I am a general's daughter. I know a battle when I see one. I never dreamed, however, that the battle to graduate a woman from The Citadel would turn out to be mine.
Looking back on it now, my coming to The Citadel seems like destiny. I grew up in the home of The Citadel's most decorated living graduate, Brigadier General Emory Mace. My father grew up "poor but proud," to use the local phrase. Dad was very young when my grandfather died, so from an early age my father and grandmother struggled to make ends meet in the low country of South Carolina. There were few jobs for women in those days, but my grandmother found work with the county office of children's social services. The pay was low, but she believed strongly in community service and found satisfaction in her work. My father did his part, taking odd jobs to help his mother while he was still a young boy. And like so many low country boys, he became a skilled hunter and fisherman. The woods around South Carolina provided him both with adventure and with fish and game for his mother to cook for dinner. When he was big enough, he also began to catch alligators in the local marshes and sell them for profit. It wasn't strictly legal, but it brought in much-needed money, and the neighbors pretty much looked the other way. If Dad could help his family get by, all the better.
My dad has always said that it was The Citadel that changed his life. Among his other jobs, Dad drove the local school bus during high school to make ends meet. It was through this job that he met a Citadel graduate who took a liking to my father and wanted to help him. Recognizing my father's grit and intelligence, he offered to sponsor Dad for admission to The Citadel. At the time, my father knew almost nothing about the College. He did know, however, that college would give him an education and a chance in life he would otherwise never have. Dad accepted the man's offer gratefully, and arrangements were made for my father to become a cadet. The afternoon that a relative dropped Dad off at Padgett-Thomas Barracks, near the center of campus, my father's life changed forever.
From the time I was a little girl, I heard stories of my father's college days. His scholarship and loans didn't begin to cover all his expenses, so to make up the deficit, my dad would go into the swamps near the Ashley River at night and poach alligators like he had as a boy. It was a dangerous but profitable business that paid his tuition for four years. Dad soon became famous on campus for his backwoods stunts. There is a picture in the 1963 Citadel yearbook that shows him posing with a live alligator. Dad is standing on the second gallery of 2nd Battalion, holding the alligator by the neck. The animal's tail dangles down to my dad's feet, and its jaws are wide open, just inches from my father's face, as it struggles to get loose. Another time Dad sank a metal spike in the grass on Summerall Field and chained a large alligator to it in the dark of night. The next morning he watched through his barracks window and chuckled as frightened senior officers tried to remove the alligator from the field. Everyone knew who had done it, but no one could prove it, and Dad escaped punishment.
Once he became an upperclassman, my father quickly became a legend among the "knobs" (freshmen) assigned to him. Every knob in his company looked at my father with a combination of hatred and awe. When he got a craving for roast duck, Dad would go hunting and make his knobs pluck and clean the birds for him, then take the ducks to the Mess Hall for roasting. A college photo shows a line-up of unhappy freshmen holding a brace of dead ducks ripe for plucking. The most famous knob incident, however, took place during my father's senior year. My dad didn't think one of his knobs was toeing the line, so when Dad returned from a poaching expedition before dawn one morning, he opened his knob's door and threw the angry alligator into the room where the unsuspecting freshman was sleeping. Dad watched just long enough to see the terrified cadet scramble to the top bunk with his roommate, then shut the door and walked away. He eventually went back and retrieved the angry alligator, but he had made his point. Nobody messed with my dad.
My father is the product of another time and place, and many people don't understand him. They see only his toughness, but I have always seen his courage. The walls of our house were lined with medals for bravery in battle, and I knew my dad had risked his life over and over again to save his men in battle. For as long as I can remember, my father has been my hero. I wanted nothing more than to prove that I was my father's daughter, to make him proud of me. I had little hope that would ever happen.
Life had always been a battle for me. I was a skinny, sensitive little girl, prone to sickness and often unhappy. My father was gone much of the time and paid little attention to me when he was home. I sometimes wondered if he even loved me. My mother was my primary source of comfort and strength, in part because we are so much alike. I always knew she loved me; I also knew there were times when she could have killed me. Looking back on my early years, Mom says she didn't always know whether to hug me or strangle me. I wasn't an easy child to raise, and I often taxed her patience to the limit.
School was difficult for me from the beginning. My mother vividly remembers the struggle of sending me off to kindergarten. I was deeply attached to my younger brother, James, fiercely protective, and convinced that it was my job to take care of him. When I first learned that I would not be taking James to school with me, I fell apart. It took all my mother's patient reassurance to convince me that I should leave James in her hands. From my first day of kindergarten, she had trouble getting me to leave the house. Part of the problem was that I worried constantly about getting everything just right. Dressed for school each morning in my little dresses and fold-down socks, I would be fussing with my socks before I even finished breakfast. For reasons my mother could not understand, I was convinced that I couldn't leave the house unless my socks were folded exactly even. Every morning she would have to get out the ruler and measure my socks, carefully adjusting the folds until they were exactly even. When she finally lost patience and tried to make me leave the house without the usual ritual, I burst into tears and cried as if my heart would break. Torn between worry and exasperation, Mom got the ruler out and adjusted my socks until I stopped crying. She tells me that she was never sure whether I was worried that the people at school wouldn't like me if I wasn't perfect, or whether I was simply finding reasons not to leave her. Probably a little of both. Fortunately, my mother is a combination of strength, compassion, and patience, for I required all three.
Fortunately, I did have my father's persistence -- my mother would say stubbornness -- and that persistence eventually paid off. When I was six years old, my mother took me to a swim meet to watch my older sister, Mary, compete. Thrilled at the sight of my sister racing through the water, I announced at dinner that night that I wanted to join the swim team, too. At the time, I was small for my age and could barely flounder the few yards across the shallow end of a pool. My mother diplomatically informed me that summer was over, my swimsuit was already packed in a box at the top of the closet, and it was too late to join my sister's team. Thinking that would be the end of the discussion, she put me to bed and forgot about it.
Hours later, long after she and my father had gone to sleep, she was awakened by a noise in the next room. Tracing the noise to my bedroom, she found me balanced on the top of a chair in the closet, boxes tumbled around my feet. I was triumphantly holding my swimsuit. I announced that I was now "all ready" to join the swim team. It was two o'clock in the morning. Too tired to argue, my mother promised to take me to the pool after school the next day and tucked me back into bed. Mom kept her promise, and the following afternoon she somehow convinced the team coach to take on an undersized girl who could barely swim. At my first meet, I struggled to reach the end of the pool long after the other girls had finished the race and dried off. Any other child would have given up, but not me. Meet after meet, I splashed awkwardly down the length of the pool, and by the end of the season I was keeping up with the slower, older swimmers. The following year I began winning, eventually becoming a champion swimmer. I had learned my first lesson in persistence.
About the same time I first jumped into the deep end of a pool, our family received a visit from an old college friend of my dad's named Jimmy Jones. My father had given me a blue Citadel T-shirt from the College gift shop and taught me how to brace and salute like a cadet. When I heard that the visiting friend was from The Citadel, I insisted on wearing my shirt and greeting him with a salute when he pulled up to the house in his car. An old family photograph shows me standing at attention, my chin tucked in, my face serious with concentration as I salute Mr. Jones. My mother captured the moment on film and tucked the snapshot away in an album for more than a decade. It would be twelve years before any of us thought of that picture again.
Life didn't get any easier for me with the passing of the years. I didn't know it yet, but I was suffering the increasing effects of a learning disability called attention deficit disorder. Academics had always been a source of frustration and shame for me. I had trouble focusing or memorizing, my thought processes were often disrupted, and long periods of forced concentration made me want to crawl out of my skin. The increasing demands of my high school curriculum were rapidly becoming too much for me. It was humiliating. There were days I just wanted to give up.
I didn't seem to fit in socially, either. As an Army brat, I moved constantly with my family, so it was difficult to form lasting friendships. By the time I entered my teens, I was deeply confused about who I was and where I belonged. No matter where I turned, I felt like an outsider. I tried to fit in by partying my freshman year of high school, but it only made things worse. By my sophomore year, I was so miserable that my parents sent me to Florida, to stay with my older sister, Beth Ann, for a while. For several months, I baby-sat my nieces and nephews and worked as a lifeguard at the local beach, entering several lifeguarding competitions as well. When summer ended, I returned to my parents' house and my old high school, hoping that this time things would go better there. Instead, everything just got worse.
Because I had been gone for several months, gossip began to circulate that I'd been pregnant and gone away to have the baby. The rumors grew and grew, and some of the guys at school started treating me like the town slut. I began getting nasty prank calls at home, and when I walked down the hallways at school, some of the football players would purposely bump into me or press me up against the walls and make lewd comments. My mother changed our phone number and bought caller ID, but there was no way to stop people's tongues. Soon other rumors followed: I was a drug addict, I'd had an abortion for a second pregnancy, and on and on. It never seemed to stop. Worst of all, nobody even seemed to care if what they said was true. They liked to gossip too much to let the truth get in the way. The final blow came during junior year, when a good friend of mine was killed by a drunk driver the day after a party I had attended. I was devastated. I sank into a depression so deep that I required antidepressants just to get through the days. I had hit rock bottom. I no longer cared whether I lived or died, and that terrified me. I needed help.
My mother, worried about me, took me out of school and forced me to go through a series of psychological and neurological tests. The tests revealed what my mom already suspected: that I had ADD, a neurological condition that made it difficult for me to learn. At first I resisted the diagnosis, for I didn't like to be labeled "learning disabled." Eventually, though, with my mother's help, I began to accept the reality of my condition. I started on prescription medication for the ADD and worked to acquire coping skills to help me compensate for my disability. The seeds of hope began to grow within me, and with hope came renewed courage. I stopped taking the antidepressants and concentrated on other ways to get well.
Meanwhile, my mother arranged to have me home schooled by a friend of hers, a local teacher. Slowly, with Mom's support, I began to construct a happier life for myself. By the time I turned seventeen, I discovered to my astonishment that my grades had soared. Enrolling the following year in classes at Trident Tech, the local community college, my self-esteem was further boosted, as I found out that even there, I could compete -- and frequently excel. For the first time in my life, I had hope that I might have a future after all. The same perseverance that taken me the length of the pool when I was six was now helping me reach a more important goal -- a happy and productive life.
It was about this same time that I started hearing about The Citadel once more, this time on the evening news. A high school girl named Shannon Faulkner had accidentally been accepted to the all-male college, and all of South Carolina was in an uproar over it. Posters and bumper stickers began popping up all over the county, with SAVE THE MALES and 1800 BULLDOGS AND ONE BITCH pasted on the back of every pickup truck in town. Our old friend Jimmy Jones, now a member of The Citadel Board of Visitors, had a SAVE THE MALES sticker glued to the back of his Mercedes. Like most Southerners of their generation, my parents also opposed admitting a woman to The Citadel, not out of prejudice against women, but because they believed in the benefits of single-gender education. Always the achiever, my sister Mary had graduated from West Point by then, and my parents had supported her decision. Still, they believed that there should be places where a young man or woman could get an education without the distractions of the opposite sex.
I respected my parents' beliefs. It never once crossed my mind during high school to defy the rules and try to get admitted to my dad's college. It would have been disrespectful to my father.
In the early days of 1996, however, everything changed. Since The Citadel, like the Virginia Military Institute, is a state school supported by tax money, it has no choice but to follow the laws governing other public schools. Once the courts ruled that VMI had to admit women, it was clear that The Citadel would soon be forced to do the same. Preferring to take the step voluntarily, the College Board of Visitors voted in late June to admit women to the Corps of Cadets for the fall semester. Our old family friend Jimmy Jones, now head of the Board of Visitors, made the announcement on the evening news.
I guess you could say that was when fate intervened. As I watched the news that night, a thousand things went through my mind. I had put my life together for the first time, but I didn't know what to do next. I didn't want to attend West Point like my sister. What, then? Suddenly, here was my answer. I could follow in my father's steps, become a cadet like he was, stand where he stood. This was my chance to prove to my father, to the kids in high school who had laughed at me -- to myself -- that I had what it took. I could make something of myself. I could earn the respect that had eluded me for so long. After all, if I could survive as a woman at The Citadel, I could survive anything. I lay awake half the night, and by sunup, I knew what I had to do.
The next morning I drove down to the "Castle on the Ashley River," as I had dubbed the College, and filled out the necessary paperwork. I didn't say a word to anyone, not even my parents. On the following Monday the Admissions Department called to tell me to go ahead and get a physical and that so far, my application looked good. A few more days, and they would be able to give me a provisional answer.
Some secrets are just too big to keep, and I couldn't keep this one another minute. Brimming with excitement and anxiety, I was about to give my parents the surprise of their lives.
As with most of my secrets, I told my mother first. To say the least, she was surprised. It had never occurred to her that "her little girl" would be one of the first to apply to the Corps, and her first reaction was worry. She and I had been through a lot together the previous two years. And she still remembered the little girl who cried every day of kindergarten. We had a long talk about my reasons for applying. Finally, satisfied that I had thought my decision through carefully, she told me that if I really wanted to do this, she would be behind me 100 percent. She made only one request: "Tell your father." I promised I would.
Telling Dad was harder, and it took me a few days to work up the courage. But I couldn't put off the conversation forever, so a week after I told my mother, I had a long talk with my dad. I began the conversation by telling him that I respected his viewpoint, and I knew he was against admitting women to his old college. As long as The Citadel opposed the entrance of women, I told him, I would never have applied there. But things had changed, and since the College was going to admit women anyway, I wanted to be one of them. I told him that I meant no disrespect to him. In fact, the main reason I had applied to the Corps of Cadets was because of him. I could think of no greater honor than to wear the uniform he had worn. I would work very hard to make him proud, I told him. Eventually, I ran out of words, and there was nothing to do but wait nervously for his reply.
My father is a master of the poker face, so it took a few moments to gauge his reaction. He sat there quietly, his unlit cigar clenched between his teeth, his jowls unmoving, his eyes noncommittal. At last he asked me the same question my mother had asked me: "Are you sure you know what you're getting into?"
I assured him, "Yes, sir, I think I do."
Unfortunately, he didn't think I had any real idea what I was getting myself into. I had to listen to an endless list of reasons why I shouldn't go to The Citadel. That evening, and for many weeks afterward, my father tried to discourage me from joining the Corps. I'm not sure he thought any woman could survive his old school. After all, most men couldn't. Still, there was a glint in his eye sometimes when he talked to me about his old school that told me he was proud of me for trying.
After all the bad publicity about women at The Citadel, I tried to keep my decision within the family as long as possible. That proved impossible. For starters, my dad "happened to mention" to our old Army friends that I would be entering The Citadel in the fall. Then, before I had even told my own friends, the evening news announced my decision to the whole world.
A New York attorney who was representing another female applicant somehow found out about my application and "accidentally" announced my name and hometown in open court. Within hours my name was on the Associated Press wires, and all hell broke loose.
All the major networks began calling our house. The caller ID on our home phone showed calls from ABC, NBC, CBS, and a host of local stations.
Meanwhile, the phone was also ringing off the hook with calls from relatives and family friends. "Did you know that they mentioned Nancy on the evening news tonight? So is it true? Is she really going to The Citadel?" All of them were astonished by the announcement, but most were supportive. Usually the questions were followed by "Well, good for her. Wish her luck for me, won't you?"
I was surprised and touched by the swell of support I began to receive. My parents and I were flooded with supportive calls, letters, and visits from family friends. Many of them were Army officers or Citadel alums, which felt especially good. I even received congratulations from a local judge, the Honorable Perry Murray. He made a point of seeking me out and saying, "Young lady, I want to shake your hand and congratulate you on your decision." Letters of encouragement began to pour in from all over the country as well, most simply addressed to NANCY MACE, GOOSE CREEK, SOUTH CAROLINA. I was overwhelmed by the kindness of these strangers. After all the years of loneliness, I suddenly found myself surrounded by support. I was determined not to let any of these people down.
Soon articles about me started coming out in the papers, which was really strange. I wasn't used to seeing my name in print, but I kind of liked it. My favorite piece was an interview with General Fields, who was being evaluated for a position at The Citadel. In the course of an interview with a Charleston reporter, the general was asked for his views on women entering the Corps. The reporter mentioned my name as one of the women who would be attending. What the reporter didn't know was that General Fields was an old friend of my family who had lived across the street from us at Fort Richardson, Alaska, when I was growing up. The general told the reporter that he knew me personally, that he'd even been fishing with me and my dad. Then he said, "I wouldn't worry about Nancy. She'll do fine. She's as tough as woodpecker lips!" I thought it was hilarious.
A couple of weeks later, another funny incident happened at work. One afternoon the phone rang, and when I picked up the receiver and said, "This is Nancy Mace. May I help you?", the caller replied in surprise, "Really? The Nancy Mace? The famous one?"
Blushing and laughing, I replied, "I don't know about the famous part, but yes, this is Nancy Mace."
He laughed, too, and said, "Well, congratulations. And good luck!" I thought to myself as I transferred his call, "It's kind of cool being famous!" In the past, most of the attention I'd attracted was negative. For the first time, people were saying nice things about me.
Being famous wasn't always "cool," though, either for me or for my family. A few days later, my mother received her first piece of hate mail. The letter was handwritten and unsigned. The wording and tone were vicious and vaguely threatening, and I was hurt and angry. How dare this woman attack my mother that way? What kind of person had nothing better to do than write horrible letters to strangers? And what kind of coward sent a letter like that without signing her name? Unfortunately, that letter was only the first of many. The same woman wrote to my mother for nearly three years, all in the same threatening tone. My mother didn't tell me until much later, but there were times she feared for my safety.
Hate mail was the least of my worries at the moment, though. There was too much to do. With my entrance interviews out of the way and the results of my physical exam finally in, my acceptance to The Citadel was now official. I had less than two months to get ready for the greatest battle I had yet faced. I could not afford to fail. It might be my only chance.
Copyright © 2001 Nancy Mace
A Woman at the Citadel
In the Company of Men
A Woman at the Citadel
Steeped in tradition and lore, the grand bastion known as El Cid is considered one of the South's most infamous and controversial institutions. Built in 1842, it has turned out a unique brand of Southern man -- and now woman. This is the true account of one young woman's battle to be a part of the long gray line.
- Simon Pulse |
- 256 pages |
- ISBN 9780689840036 |
- September 2002 |
- Grades 7 and up