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The Dartmouth
June 16, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Among coeducation's first friends, Navarro retains her fire

When Professor Marysa Navarro came to Dartmouth in 1968, the only female employees were secretaries and the only female students were ones bussed in from women's colleges as male students' party dates for big weekends.

Within less than five years, the first co-ed class would graduate from Dartmouth, largely due to Navarro's unwavering insistence that women had as much of a right to a Dartmouth education as did men. Her advocacy would involve her in a heated battle with influential alumni and top administrators, including then-president John Kemeny, over the future direction of the College.

Upon landing a job in the history department, Navarro could scarcely believe her good luck. Hiring a woman for a tenure-track position -- let alone a divorced, Latina single mother who had been active in the New York City feminist movement -- was virtually unheard of for an elite Ivy League School like Dartmouth in the 1960s.

Navarro partly attributes her hiring to connections with several well-regarded professors, including Peter Smith, a classmate from graduate school at Columbia. But she acknowledges that Dartmouth may have begun to sense the changing times. The history department had lost one of its best professors the year before, when it refused to hire his wife.

The quirks of the hiring process aside, though, Navarro was thoroughly stunned by the blatant sexism and hostility toward women that she encountered upon arriving at Dartmouth. Male students and colleagues repeatedly mistook her for a secretary, and Reed Hall, where she had her office, did not have a single women's bathroom.

"You were ogled because you were a woman, but at the same time you were invisible as a woman," Navarro said. "I had to become tougher than I ever was because I couldn't afford to make a mistake."

The isolation and inferiority Navarro felt, combined with an intense commitment to women's rights that had gelled during her years teaching in New York City, compelled her to begin calling almost immediately for the integration of female students and professors into the academic community at Dartmouth.

Navarro argued in favor of coeducation every chance she got. Taking advantage of the fact that "The D was passionately in favor of coeducation," she submitted letters to the editor so that the arguments she made at every faculty meeting could reach as broad an audience as possible.

Although a good portion of the faculty and students supported a move to coeducation -- the student body voted in favor of it in -- Navarro found many of their justifications frustrating.

"I didn't buy the argument that having women here would civilize men," she said. "My idea was that women should be here because they had a right to be here and a right to be educated."

But the hardest part was finding herself pitted against some of the most staunch defenders of an all-male Dartmouth, most notably the Board of Trustees and alumni, Navarro said.

"They were deeply invested in single-sex male education. The world around them was changing very rapidly and was uncontrollable and they wanted to keep Dartmouth the same," she said.

The proposed solution was to build a women's college across the river in Vermont, but coming at a time when colleges like Harvard and Brown were integrating their women's schools into the university at large, this seemed ridiculously outdated to Navarro.

"What I didn't see was how we could try to put ourselves in the 20th century by being in the 19th," she said.

Taking matters into her own hands, Navarro wrote a motion to adopt coeducation, which she presented at a faculty meeting in 1971. The faculty voted in favor of it, much to the dismay of the Trustees, alumni, and President John Kemeny, a formidable opponent because of his intelligence and quick wit, Navarro said.

"He knew that I was right, though," Navarro said. "Deep down he knew that it was the right thing to have women here."

When the Trustees finally did decide on coeducation, Navarro ran around the Green wearing a football jersey because she had lost a bet -- an event which drew a substantial crowd.

But finally achieving a coed Dartmouth was not enough to satisfy Navarro. Since 1972, when she chaired a committee looking into the status of women at Dartmouth, she has continued to argue for bringing in more female faculty and administrators.

And although events like the hiring of Josie Harper -- the first female athletic director at the College -- have made Navarro "feel less and less that Dartmouth is an all-male institution" full equality will be long in coming, Navarro said.

"I'll die before I see a female president at Dartmouth," Navarro said.