At stake in a case which for months has electrified the genteel and languid city of Charleston is a vestige of the Southern military traditions forged during the Confederacy: the right of a military college called the Citadel, funded by the taxpayers of South Carolina, to bar female students from its Cadet Corps.
In the past few years, one male redoubt after another has crumbled before the feminist tide. Women routinely fly F-15 fighters off aircraft carriers: indeed official policy permits them to hold practically any post in the military, save those involving direct ground combat. In 1991 even the Skull and Crossbones private club at Yale, once graced by George Bush and the like, allowed women to join. But until 1993 the Citadel, which throughout its 151- year history has prided itself for the toughness, discipline and fellowship only men could share, had remained inviolate. Then came the 19-year-old Ms Faulkner.
Fresh out of high school, she wanted to enrol at the Academy. Artfully, she made out her application form with no mention of her sex, and the Citadel provisionally accepted her. But when she appeared in person, the awful truth was apparent: Shannon could be a girl's name, too. The acceptance was revoked. Shannon Faulkner sued.
And so, exactly 40 years after the historic Brown vs Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court which outlawed 'separate but equal' systems of public education, another legal struggle for desegregation is under way. In 1954 the issue was race and colour. This time it is gender.
The hearing, which could last three weeks or more, bids fair to be an American courtroom spectacular. Pyschologists, education experts, and former state governors as well as male students hostile to Ms Faulkner, are among the 70-odd witnesses expected to testify. The Justice Department and the American Civil Liberties Union have thrown their weight behind Ms Faulkner.
But the question arises - why does she want to join an institution which would make her life a misery if she were admitted? The ostensible reason is one of principle, the right of equal access for both sexes to an academy funded by public money. And then there is 'the ring'.
The Citadel's ring is more than a formal badge of graduation. For Shannon Faulkner it means 'the education you have to go through, and the world that is open to you when you get the ring, the immense network of alumni'. Right now, however, those alumni would probably give a warmer reception to an Aids-infected leper - as long as he were male.
As a sign of its determination to crack Citadel resistance, the Department yesterday appealed against a lower court ruling allowing the only other all-male public military college, the Virginia Military Institute, to escape desegregation by promising to set up a school for women. That remains the hope of the Citadel, too, in the war to save its purity.Reuse content