SHANNON FAULKNER'S struggle to attend The Citadel may have generated one of the most active public debates over gender politics since the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings. Her desire to attend an all-male military school put her at the center of issues ranging from single-sex and public education to women in combat. Her departure from The Citadel made the issue more personal - her inability to stay the distance, her stress over the legal issues, her failure. Shannon Faulkner fought and lost alone. Yet recent events may be reversing this judgment. Other women have already lined up to take her place, demonstrating that the ''separate but equal'' argument espoused at The Citadel and elsewhere has not convinced many women they'll really get equal opportunity. The same cadets who cheered as The Citadel gates closed behind Ms. Faulkner should check those gates again next fall. The fight may be solitary, yet the demand for equality is collective. So what if she quit? Equality is a long, hard, team effort, as women who fought to win the vote 75 years ago showed. Women fight alone, with many different, and sometimes even selfish, agendas; but they win by the overwhelming collective force of individual effort. When I saw that Faulkner was in the infirmary after the first day of Hell Week, I remembered the physical and mental challenges I faced as a member of my high school crew team; although not half so severe as her experience, it was as close as I could get to understanding her struggle. In front of the boys who shared our boathouse, my teammates and I learned how to propel the paper-thin boats through the murky water by skill, muscles, and, when those were exhausted, by whatever reserves we could muster. Our palms bled as they chafed against the wooden oars. A friend of mine, Jill, once stopped rowing in the middle of a race out of sheer exhaustion, bringing the lung-bursting efforts of the three other rowers and the coxswain to an early end. She told me later that she had thought she was going to die. I empathized, but only because I wasn't in the boat with her at the time. It was almost too bad for her that she turned out to be just fine the next day, because the team never looked on her in quite the same way again. She left the team the next season. I knew Jill wasn't kidding. But I also saw what it meant to quit, and I knew I never, ever wanted to. None of us on the team did. And her example, in a weird sort of way, steeled us not to. Which brings me back to Shannon Faulkner. It remains unclear what kind of world she and women like her are trying to create, and the political issues are sure to be debated for quite some time. But one fact is clear: Even as she steps aside, other young women are ready to do her one better, to jump in the men's arena and finish the job. There are always more races, and more women to run them.