A history of coeducation at Dartmouth

by Joyce Lee | 5/19/16 8:14pm


It was the fall of 1971, and the country was roiling in issues of desegregation, women’s rights, movements for the rights of indigenous peoples and protests against the war in Vietnam. At Dartmouth, the Board of Trustees had just voted to admit women as degree candidates and members of the first coeducational graduating class in September 1972.

That spring, John Kemeny, had succeeded John Sloan Dickey as president and began to pave the way for changes to the previously all-male campus to reflect the shifting times. One of these changes included coeducation, an idea that had been introduced a decade before when the College expanded the 1961-1962 academic year to four terms to include a summer term. During the new summer term, women could take classes that would count towards their degrees at their own schools. By 1965, a poll conducted by The Dartmouth reported that students were split exactly in half on the issue of coeducation, with 71 percent of the faculty supporting it, while only 28 percent of the alumni even mildly favored coeducation.

In 1969, according to The Harvard Crimson, the College conducted a five-day coeducational experiment in which the College bussed up women to campus and invited them to participate in classes and campus activities for what was dubbed “Coed Week.” The College had “succumbed to the coeducational bug that [had] recently gripped the Ivy League,” The Crimson reported.

A female student from Vassar College and participant in the experiment was quoted in The Boston Globe describing Dartmouth as “a sylvan bucolic place with a good academic climate.” She also stated, “We must have coeducation; girls intellectually sit on their fannies when they are alone.”

Yet while the experiment was meant to serve as an example for a coeducational experience, an unnamed member of The Dartmouth, then known as The Daily Dartmouth, said to The Crimson that he did not feel the experiment legitimately showed what coeducation would be like.

“The week was more social than educational,” he said. “Having girls around was just too different for us to accept them as regular students. It was the parties that really mattered.”

Following Coed Week, the College decided to participate in a 12-college exchange program, enrolling 70 women for the 1969-1970 school year, who would not receive degrees from the College but be able to take classes at Dartmouth for a year.

As calls for coeducation grew, the Board of Trustees established the Trustee Study Committee on Coeducation, which recommended in 1971 that Dartmouth become fully coeducational. Soon after the announcement of his succession as college president, Kemeny formed a committee to come up with a plan for “year-round operation.” In the fall of 1971, the committee presented a plan that fully integrated the coeducation of the College with its year-round operation, which would become known as the Dartmouth Plan, or the D-Plan to current students.

Former dean of residential life Mary Turco’s doctoral thesis on the history of women faculty at Dartmouth from 1960 to 1990 quoted chair of that committee Gregory Prince ’63 as saying that part of the genius of [the plan] was that it was not separable.

“You could not have the year-round operation without coeducation. The faculty wanted coeducation. They didn’t want year-round operation, but were willing to change to get it,” he said to Turco. “The Trustees didn’t want coeducation, but they wanted year-round operation.”

Throughout this push towards coeducation, alumni continually voiced their displeasure. In 1970, 59 percent of alumni said women should be educated. Alumni could not agree on whether the College should continue in the exchange program, build a sister school or become coeducational.

To appease alumni, the College promised it would not allow the number of men on campus to fall below 3,000. The newly installed D-Plan allowed the College to admit women as 25 percent of each freshman class without decreasing the number of male students on campus at any given time during the academic year. In December 1971, the College received 7,362 applications for admission, 414 of which were from women, many of whom were members of the 12-college exchange program.

In an interview conducted by Alex Fanelli ’42 in 1984, Kemeny said that he had not always been in favor of coeducation and had even been publicly on record as not favoring it when he was a younger faculty member at Dartmouth. However, he said he had changed his opinion partly because he had become convinced that for young men to spend some of the most formative four years of their life in an all-male, isolated environment could have a strongly distorting effect on their lives.

“I talked to a number of alumni who would, when they got to know you well, tell you that, while in many ways they loved Dartmouth, Dartmouth had had a very negative impact on them as far as relations with women are concerned,” Kemeny said. “I did also feel that there was a strong danger that we’d be turning out a generation of male chauvinist pigs who would not be able to work with women as equals in the professions. So for all of those reasons, I became convinced well before I became president that coeducation was absolutely necessary.”

After the Transition

Coeducation became a fundamental part of the College after Kemeny’s efforts in 1971. However, many female students who were part of the institution for the first few years after the transition, when the ratio of men to women was still not yet equal, felt like guests said Ivy Schweitzer English and women’s, gender and sexuality studies professor.

Religion and women’s, gender and sexuality studies professor Susan Ackerman ’80 said that as an undergraduate in the 1970s, Dartmouth remained very much an all-male school with women rather than a truly coeducational school, due to the ratio of three men to one woman that came from the decision to simply add 1,000 female students to the 3,000-male student population.

A contingent of men remained opposed to coeducation, Ackerman said. While it was not the majority of men at the College, it was a very vocal minority.

“It was a loud voice, louder than the actual numbers who actually subscribed to it,” Ackerman said. “It could be a pretty in-your-face voice. Women undergraduates in 1980s were not called coeds but called cohogs.”

Cohogs, a derogatory term for female students, was a crass pun on quahogs, or shellfish found in the Northeast, and became a way to define women by their genitalia, Ackerman said. Signs could often be found hanging with phrases like “Cohogs go home.”

“I remember particularly that one of the dorms I would go by everyday was Hitchcock, which was an all-male dorm and known as one of the places where guys in the vocal minority lived,” Ackerman said. “There was a painted banner that said ‘Cohogs go home!’ outside a window. The most amazing thing is that it hung there all day — which would not be possible today. It was just a given that this was part of the campus discourse. I don’t necessarily think this was what everyone thought, but it was said loudly and everyone heard it.”

Schweitzer said that during the earlier period of coeducation, there was explicit condemnation of women, with misogynist songs and phrases that the administration tolerated as “blowing off steam,” whereas now, such behavior is not tolerated on campus.

Dartmouth’s history of being a rather conservative and primarily male space that promoted an image of self-sufficiency in rural New Hampshire fed the attitude of students who wanted to maintain their “masculine heaven,” Schweitzer said.

“This was also about entitlement — [Dartmouth’s] always been a place of privilege, and privilege reproduces itself, and doesn’t want to give up its power or open its doors to others,” Schweitzer said. “We think of ourselves as a meritocracy, but when privilege comes into it, it doesn’t have to be a meritocracy, and instead is a privileged enclave that could reproduce itself. It was okay if you came as wives, but they didn’t want women as equals.”

The shift to coeducation changed not only the student population but administration and faculty as well, Ackerman said. However, while the dean of first-year students was a woman during her time at Dartmouth, there were not many women administrators, Ackerman said. Schweitzer also said that even as women faculty increased, none of them were tenured and instead became part of the junior ranking professors.

“It was kind of cliché that when [Dartmouth] was an all male institution, the only women the students would see all week were women working in the dining hall,” Ackerman said.

However, Ackerman notes that despite the dominance of men at the College even after becoming coeducational, there were still many welcoming male students, especially within organizations on campus such as the Dartmouth Outing Club and athletic teams.

In 1997, almost two decades after her graduation, Ackerman said she was present for a weekend celebration on campus to mark the 25th anniversary of coeducation. She had attended with several classmates, and on the way to a Saturday event, one of them remarked that it was amazing to be at the campus and to be welcome, noting that it was a large indication of how much campus has changed since women were initially admitted 25 years earlier.

Dartmouth’s Legacy

Despite progressive changes, Dartmouth’s legacy as an all-male institution still lives on, Ackerman said.

The most obvious example of this legacy is the Greek system, she said, where fraternities outnumber sororities and hold positions on campus and in student social life that vividly indicates who has power and who attention is centered on.

“Furthermore, every building at Dartmouth is named after a man and we have a campus that has a lot of portraits of dead white men,” Ackerman said. “I don’t think students walk to class saying they’re oppressed by names, but subconsciously, it’s a strong message that’s sent saying men get buildings named after them and women don’t.”

When it comes to female students of color, this legacy is also heightened by a lack of services that are not available to them even today.

“Black students today talk about where you can get your haircut, where you can shop for your own personal style and without being looked at strangely,” Schweitzer said. “Even today, some of the basic services aren’t here today for minority women, and they feel that it’s an indication of ‘You’re not welcome here, we don’t want you here.’”

In 1972, the total percentage of students of color was 10.9 percent. It was not specified what portion of this percentage was minority women.

Dartmouth Today

Women currently make up 49.3 percent of the College’s student population, a marked difference from the 27 percent in 1972. Despite the growing pains of the initial years of the transition, female students are as much a part of the institution as male students.

Schweitzer said that some of the services available today are evidence of the progressive tendencies of the College in regards to women and gender. Such services include the women, gender and sexualities studies department, whose research is no longer seen as threatening or outside of the academy as it once was, she said. Schweitzer noted that many professors outside of the department teach courses on women’s and gender studies, Schweitzer said.

“My sense for female students here are that they do feel like the college is fully coed.” Schweitzer said. “Clearly, there’s a lot of ways in which, since our society is male-dominated, the campus will be residually male-dominated in that men are more entitled nationally, culturally.”

However, the College has started many programs that seek to address this imbalance, such as the Gender Research Institute at Dartmouth and WISP, Schweitzer said.

Another clear example of progression for women on campus is the Center for Gender and Student Engagement, which used to be called the Women’s Resource Center because women were seen as a harassed minority on campus, Schweitzer said.

She noted that the realization that a “feminist revolution” would not occur if services were only provided to women as opposed to including men and other members of the LGBTQIA spectrum allowed for the creation of the center, she said.

Director of admissions Paul Sunde said that while current concerns about gender are very real, the College’s history is not a significant factor for prospective students when making their decisions to attend Dartmouth. Instead, issues such as sexual assault and Greek life are more common gender-related concerns.

“Having this problem indicates that there is a group of men on this campus that regard women as less than equals and regard them as objects,” Schweitzer said.

Lynn Pasquella, the president of Mount Holyoke College, said that students attending women’s colleges have said that they feel more engaged than students at a coed institution, which may in part be due to the fact that every leadership role at a women’s college is occupied by a woman. Furthermore, female students at a women’s college may sense that they are able to really focus on their work at hand, she said.

However, Sunde said that as a former graduate of Vassar College, which transitioned from being a women’s college to a coeducational institution in 1969, he found that while Dartmouth’s history may be a factor in issues such as sexual assault, he could not assume that the history is the sole cause of such issues.

“I think those issues are pervasive and we see them across the higher landscape at institutions that are historically all male and female,” Sunde said. “They are very important and relevant issues today regardless of the history.”

Instead, Sunde said, while legacies of institutions may be present for each generation of students, the institutional identity is constantly being redefined by students who are present. The DOC’s First-Year Trips program shows this redefnition as it broadened its initially narrow offering for a diverse group of students.

“It’s good to examine our history, and be mindful of our history, but I also think it’s important to be rooted in the present, and I’ve been really struck by how Dartmouth students claim ownership of their present and their energy in creating the future of Dartmouth,” Sunde said.

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