and within a couple of hours she, and three male cadets, were in the infirmary, with heatstroke. She spent four days there and then went to a hospital for tests, where she received the all-clear to resume training. On Friday afternoon she called a press conference and, under thunder and lightning and pouring rain, announced she had had enough.
Unearthly cries resounded around the Citadel. Cadets whooped, cheered, banged pipes, raised fists in victory, capered in the rain. "Shrew Shannon", as the in-house journal had described her, had buckled under the strain. The courts had failed but then the gods had intervened, heaping just punishment upon the impious one.
Ms Faulkner's enterprise had been noble. Bigger battles had already been fought and won 20 years ago by the first female entrants to West Point and the Naval and Air Force Academies. But the Citadel, a stepping-stone to the quasi-Masonic elite of South Carolina society, remained one of two publicly funded military colleges that still banned women.
Upon arriving on Monday the thought might have crossed her mind that admission should be prohibited to all human beings.
Quite apart from the murderous physical training regime, first-year cadets must endure scant sleep, menial duties and abuse from their superiors. During the first 12 months they may address "upperclassmen" in no more than three ways: "Sir, yes, sir!" "Sir, no, sir!" "Sir, excuse me, sir!" As if this were not intolerable enough, Ms Faulkner arrived in the presence of four federal marshals, on hand because of death threats she had received during her two-year legal quest. One marshal stayed with her all week and was at her side, arm over her shoulder, as she addressed her farewell press conference.
Ms Faulkner said she felt able to handle the physical demands but was leaving because she feared a mental breakdown. Holly Scroggs, the wife of a cadet, said later: "She doesn't belong here. She's proved that to everybody. There's something sacred left in America."
Another way of looking at Ms Faulkner's retreat from the Citadel is as a victory for common sense - one shared by 30 male cadets who followed her example, packed their kit and left.Reuse content