Unisex World View

May 27, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — A T-shirt on campus compares The Citadel cadets to the spotted owls. It calls them both ''Endangered Species.'' A button worn in the visitors' gallery of the courtroom makes its own point. It reads: ''Save the Males.''

The Citadel -- along with the Virginia Military Institute -- is literally the last bastion of the all-male public military colleges. It's a bastion under siege by a young woman named Shannon Faulkner, who wants to join the cadet corps and thinks she has the Constitution on her side.

In the past weeks, a curious spectacle has unfolded in the Charleston, S.C., court. A spectacle of The Citadel men defining themselves as victims of change. A spectacle of lawyers for a traditional college using -- or abusing -- feminist arguments to defend their all-male turf. A spectacle of men waving the flag of institutional diversity to justify denying access to women.

Exactly 40 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in the public schools was unconstitutional. Now The Citadel is arguing for separate but equal public colleges for men and women.

There is no attempt to deny that The Citadel discriminates against women, or against Shannon Faulkner, who was accepted on her record and then denied on account of her sex. Instead The Citadel lawyer challenged the premise of admitting women: ''The case is not just about The Citadel or just about Shannon Faulkner or just about higher education. It's about a unisex world view of the law of the land.''

He used the word ''unisex'' -- rather than coed or egalitarian -- deliberately. The Citadel is hanging its hopes on the belief that we have gone somehow ''beyond'' the notion that men and women are the same and should have the same education.

Indeed today, we live in an era of great attention to small differences. Scientists focus their research on male and female brains. Pop books tell us that women are from Venus and men are from Mars, that women run with wolves and men with Robert Bly.

Many women, too, have come to regard the promise of unisex institutions the way they regard unisex sizing in a catalog. It's as if we have been offered the chance to try and fit our own female shapes into the existing male molds.

Women's colleges now argue that women do much better in all-female institutions. They argue that the cutting edge of feminist change is sharpened in these encouraging environments.

But if colleges like Wellesley and Smith are the female avant-garde, all-male colleges like VMI and The Citadel form the rear-guard. On The Citadel campus, testified one witness and graduate, the word woman is used in a derogatory way ''every day, every minute, every hour.'' And yet the lawyers use the arguments of the Wellesleys and the Smiths to defend The Citadel. They use the arguments of change agents perversely to defend the resistance.

VMI has done that as well. A judge recently allowed the college to remain male as long as the state provided a separate but equal program for women at nearby Mary Baldwin College.

''If VMI marches to the beat of a drum,'' he wrote, ''then Mary Baldwin marches to the melody of a fife, and when the march is over both will arrive at the same destination.'' But how does he know that they are headed in the same direction?

More to the point, the constitutional point, what about the young woman who wants to march to the beat of the drum? Can she be excluded because there is a fife corps in the neighborhood? These are questions that the Justice Department will ask in the appeal.

The Citadel, however, hasn't even drawn up a parallel program for women. They are pleading for institutional ''diversity'' in the ''unisex'' educational environment. They are hanging their case on the all-male school's status as an endangered species.

But if The Citadel wants to stay all-male, it can do so without calling upon some educational protection agency. Women's colleges are private. The Citadel can save the males by rejecting public money.

Despite the appeal to gender and difference, the issue here hasn't changed much since the first cases against discrimination. Taxpayer money is going to an institution that prohibits any chance of access to Shannon Faulkner or half the population of South Carolina.

I don't remember anyone rallying to save the last school that segregated African-Americans in the name of racist diversity. The endangered species here is not men. It's discrimination against women. And I won't be sad to see that wiped out.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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