Dartmouth’s first women students reflect on 50 years of coeducation

This November will mark 50 years since the official vote to institute coeducation at the College, but prior to the decision, approximately 230 women attended Dartmouth through exchange programs.

by Emily Lu | 9/7/21 5:50am

coeducation_courtesy
Courtesy of Floran Fowkes ’71
Source: Courtesy of Floran Fowkes ’71

This article is featured in the 2021 Freshman special issue.

Fifty years ago, a cohort of 150 women students arrived at the all-male institution of Dartmouth College. This would be the last academic year of exchange programs that allowed women to attend the College before the Board of Trustees voted in November 1971 to officially institute coeducation.

Prior to the fall of 1972, when women students first matriculated at the College, Dartmouth hosted various co-educational weeks and academic exchanges that allowed women to explore campus. The first women accepted by Dartmouth in an exchange were a group of seven drama students in the 1968-1969 academic year, though they were not allowed to live in the dormitories. In the following two years, approximately 70 upperclassmen women were accepted through exchange programs with other institutions. The last year of the exchange program, academic year 1971-1972, saw 150 women students enroll at Dartmouth. 

Campus Life

The exchange year provided new opportunities for academic challenge and socialization. Most students participated through the 12-college exchange, a program that originally consisted of 10 colleges, addressed the national push for coeducation and allowed students from other northeastern single-sex institutions to attend a different school for a year, according to College archivist Peter Carini. 

“It was magical to me — it was something new and exciting, and I needed it,” Alice Malone ’71, who decided to attend Dartmouth on an exchange program after learning about the opportunity on a bulletin board at Occidental College, said. “Dartmouth was what you made it, and it was an opportunity that most of us felt we shouldn’t miss.”

Women exchange students — known as “co-eds” at the time — were all housed in Cohen Hall and later North Massachusetts Hall, according to Malone. During the 1970–1971 academic year, male students outnumbered the women 46 to 1. 

Gabrielle Handler ’70 said that even as a member of one of the first cohorts of women at the College, she was very enthusiastic about attending. 

“There was a certain kind of thrill and excitement in being in the vanguard,” Handler said. “It was an opening up of opportunities. That was the whole era — opportunities being widened and opened and broadened for women.”

Sarah Marter ’72, who participated in the exchange program from Wellesley College, described the reactions of the male students as “varied,” adding that the location of Cohen — directly behind fraternity row — was not optimal. According to Floran Fowkes ’71, while upperclassmen in particular were not “necessarily warm and welcoming,” freshmen and sophomores were mostly excited to have women on campus. 

Similarly, in classrooms, women students had mixed experiences with professors. Amy Sabrin ’72 said she was warned to avoid a certain art class due to the professor’s views.

“Some of the guys [told me] that the teacher was a misogynist, and he didn’t think women could be serious artists, and I would never get a good grade — and they were right,” Sabrin said. 

While the ratio of male to female students often meant there was rarely more than one woman in any given class, Fowkes said that did not deter their participation and willingness to learn. She added that women students often took advantage of office hours to reach out to professors and develop mentoring relationships. 

“We were pretty assertive as a group,” Fowkes said. “We weren’t going to sit and not answer questions or were cowed by the fact that we were the only woman in the class, and I think that speaks volumes to who we were as people.”

According to a Rauner Collection timeline, in 1970, 83% of the student body favored coeducation. A vocal proponent was David Aylward ’71, who said that he was heavily involved in lobbying for coeducation because he believed that women students would make Dartmouth a much better place. 

“Dartmouth was a very toxic environment,” Aylward said. “It was an alcohol-fueled, intolerant, homogenous, misogynistic, disrespectful student culture … Having a normal relationship with a woman was almost impossible.”

A Separate School

Despite support from the majority of students, faculty and alumni for coeducation, the form it would take at the College was undetermined — especially as Title IX discussions entered the picture. Plans for coeducation at Dartmouth were originally focused on a target enrollment of 1,000 women across the College and maintaining the number of male undergraduate students at 3,000. Under Title IX, however, coeducational institutions would be required to admit men and women on a non-discriminatory basis.

The proposed law at the time — which would not be enacted until June 1972 — contained an exception that allowed single-sex institutions to maintain their admissions process. As a result, discussion emerged of creating a separate, “coordinate” all-female school, essentially a sister school. The associated school would share Dartmouth’s campus to create the effect of coeducation, but would be legally treated as a different institution. According to Carini, other options included making Colby Sawyer College, located in New London, N.H., a sister institution or creating a separate school located in Norwich. 

“The idea that women had separate education needs was offensive,” Sabrin said. “... Even then, I understood that it was a proposal to try to circumvent what was about to become law: Title IX.”

Sabrin, who was the first female editor at The Dartmouth, said she expressed her “outrage” at the time by penning a column in the paper. This was met with some backlash from students, including offensive notes taped to the door of her dorm room. 

Still, Sabrin organized with other women students and staff to issue a statement opposing an associated school for women at the College and asking for a meeting with then-College President John Kemeny. After receiving a petition signed by almost 50 women students and hearing feedback from faculty, Sabrin said that Kemeny dropped the idea.

Pressure on the Program

According to an alumni poll conducted in 1970, 59% of alumni approved of increasing the number of women students at Dartmouth. Within this majority, classes that had graduated within the past decade were more strongly in favor of coeducation — 81% of the Classes of 1960 to 1969 favored coeducation — while in the Classes of 1893 to 1925, the approval rate was a mere 46%.

History and women’s, gender and sexuality studies professor Annelise Orleck said that among powerful donors to the College, there was a sizable minority of opponents to coeducation. These alumni held onto Dartmouth’s history of “hypermasculinity,” Orleck said. 

In order to address the alumni who had qualms about coeducation, Fowkes said that professors often organized groups of women students to speak at alumni events, particularly students who were interested in pursuing graduate school or specific professions. 

“There was a little bit of hostility [from the alums],” Fowkes said. “Some of the alums were convinced that the only reason you wanted to go to Dartmouth was to find a Dartmouth husband.” 

Some students therefore felt that the exchange programs were treated as a metric of how successful coeducation would be at Dartmouth. Marter said there was pressure on women students to perform at their best and recalled when her advisor spoke to her about improving her grades after she received a C+ in a class.

“We did feel like we had to represent, be good students and contributing members of the community,” Sabrin said. 

Reuniting with Dartmouth

Despite the role of these women in facilitating Dartmouth’s transition to coeducation, the College kept virtually no records of these students. Only in the past few years, Sabrin said, have these women been invited to alumni events and adopted by the Classes of 1969 through 1972.

“I don’t think the administration actually ever thought of us as real Dartmouth students, and that was further borne out by the fact that it took 40 years for us to get invited to a reunion,” Sabrin said. 

Aylward, who managed his class’s 45th reunion book, said he made it a mission to find the women exchange students who shared time on campus with the Class of 1971. Frustrated that the College kept no documentation of this history, Aylward worked with Malone to track down many of the other women students by emailing the schools that had participated in the exchange.

Fowkes said that class adoptions have served as a way to connect with some exchange students she may not have met while at the College, as there were few activities that promoted a sense of unity within the cohort of women. 

“It has really been a treat to meet these other women who have gone on to do great things,” Fowkes said.

According to Aylward, in the past five years, more than 30 women have reconnected with the College through adoptions by their respective graduating classes.

“Those women are personally responsible for Dartmouth becoming co-educational,” Aylward said. “If as a group they had not contributed the way they contributed, that would have been the end of coeducation … They were real pioneers. They got a lot of arrows in the back, but they really changed the place.”

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