By announcing that she would challenge Sen. Lindsey Graham in the South Carolina Republican primary next year, Nancy Mace didn’t just bring another threat to Graham from the right. As the first female graduate of The Citadel military college, she’s in a position to challenge him on high-profile military matters–like whether to take the investigation and prosecution of serious crimes out of the chain of command. Mace has been outspoken about women’s issues in the military, including in a memoir. The question is, will the daughter of a Brigadier General pick a battle that sets her against military brass? So far, she hasn’t publicly addressed it, and her campaign won’t comment.
The issue has defied traditional partisan lines, with Sen. Claire McCaskill opposing fellow Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s bill taking crimes including sexual violence out of the chain of command, and Republicans Ted Cruz and Rand Paul siding with Gillibrand. When Mace declared her candidacy, she name-checked Paul and Cruz for making her “hopeful that we can actually turn things around.” She is one of three candidates who have declared they’ll primary Graham for being too moderate.
Graham is a former Air Force judge advocate general and current reserve Air Force attorney. From his perch on the Armed Services Committee, he’s taken what The Hill called a “lonely position” on the epidemic of military sexual violence–that is, one to the right of the military leadership. “I understand this is an emotional issue, but what they are trying to do is going to do more harm to the military than solve the sexual assault problem,” Graham said in May. He was referring to a proposal, supported by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, to strip commanders of the ability to reverse guilty verdicts.
“Lindsey Graham is a colonel now who has the authority to try these cases,” said Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Servicewomen’s Action Network. “We shouldn’t be surprised that he’s defending it.”
Mace’s campaign did not respond to several messages and emails requesting comment on the issue of military sexual assault and the chain of command, and she has yet to be asked about the issue in interviews she’s done on Fox News and with Glenn Beck. But the treatment of women in the military was an unavoidable issue when she was at the Citadel just over a decade ago. She and three other women followed Shannon Faulkner, who had famously sued The Citadel to allow her to enroll but who dropped out within a week. During Mace’s first year, two of her female classmates also sued the college, alleging sexual harassment and hazing, and neither graduated.
In her 2001 memoir, “In the Company of Men,” Mace writes that when she entered the military college, she was subjected to plenty of verbal abuse–hate mail from strangers, women who shouted in her face at football games that she was a whore or a dyke or was the “bitch that ruined the Citadel.” (“I knew who the real bitches were,” she writes, in a rare departure from decorum.) One alumnus would find her at halftime of every football game to “whisper a steady stream of obscenities into my ear. I was the little slut who was ‘f—ing my way through the ranks’ and ‘ruining his school’… When he poked me, I always wondered where his fingers would land next.”
But she also describes being supported by many of her peers and superiors, and by women’s advocates. On her first day, she was cheered on by “about a dozen members of the local feminist group,” and Mace counts getting to shake Gloria Steinem’s hand among her inspiring moments. “Faced with the same challenges, given the same opportunity, women can be as courageous, honorable, and reverent as any man,” she writes.
Mace deals relatively briefly with her classmates’ lawsuit. Kim Messer, one of the plaintiffs, was her roommate, and she describes her as being negligent in the classroom and often coming home drunk. “Many of us at the Citadel who knew Kim and Jeanie had been predicting trouble for months,” she writes. Messer also asked Mace to hide things because she said she was having “problems.” In the end, according to the book Women at War, “The Citadel dismissed one accused candidate, restricted nine, and exonerated one.”
She writes that she herself was chatting with a fellow cadet only to learn that another one “had stood behind me and simulated having sex with me from the rear. I was mortified and furious.” He was eventually disciplined. She was also stalked by a cadet ex-boyfriend after she broke up with him, “destroying my personal property and leaving disturbing notes in my quarters… while struggling to free myself from him, I went from being ‘the bitch’ to being ‘the whore’ in the eyes of the corps.”
Later, Mace became active in “every board and committee that met that semester on women’s issues,” helping suggest and implement changes to make female cadets feel more welcome. After graduation, she got a journalism degree from the University of Georgia, and now runs her own small public relations firm, where her clients have included Senator Tim Scott and Rep. Mick Mulvaney.
She joins a crowded field at a time of unprecedented visibility not just for women in the military, but for female veterans in Congress. “You’re seeing women with a whole breadth of experience in the military–peacetime, wartime, combat leadership–running for and in Congress,” says Bhagwati. “Veterans have had this sacred space in Congress for quite awhile and women suddenly occupy more of that space. “
At the same time, the epidemic sexual violence and lack of accountability in the military has dominated attention over the past year, and both female and male legislators have had to publicly grapple with it. Mace wrote in her memoir, “What the keepers of the Citadel flame fail to realize is that I did not come to the college to destroy its tradition. I came to fulfill it.” If her campaign advances, she’ll eventually have to choose between her reverence for the institution and her newest political comrades.