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The Dartmouth
February 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Women discuss early College memories

Banners strung across dormitory halls proclaiming, "Co-hogs go home!" welcomed Mary Ellen Colt '76 to Dartmouth in 1972.

In an interview last week in the Hanover Inn, two members of the Class of 1976, Colt and classmate Pamela Gile said the 1971 Board of Trustees' decision to coeducate the College did not immediately lead to warm welcome for women arriving at Dartmouth.

Although the College had accepted female transfer students for years, men who were acclimated to the male-dominated student scene were not ready to allow women to violate their space, Gile said.

Colt and Gile said they found their own space on sports teams and other women found theirs in all-female residence halls. By the end of their senior year, they said coeducation had found its place.

Both women carried mementos from their years at the College. Colt brought a copy of the 1976 Freshman Book, tattered from many years of page-turning, while Gile clutched the 1976 Aegis.

Both of petite stature, they sat together on a couch in the hotel lobby. Colt, wore jeans on her day off. Gile was dressed in business attire on her lunch hour.

Although the two had not seen each other for many years, they chatted like old friends as they discussed their history-making Dartmouth career.

Applying to the College

Colt and Gile said they were courageous enough to apply to the College as members of the first class of women because they both had relatives who were alumni.

Colt's grandfather and father went to Dartmouth. "I am a definitely a legacy child," she said.

Gile's great-grandfather, grandfather and father attended the College.

Colt wrote a letter to the College to express her interest in attending the College if the Board of Trustees made the decision to accept women applicants.

But the Trustees' decision came late. Colt had already applied to all her colleges and had her mind set on Middlebury College. Gile had been accepted early to Bowdoin College, which she deferred to April because of Dartmouth's decision to admit women.

Colt said the Colleges' location was a deciding factor for her. She reflected on the beauty of New Hampshire. She added with a laugh that she had to be able to ski wherever she attended college.

She said she also liked the challenge of coming to Dartmouth in the first class of women.

But Gile said she did not even think about being a member of the first class of women when she applied.

"You're so naive in high school -- I didn't have a clue," she said. "And now I think 25 years ago we made history."

First days on a newly coed campus

Freshman trips with the Dartmouth Outing Club led to lasting friendships as they still do today.

"My biking trip freshman year was such a wonderful way to start off freshman year with such a neat group of people," Colt said. "They remained my friends throughout college."

Some alumni showed their avid support of the Trustees' decision. Gile said the Class of 1922 gave all women a rose at matriculation.

But others were not so welcoming to the freshmen women.

"The guys in our class were wonderful," Gile said. "The upper-class resisted because they made a decision to come to an all-male school and their space was violated."

Many male students at the College reacted negatively to the addition of freshmen women and made them feel uncomfortable.

"I remember going to Thayer [Dining] Hall and the brothers from the fraternities had rating cards from one to 10 that they would hold up when you walked through," Colt said, cringing. "Thayer was not a comfortable place for me."

Although many areas of the College were not ready for women when they arrived in the fall of 1972, the Dartmouth College Athletic Council was well-prepared.

"DCAC was the most prepared department. They had hired someone to start looking into sports teams for women the summer before we came," Gile said.

She said there were women's teams for squash, lacrosse and field hockey when she arrived, and basketball was added later.

Male students on athletic teams at the College were generally supportive of the women's teams.

"I still remember the first women's hockey game against Smith in October of my freshman year. The men's soccer and football teams came over and watched on Chase Field," Gile said, smiling widely. "They cheered and were yelling, 'Run you maidens, run.'"

Colt was on the ski team and crew. Both women said they liked the fact that even mediocre players made the teams because there were so few women.

The athletic teams immediately created a space for women.

"It was one of the few areas where we as women could be together," Colt said.

The social scene

Women were a part of the social activities even before the Trustees' decision for coeducation.

"Dartmouth had been busing in girls for big weekends -- cattle drives," Colt said. "When we were here, they were still busing them in."

Both Colt and Gile said fraternities dominated weekend life at the College.

Colt said fraternity parties were "bizarre and unhealthy" while Gile said she felt more comfortable in them because her brother was a member of Kappa Sigma fraternity.

But Gile said not all fraternities made women feel at home at their parties.

"There were certain fraternities that you just wouldn't go into -- it just wasn't worth it," she said.

She said a brother at Theta Delta Chi fraternity would bite women who attended parties there.

Colt reflected on a negative experience with fraternity brothers.

She said brothers of a fraternity where her cousin was a member "kidnapped" her and her friend, Emily, from their dormitory room and brought them to their fraternity.

"They placed us on the bar and they sang songs to us. Emily was almost in tears," she said. "It wasn't funny and it would never have happened today."

Despite the sometimes negative atmosphere for women, fraternity parties remained the center of the social scene, Gile said.

"There were not a lot of other options," she said. "We did have the Hopkins Center, but I didn't take advantage of it."

She said there were not many options for meeting women.

"It couldn't happen except for sports and other activities," Gile said. "There were no special places for women."

Colt flipped through the pages of her freshmen book and said she regretted not knowing many of the women.

She said she wished she could have lived in one of the all-female dormitories.

"One of my classmates was in [North Massachusetts Hall,] which had all women. It seemed like a big pajama party all the time," Colt said. "I liked that atmosphere."

Gile said she and a group of six female friends formed Girls Night Out.

"We would go out on Wednesday nights when fraternities had their meetings," she said.

Cracking the books

In addition to breaking into the social scene, academic work kept the new freshmen women busy.

"My biggest challenge was trying to keep up with academic work and yet still have a social life," Colt said. "The worst day of my life was Sunday mornings when I forced myself to go to Baker."

Colt said the final examinations her freshman fall were particularly difficult for her.

"When I went home for Christmas break, I stayed in bed for days and cried and said I didn't want to go back," she said.

Gile said she also struggled with her studies, but was more relaxed in her study habits.

"I'd crack a book at the end of the term or pull all-nighters," she said.

Both women said their interaction with professors was based on their academic performance. They said they did not feel they were treated differently because they were members of the first class of women.

"In my German class freshman year, there were 16 guys and me and the woman professor never acknowledged me," Colt said. "I was probably one of the poorest students."

Gile said she felt comfortable in classes with mostly male students.

"I took advanced biology and I was the only female in the class and I got a D because I was out of my league -- people were so smart," she said. "I never had a problem feeling in classes that guys would not talk or be friendly to me."

Life after Dartmouth

Reflecting on their Dartmouth experience, they said they learned a lot from being a part of the first class of women.

"I gained a lot of skills and confidence that have worked for me in my career," Gile said. "At weekly job meetings, it isn't unusual for me to be the only female at the table."

"I am very comfortable in the company of men -- I almost prefer being in a male-dominated scene," Colt said.

Colt and Gile said they enjoyed their Dartmouth experience as members of the first class of women.

"I had a positive experience or else I wouldn't be living here," Colt said.

Both Gile and Colt married men who grew up in Hanover.

Colt lives in Hanover with three children, aged five, eight and 11. She works at Milne Travel in Lebanon.

She worked at Dartmouth Travel immediately after she graduated from the College.

Gile attended a secretarial program in Boston after she graduated.

She now lives in Lyme Center with her husband. She is vice president of planning at Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital in Lebanon and president of the Board of United Way in the Hanover Rotary Club.