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Knives sharpen for haircut of the century: Not all the battle to win the right to join a male-dominated military academy in the Deep South has been a growth experience for its first female entrant. Rupert Cornwell in Charleston reports

JUSTICE Department newspeak calls it a 'gender-neutral grooming policy.' Rick Mill, a major in the United States Marine Corps Reserve and, since 1992, the Citadel military college spokesman , spells it out in plain English.

The barber sets his clippers to leave between one-quarter and one-eighth of an inch of hair all over. 'Then he turns the clippers upside down. He goes along the middle first, then takes off the sides strip by strip and finally goes round each ear to tidy things up. It's all over in 10 or 15 seconds.'

This is the tonsure facing Ms Shannon Faulkner next week. Not since Delilah did the honours to Samson has a haircut caused such a fuss. On Monday, barring a last- minute stay by the US 4th Circuit court or the Supreme Court, she will become the first woman to enter the Citadel's Corps of Cadets in its 152-year-long history.

The battle has lasted almost 18 months, dividing this old Southern city. Last week the college, while lodging its final appeal, agreed on terms of surrender. Shannon Faulkner will live separately from her 2,000 male colleagues in a special room in the infirmary building, fitted with a lock and key and an alarm. Her study classes and uniform also have been agreed. The one vexed point - apart from the question of whether she should cross the threshold of this temple of Dixie militarism at all - is the haircut.

Since the First World War every entrant has undergone this rite of initiation. Thereafter the Citadel sets out, crudely, systematically and if neccessary, brutally, to knock out every shred of individuality from the freshman. The 'knob year' it is called, after the shorn heads of its victims.

The discipline is spartan: endless standing to attention, push- ups and pointless orders. Permission has to be asked for everything and every sentence begins and ends with 'Sir'. At worst it can descend into 'hazing', the persecution and humiliation of a freshman, to break him. Many are broken. Up to one in five drops out. It is a peculiar disgrace at an establishment, where for generations Southern families have sent their boys to be turned into men.

This is the iron-clad world that Shannon Faulkner seeks to penetrate. Back in 1992 an English teacher instructed her class to read an article about the Citadel's less endearing practices. Not to worry, she was told. As a woman she could not enter. Quite why Shannon decided to seek otherwise is unknown. She filled out an application form, omitting to refer to her sex. The Citadel provisionally accepted Shannon, only to reject her when it discovered its mistake. But she persevered.

Shannon Faulkner's struggle defies simple stereotypes. Up to a point it is a well-rehearsed American crusade for rights, featuring the usual armies of lawyers. It also rubs on some familiar resentments in this part of the world. Thinly disguised Yankee demons are ranged against them again: the Justice Department, fancy New York lawyers and psychologists, expert in such fields as 'gender tokenism' - and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

But Shannon Faulkner is not an icy, driven feminist. In the courtroom she is large, cheerful and utterly unawed. 'A normal 19- year-old who likes to hang out,' a friend describes her. As her attorneys sparred on Wednesday, to avert the shaven-head ruling, she flicked through the Guidon, the bible of Citadel rules and customs, sent to every entrant. Doomed auburn tresses tumble down her back. She is an avowed believer in Southern hospitality, Southern manners and the Southern belle.

Her readiness to undergo the ordeal which awaits her requires Southern steel. She has endured hate mail and the sight of 'Shave Shannon' bumper stickers and T- shirts reading '1,952 bulldogs and one bitch'. The campus magazine refers to her as 'The Divine Bovine' and speculates about her sexual preferences. Lieutenant- General Claudius E. Watts III, the Citadel's president, made it clear last week that he wants her out and a state poll last March found that 63 per cent agreed.

Why is she persevering? Partly out of stubbornness. Since the Citadel is a public institute, discrimination against women violates the constitution. And, she adds, it is a good college, ranked among the best in the South.

Ted Turner, who controls CNN and the Atlanta Braves baseball club, is an alumnus. The mayor of Charleston, Joe Riley, is another. So was General William Westmoreland, that real-life soldier of Vietnam fame and shame.

What they have in common is the Ring, an embossed chunk of 10-carat gold, worn on the right hand and awarded to every successful graduate. It is badge of membership of Dixie's most potent old-boy network. Why, says Shannon Faulkner, should she be deprived of that opportunity?

Simple, retorts Major Mill. 'The Citadel knows how to train young men to become men. But it doesn't know how to train young women to become men and it doesn't know how to train young women to become women.' On 23 July District Judge Weston Houck disagreed, ruling that even the Citadel must learn new tricks. But not in the barbering department. 'The Citadel can treat her hair in the same way it treats the hair of every other cadet,' he said.

The first day on campus of 'knob' Faulkner S. Class 4, will be a media spectacle. Fifty news organisations turned up when she began day classes earlier this year. Major Mill predicts three times that number when she starts full- time on the Citadel campus, a white-painted Moorish castle. 'They're not going to be running all over the place: we'll have a holding area over there,' he says, gesturing at a small building in a corner. There can be no concealing another Southern lost cause, the all-male Citadel.

Perhaps the college has seen the writing on the wall. It could go private. But, the Citadel needs every penny to modernise its four barracks. The overhaul will take 10 years. The hope for 2005 is that the Citadel will be spared Shannon Faulkner and all her sex. A more probable outcome is an architectural configuration that will allow speedy adjustment to any requirement - even to women.

(Photograph omitted)