Honor women? Citadel to learn what it means

September 01, 1996|By Mary Newsom

SORRY GENTS, but no more condoms on the Christmas tree.

That's right. The Citadel and its supporters - the crowd that used to claim that even though women were barred from the state-supported college, cadets there were taught to treat women with respect - these "gentleman soldiers" are sad that they'll have to change some of their ways. I say, it's about time.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that a state-run college such as The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., cannot exclude women, Citadel officials have been publicly saying all the right things.

"We're not looking to the past," said the school's interim president, Brig. Gen. Clifton Poole. "We're ... trying to concentrate all our energies and efforts to make the new role we have successful."

Four women recently arrived in Charleston to join The Citadel's corps of cadets. They are Jean Marie Mentavlos of Charlotte, N.C., Kim Messer of Clover, S.C., Nancy Mace of Goose Creek, S.C., and Petra Lovetinska of Washington. They all got their Citadel haircuts: not the shaved cuts that long ago gave male freshmen the nickname "knobs," but seriously short.

But some alumni fear something they treasured will be lost with the admission of women. To understand their fear you must understand the strength of the traditions forged during The Citadel's 154-year history. It is a military-style college (although only a third of its graduates go into military service) that emphasizes a fraternity-hazing approach to education. "Knobs" are screamed at by upperclassmen, insulted, forced to walk in the gutter. This is intended to build character and loyalty.

Some alumni fear the women won't be treated the same. The cadets' unity is said to be based on knowing all were treated equally and all survived the harassment. Without equal harassment that unity will crumble, some fear. This so-called racking is not universally admired, even by Citadel alumni, nor does it sound to me like a sound way to build character - particularly since it encourages upperclassmen to act with hate and cruelty.

Nevertheless, a good number of alumni and students are mourning the good old days, when the guys could have a little all-male fun.

"I doubt anybody's going to put any condoms on the Christma '' tree when they decorate it now," said lawyer Richard Lovelace of Conway, S.C., class of '68.

Indeed, I'm sure Emily Post would tell you the mark of a true gentleman is his ability to make Christmas decorations out of rubbers.

More to the point, they can't understand how you can insult and harass fellow cadets if some of them are women, to whom they are supposed to be courteous. As cadet Marwon Marzagao of Rio de Janeiro told a reporter a few years ago, "They teach cadets to be polite to ladies. But if you integrate women in here, you'd have cadets yelling at them all the time, like they do to the knobs. It goes against everything that this school is trying to make you out to be."

This must surely confuse the poor fellows. After all, one of the ways to insult the knobs was to call them the vilest things they could imagine. Specifically, they would refer to them as female.

"Part of it was, 'You're a wimp, you're acting like a little girl'," said Lovelace.

Further, some alumni say, those insults to cadets' masculinity have always been complete with references to a female body part typically compared to a cat, if you catch my drift.

So it turns out The Citadel, while claiming to teach cadets to treat women with courtesy, let cadets refer to women by an obscene genital term. What kind of attitude toward women does that encourage?

Men who use such language illustrate more clearly than they imagine how they view women. We are just genitalia, with legs and arms attached. Is that how they think of their grandmothers? Mothers? Sisters? Daughters?

Cadets were taught to be polite to women - to their faces. But when women weren't around, they were obscenities, and scorned. If these are gentlemen, I'll take my chances with the boors.

The Citadel's new rules forbid harassment that mentions gender or body parts. It's about time.

To their credit, not all Citadel alumni appear to have absorbed that attitude toward women. Further, Citadel men are not the only ones in history who have, while proclaiming the highest regard for women, treated them as objects of hatred or disgust. That's been a recurring theme for centuries.

It continues, and not only at The Citadel. Men and boys still act as if being "like a girl" were a pitiable state. Coaches, fathers and other males do this routinely, regardless of what it does to the hearts and souls of girls. Girls, of course, silently absorb the message.

Bland Mellette, class of '63, disagrees with those who predict the college's demise. His daughter, Nancy Mellette, sued to attend The Citadel but later chose a West Point preparatory school.

"Maybe we were doing the cadets a disservice by not exposing them to women who can give commands, who are aggressive," he said. "Because one day, those cadets may have to work for a woman."

Some traditions deserve to die. One is that of teaching young men they can routinely refer to women as obscenities and still be "gentlemen," so long as they are polite when women are around. That is merely misogynist hypocrisy.

Mary Newsom is an assocate editor at the Charlotte Observer. Knight-Ridder News Service distributed her article.

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