The decision: after several false starts and experimental steps, coeducation became a reality at Dartmouth

by Sammy Kardon | 11/6/02 6:00am

Although the advent of coeducation in the fall of 1972 would change Dartmouth forever, its actual beginning was relatively anti-climatic.

Susan Corderman '76 arrived at the matriculation ceremony late, having forgotten the information she would need to get her Dartmouth ID in her Brown Hall dorm room, and found that the only open seats were in the very front row.

"There being so few of us anyway, I was the only woman in the row," she wrote in an essay commemorating the 25th anniversary of coeducation. "We went up to meet Dean [Carroll] Brewster at the front of the room. And so, purely by accident, I got written into the history of the College."

First Steps

Despite its almost anti-climatic conclusion, the road that made Corderman's matriculation possible was a long one.

The very first Trustee committee to investigate the possibility of coeducation was formed in 1872, but it never even reported its findings.

In 1958, a joint student and faculty petition encouraged the administration to look into coeducation, but the first real change came in 1962, when the College held classes during its first Summer term open to both genders.

Although support was still mixed and alumni were not very enthusiastic, a Trustee planning committee started to investigate ways in which coeducation might be implemented in 1965. A poll taken by The Dartmouth at the time showed that only around half of the current students favored coeducation.

The issue was very much alive, but there was no sense of urgency as the slow process ground on.

Still, according to history professor Jere Daniell '55 who began teaching at Dartmouth in 1964, it was a question of "when" not "if" coeducation would happen.

"The world was for it; it just couldn't stay," Daniell said. "There was no way not to."

Throughout the 1960s, Dartmouth's admissions reflected a new commitment to diversity that mirrored national sentiments supporting social change and equal rights. To many, it seemed just as unjust and discriminatory to deny admission on the basis of gender as it would be to do so on the basis of race.

Dartmouth was also pressured to conform with its peer institutions, almost all of which were already coed. Dartmouth was the last Ivy League school to allow admission to women, and several boarding schools, like Exeter and Andover, that prepared exactly the type of students Dartmouth was looking for had begun to promote coeducation. It was quite apparent that its prestige and ability to provide a first-class educational experience by attracting the best students and teachers it could would be crippled if it failed to adapt.

Coed Weeks

In 1968, the first "Coed Week" was held as 200 Mount Holyoke women descended on Hanover. It proved to be the precursor of the Ten College Program (later upped to 12) which allowed 75 women from the so-called "sister schools" of the Northeast to attend Dartmouth as exchange students. The second Coed Week held that Spring drew five times as many women from 18 different schools.

The week was marked by a peaceful protest on the Green. A flier for the protest, entitled "We Are Being Castrated...," encouraged what was perceived as a silent majority of the community to make its opinion known and help Dartmouth modernize.

"We are being educationally raped and ... no one could give a damn," the flier began.

Although there was still strong opposition by many alumni, the flier was not quite right: most of the Dartmouth community at the time was ready for coeducation. A survey taken by another Trustees committee in 1970 found that 83 percent of the student body and 91 percent of the faculty were in favor of some form of coeducation at Dartmouth.

The Decision

The issue of coeducation had been relatively dormant during most of the '60s. Between 1965 and 1968, there were only 18 articles about coeducation in the pages of The Dartmouth, but there were more and more each year culminating in 107 in 1971 as it became a primary concern for the student body.

A survey conducted in 1971 found that 91 percent of the faculty, 88 percent of the students and 62 percent of the alumni favored bringing women to Hanover. The percentage of alumni support was definitely skewed by generation: 81 percent of alums from 1960-1969, and the percentage decreased with each older age group bottoming out with only 46 percent of the 1893-1925 group.

Coeducation was definitely coming, with or without full alumni support, but the form it would take was still uncertain. When John Kemeny succeeded John Sloan Dickey as president of Dartmouth in early 1970, he had already expressed interest in coeducation.

Kemeny thought that an associate school -- similar to Columbia's Barnard or Harvard's Radcliffe -- would be the way to achieve gender balance with the least alumni resistance.

But both faculty and students were opposed to that plan in favor of full integration.

On Nov. 21, 1971, after several intense days of deliberation by the Trustees, Dartmouth announced that it would be coeducational from 1972 on. In order to handle the increase in the student body, year-round operation -- know then and today as the Dartmouth Plan -- was also instituted in the same meeting.

It was a compromise between the faculty, who wanted coeducation, but not year-round operation, and the Trustees, who wanted to be able expand the student body without having to pour huge amounts of money into new dorms.

The Daughters of Dartmouth

The plan was to start small with a few freshmen and some transfer and exchange students before building up the women's population at Dartmouth to a healthy quarter of the student body, about 1,000 women.

Initially, though, there were only 176 who matriculated along with Corderman. Combined with transfer and exchange students, the ratio of men to women was about 10 to one.

It was not easy for the first women, as a vocal minority of College men went out of its way to make them feel unwelcome. Although most male students were happy and excited to have women in their midsts, some groups of men, often from fraternities, heckled and harassed them with derogatory names like "co-hogs."

Caroline Preston '75, who transferred from Columbia to get away from the city, remembered the feeling of unease in a essay on the 25th anniversary of coeducation:

"In the library, in classrooms, in restaurants, male students and alums sidled up and explained -- politely, earnestly -- that women didn't belong here ... and that we should consider going back to where we came from."

One particularly egregious stunt, which Preston experienced first-hand, was the "Woodward Letter," so named for the all-female dorm Woodward Hall.

"A never-identified frat slipped mimeographed letters under our doors in the middle of the night describing in detail various sex acts that we should perform on President Kemeny," Preston wrote.

Many, like Corderman, were legacies and knew what to expect.

"We were not entering a truly coed institution," she wrote. "It should have come as no surprise that not everyone was accepting and welcoming."

For some, the existence of insensitive resistance was not reason enough to avoid accentuating the positive.

"No matter what voices or forces wanted to exclude women from Dartmouth, there were always other doors opening up to embrace, encourage and support," Ann Fritz Hackett '76 wrote in her 25th anniversary essay.

Coeducation in Practice

Gradually, as the years went by and women became more integrated into Dartmouth, the backlash to coeducation receded.

According to Daniell, the women who came to Dartmouth initially were "better than the men, as students, because it was more competitive to get in." In fact, the school overall became more selective and competitive as applications immediately spiked.

Even some fraternities, still symbols of Dartmouth's all-male heritage and the source of the most virulent anti-coeducation rhetoric, helped pave the way. Several, including Alpha Theta and Gamma Delta Chi, opened their doors to women as early as 1973.

"Dartmouth handled the transition extraordinarily well, better than one might have expected," Daniell said.

The longest-running controversy over coeducation was over the Dartmouth alma mater. Although the title was changed from "Men of Dartmouth" to "The Alma Mater," the phrasing was not changed to its current form until 1988. Eight words were changed from the original version.

The success of women's athletics, especially the dominant women's basketball team, also brought more acceptance as women provided prestige to the College that had not existed before.

According to Daniell, a fear of "dilution, in terms of athletics, of the male student body" was one of the main concerns of the initial opponents of coeducation. That fear was allayed, and, gradually, the initial plan to have a three-to-one ratio of men to women dissolved into three-to-two and, eventually, into the near 50-50 parity of today's student body.