ACROSS THE FENCE: "What do you think of Shannon Faulkner?" asked my neighbor, a little too gleefully.
Uh-oh. Dangerous territory. You have to understand that this elderly man is one of the best neighbors you could have. He named the trees in his front yard for my kids and he picks up our mail when we're away and he never complains about our drifting palo verde needles. But whenever he tries to talk politics, I remember a pot boiling over on the stove. Or I ask one more time just how many miles he had to walk to school when he was a farm boy in the Midwest.
But this was a direct question. I saw no escape. I also didn't know that Faulkner, the first woman ever admitted to The Citadel military college, had called it quits a few hours earlier. I tried to stay casual. "Oh," I said. "More power to her."
He narrowed his eyes, thrust out his chin and jumped into a furious tirade. Faulkner had departed, he said, and a damn good thing, too, because she was eminently unqualified for the elite military school. Besides being a girl, and fat to boot, she had lied to get in. Why should they lower their standards for her? It was only to be expected that as a woman, she would fail. In fact, he went on, Faulkner is like all women today. They don't want to have to work for anything, want everything handed to them. As Old Miles Standish said and said so well, he concluded, if you don't work you don't eat.
Trying to stay detached, I made a mental note to check that Standish quote. Still, I was wounded by his puzzling assertions about lazy women, so clearly contrary to the facts about the women in his life. And I was dismayed to hear that Faulkner had quit. As my neighbor so clearly demonstrated, the legions of woman-haters around the land would make political hay of her personal travails.
I tried with no success to temper the discussion with a few facts as I understood them. Faulkner had not lied: She had deleted references to sex on her application and was accepted into the school on the merits of her record, having met The Citadel's own standards. She never asked for anything more than an equal shot at what she saw as the best education available at what, after all, is a taxpayer-supported school.
As is always the case when my neighbor and I talk politics, the exchange was more head-on collision than conversation. Sometimes, I think that we're perfect representatives of the two polarities in contemporary American life. If you want to put labels on us, he's a right-leaning conservative and I'm a left-leaning liberal and never the twain shall meet. I can hardly think of a single issue on which we agree, apart from the fact that we both think the neighbors on the other side are plumb crazy.
But his stance on Faulkner just doesn't ring true. To me, this feisty young woman conjures up the old-fashioned, all-American rugged individualist. You'd think conservatives would admire her pluck, her determination to make something of her life, so different from what we hear ad nauseam about other kids her age.
Later, when I watched the 10 o'clock news I learned that Faulkner was but one of 24 cadets to pull up stakes after the first grueling week. And, unlike Faulkner, the others hadn't had to put up with the whole world watching their slow progress toward admission. They hadn't had to rappel over innumerable legal roadblocks thrown up by the school's state-paid administrators. Nor had they had to ignore all the hate mail and pickets hoping to intimidate them. And unlike Faulkner, solitary in her female quarters, they had their buddies alongside them for moral support.
But their departures weren't shown on the national news. No one saw their personal decisions as evidence of the weakness of their sex. Far from demonstrating my neighbor's contention that women are getting life's platter handed to them, the Faulkner episode shows that women, especially those leaping over old barriers, are held to a higher standard than men.
The whole sorry spectacle--of a college bringing to bear all its legal weapons to battle against one young girl and the girls who want to follow her--is a sad reminder of how much the military and much of the nation still wallows in a fetid sexism. I can't exactly tell myself that this contempt for women is a dying thing, to be found only in a man of 87 years who was raised in a different world. No, vitriol towards women seems in a fair way to be fruitful and to prosper in the new generation. A picture in the next morning's paper showed swarms of elated cadets, Faulkner's very own classmates, cheering and raising their fists in victory.
It's not too hard for my neighbor and me to mend our own fences after each of our wrenching confrontations. We steer our conversation off into the old days--by the way, it was two miles, each direction, to his boyhood school. But the splintery fences dividing the nation into two hostile camps, into those cheering Faulkner's departure and those mourning her sorrows, are a long way from being mended.
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