Shannon Faulkner's Crowning Glory

August 05, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- It is safe to say that the people driving around South Carolina with those bumper stickers were not her allies. ''Shave Shannon'' was not the rallying cry of the Shannon Faulkner Support Society.

They didn't pretend that the shearing of this young woman's hair would be a rite of passage into the corps of cadets. They didn't pretend that a badge of baldness would make her welcome as a full member of the Citadel ranks.

Shannon Faulkner's opponents -- and there are lots of them -- favored shaving as proper punishment, as humiliation, as harassment, for the woman who dared to breach the true last bastion of all-male state-supported military schools.

On Monday the judge ruled for the bumper stickers.

The same judge who forced the Citadel to accept this young woman as a cadet said it was OK to shave her head: ''The Citadel is perfectly at liberty to treat the hair on her head the same way it treats the hair of every other cadet.''

If there is no appeal, and if the Citadel doesn't come to its public- relations senses, on August 15, Shannon Faulkner may be instantly transformed by the ritual razor into a ''knob.'' She may have the doorknob-shaped head of a first-year cadet.

So her lawsuit for equality may end with a symbolic sentence of sameness. The woman who wanted the full Citadel experience may get the full treatment. Other women will get the full message.

The irony is that, in the case of Shannon Faulkner's hair, a lawyer for the school that has fought her admission every inch of the way argued in part that a merely short haircut -- like the one allowed women at West Point -- would leave her short-changed of the school's experience. ''The whole point is the subjugation of the individual to the interests of the group,'' said Dawes Cooke, ''Many cadets have described that haircut as the most humiliating moment of their lives.''

On the other hand, Shannon's lawyer, who pressed the case for equal admissions, argued in favor of different hair. He showed the court pictures of women whose heads were shaved for collaborating with the enemy in World War II. Those barbers too, undoubtedly, wanted to ''subjugate the individual to the interests of the group.''

Indeed, the meaning of an experience or a ritual can change by context and by gender. A shaving that bonds 2,000 males can further ostracize one female. A hazing that serves as entry exam for the majority can be institutionalized hostility against a minority. Equal acts may have have unequal meaning.

Now maybe we shouldn't make a federal case out of a hairdo, though that is exactly what's happened. There were more important things at stake in that courtroom Monday than locks of Shannon's hair. Locks on Shannon's door, for example.

But the Citadel story is intriguing precisely because it seems like a rerun, a period piece from an earlier time and an earlier generation of women. When women tried to break through the first bastions, it was assumed that they would abide by the existing male-made rules. They would be treated equally, which is to say the same.

Shannon may be ordered to give up hair, but the older generation of women in the professional male world was expected to give up other female vanities. Like pregnancy and motherhood. Only gradually, as women who won access to institutions, we came to believe that the same laws applied uniformly could have different effects.

We also came to believe that real equality meant the equal right to make the rules. We began the longer, slower process of transforming the places where we study, work, live.

Shannon Faulkner is still a pioneer but on the last frontier. Many of us are torn between admiring her courage and wondering why on earth she would want to go there. We have forgotten the time when every place was ''there.''

Having won access to the Citadel -- the first battle -- she is immediately thrust into the second battle about whether equal is as men do. Whether women have the right to make changes -- even fashion statements -- about the places that accept them.

Sooner or later, women will alter the Citadel. The men are quite right about that. The school that has resisted change with every lawyer and fiber of its being is now going to be a laboratory of change.

The question is whether they will fully accept women or make them miserable and pretend they are upholding an equality of miseries.

In this case, may I suggest that they begin by using their heads. Start with the hair.

8, Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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