They didn’t want her. The Citadel’s bigwigs lobbied hard to keep young women like Petra Lovetinska Seipel out of their state-supported, all-male military academy.
Yet Seipel, who became one of The Citadel’s first female graduates, was in Washington last week to talk up the place that didn’t want to accept her.
She’s 38 now and a major in the Marine Corps at a time when the country could be on the verge of electing its first female commander in chief. But Seipel wasn’t planning to focus on Hillary Clinton or feminism or even gender when she spoke to students at her alma mater, Woodrow Wilson High School in Northwest D.C.
“I like to talk about opportunity,” she told me as she made sure her uniform was in order before her appearance at the school. “Not just about women in the military.”
Seipel has always concentrated on proving that women can do the job — and that’s not uncommon among female pioneers in the military, law enforcement, science, technology and other male-dominated fields. They often refuse to utter the word “feminism,” even when it has helped them break barriers.
Seipel was a star in her Wilson JROTC class two decades ago. She was a champion marksman, winner of JROTC competitions, a top performer academically and a competitive swimmer. She was also an immigrant.
Seipel was 14 when she came to the United States with her parents from the Czech Republic. Her dad was a driver for the embassy. His pay placed them just below the poverty line. Seipel qualified for free lunches at school.
The JROTC program helped her find her place in this new land. She had the skills, the drive and the discipline to get to The Citadel. Just not the gender. A familiar story, even today.
But the world was changing, and in the summer of 1996, the Supreme Court ruled that the nation’s only other state-supported, all-male military academy, the Virginia Military Institute, must accept women or lose public funding.
“The law was changing, so we fell in line,” remembered Anthony Motley, a 1960 Citadel graduate and former U.S. ambassador to Brazil.
Motley had lobbied against women at his beloved academy in Charleston, S.C. He even gave money to efforts to keep women out.
It was a bitter fight. Shannon Faulkner sued The Citadel and finally got in as the first and only woman in 1995. She left five days later, a campus of men cheering her departure behind her back.
It wasn’t because Motley believed in equal opportunity that he chose to support one of the first women to go through The Citadel. He just wanted some say in who that first woman would be.
That’s when he found Seipel, the perfect candidate to do this whole woman thing.
“But I can’t pay for this,” she told him after they met.
He told her not to worry about the money.
And sure enough, more than 100 members of the Washington area Citadel alumni club became her supporters. Petra’s Plank Holders, they called themselves.
Seipel and three other women started at the academy that fall. Two dropped out before the first year was over, citing harassment and abuse.
That left Seipel and Nancy Mace, the daughter of The Citadel’s commandant of cadets. They both had a rough experience.
“There was a tremendous backlash against women there,” Motley said. Even now there are only 171 women at The Citadel, just 7 percent of the school’s enrollment.
But Seipel succeeded. She won awards, kept her grades up, was given leadership positions. Along the way, the young men around often told her, “It’s just because you’re a girl.”
It constantly dogged her — the feeling that she wasn’t good enough, that she had to be perfect, that at least 100 people back in D.C. had money invested in her success, that the whole country was watching to see whether a woman could do the work.
And she did
Then came another hurdle. She wanted to join the Marines, but she was not an American citizen.
It took an Act of Congress — literally — to make this happen. She became one of only five people — joining Mother Teresa, William Penn, Winston Churchill and Raoul Wallenberg — in American history to become citizens as a special Act of Congress.
She’s now head of the organizational planning branch at the Weapon Systems Management Center in Albany, Ga. Her specialty is aviation supply — the work she did when she was deployed to Iraq.
She’s also the mother of two young boys and the wife of a Marine.
“She’s a great spokesman for The Citadel,” Motley said. “She does quite a bit of that.”
In urging high school students to apply to The Citadel, Seipel said: “I don’t focus on women in the military. I encourage them to work hard to achieve their dreams. I talk about leadership, I talk about my experience and relate it to the students. “
She sees herself as a crusader for quality and diversity. That’s what the military — and the country — need the most, she thinks.
“When you bring people together who have different ways of thinking, you’re stronger,” she said. “You’re better prepared for the mission.”
Read more Petula Dvorak: