This week, a student-body vote at Texas A&M University could make Samantha Ketcham the first female cheerleader—make that yell leader—in school history.
"At A&M, we don't cheer. We yell," says Ms. Ketcham, a junior biology major.
By any name, the sideline noisemakers at A&M have always been as male as the football players they root for, and Ms. Ketcham's bid to topple that tradition is no less rancorous than the Republican presidential primaries. Past yell leaders at A&M include Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, who declined to be interviewed for this article.
To make clear that she would need neither megaphone nor microphone—rarely used among yell leaders—Ms. Ketcham, 20 years old, has adopted as a campaign slogan of sorts: "I'm very loud!" One supporter advised, on a dry-erase board outside Ms. Ketcham's dorm room, that she lower the pitch of her voice like former British ruler Margaret Thatcher.
At A&M, tradition dictates when students should sit at football games (never), how to say hello ("howdy"), or "go team" ("gig 'em") or how to boo ("hiss"), and how to celebrate an A&M score (kiss your date).
Tradition also precludes women from dancing or cheering on the athletic field. In the 105-year history of yell leaders, no yell leader has ever been female. The privilege is reserved for a five-man squad of yell leaders dressed in white who stand before A&M's student section at football games and make noises and gestures comprehensible only to other Aggies, as the students call themselves.
The yell tradition was born during a 1907 football drubbing, when male students donned janitors' coveralls and began leading chants to entertain bored students from a nearby women's college.
Only in College Station is it customary for a spirit squad at football games to make frequent reference to locomotives and farmers—and to make them at auditory pitches that evoke a barnyard. The signature exclamations of juniors and seniors include a "whoop" that is "probably a sound that no one should ever make, especially men," says Greg Fox, a 28-year-old graduate of rival University of Texas.
Just now, though, tradition seems more vulnerable than it ever has been at A&M. The school is ditching the Big 12 Conference this year for the Southeastern Conference, which will result in the end of A&M's 118-year-old tradition of squaring off annually on the gridiron against the University of Texas.
Changing conferences will also move A&M into a culture known for its platoons of female cheerleaders and dancers. In the heart of the South, the Aggies' male yell leaders will stand out more than ever.
This week's 10-person ballot for yell leader will feature not one but two women. The other, Minna Nashef, is a previous candidate running a more low-key campaign. She says she would be satisfied if Ms. Ketcham won. "A female yell leader, that's the common goal we share," says Ms. Nashef.
Still, some students aren't convinced. "I just couldn't see a female yell leader," says Cameron Lundberg, an A&M freshman, calling it "a very manly role at the university."
Even some women at A&M oppose the idea. "There's something about having five males," says Arrington Hayes, a senior who is campaigning for an all-male slate of candidates. "I think it's just a tradition that we should uphold and preserve," she says.
A&M fan message boards are teeming with opposition. "If I wanted to hear a woman yell at me, I'd go home to my wife!" wrote one Aggies fan. Another called the idea of a female yell leader as unthinkable as "a male server at Hooters."
Last week somebody defaced one of Ms. Ketcham's fliers, scratching out its message and scribbling NO on it in block letters. Though Ms. Ketcham says she has encountered many against her in the campaign, she focuses on her supporters, for whom she sometimes lets loose a traditional A&M yell: "A-A-A whoop!"
One strike against Ms. Ketcham is that she doesn't belong to the Corps of Cadets, a 2,100-member student military organization that each year nominates five of its own members as yell leaders. Electoral turnout is so heavy among the Corps that those nominees typically win at least a majority of the five yell-leader spots. Although the Corps, like the U.S. military in general, long ago admitted women, an A&M spokesman said he could find no record of the Corps ever having nominated a female yell-leader candidate.
Corps Commander Pat Reeves, the group's appointed student leader, said he would support whoever is elected yell leader. The A&M spokesman said any student meeting academic requirements could run for yell leader. "Our administration has made a strong commitment to enhancing diversity on our campus," he said, noting nearly half of the students are women. The school's enrollment is about 50,000.
Ms. Ketcham is emphasizing her credentials as a third-generation Aggie whose parents met at the school. Her campaign publicist, her mother, points out that Samantha's loyalties to the school predate her birth. While pregnant with Samantha, "I wore maternity clothes that said 'Future Aggie' with an arrow pointed to my belly," says Cheryl Ketcham, 44, a Virginia resident who graduated from A&M in 1990.
Although not the first woman to strive for yell leader—others have done so unsuccessfully for decades—Ms. Ketcham is running a campaign that may be unprecedented in its visibility. She is speaking to student groups and door-knocking at dormitories. "Go for it! We need breakthroughs here," said Edward Murguia, an A&M sociology professor who shook Ms. Ketcham's hand as she campaigned last week on a campus plaza. From every corner of the Lone Star state she has received publicity in newspapers, magazines and television.
Opponents tend to argue that a female yell leader might find it "awkward" to get tossed into a campus fountain following football victories while wearing the traditional white pants and shirt, a dunking customary for yell leaders. Ms. Ketcham says she would wear a bathing suit beneath her yell uniform just in case.
Ms. Ketcham isn't the only woman who might grace the sidelines at A&M football games next fall. Some have suggested that the A&M dance team, which has performed at basketball games since the late 1990s, might also perform at football games, which would be a first.
But among the many A&M students opposed to that idea is Ms. Ketcham. "I do like just having the yell leaders at our football games," she says. "No one else has yell leaders. Everyone else has cheerleaders."