Women’s History Month: Remembering Dartmouth’s Coeds
One writer investigates the College’s tumultuous process of going co-ed.
On November 22, 1971, the front page of The Dartmouth was dominated by four decisive words: “DARTMOUTH TO ADMIT WOMEN.” Although Dartmouth was far from the first institution to admit women — all of the other Ivy League schools had already made the switch — this landmark decision marked a sharp break in the College’s long history as a men’s school and shook the foundations of what many knew as “dear old Dartmouth.”
Today, over fifty years later, Rauner Library houses the physical documentation of the co-education decision and its far-reaching implications. In these files, press releases, newspaper clippings and letters chronicle the story of the first Dartmouth women and the controversial welcome they received here in Hanover.
In the quiet interior of Rauner, I open my first folder of documents. On top is a press release from November 1971, notifying news outlets of the upcoming Dartmouth Board of Trustees meeting, where the all-male board would vote on both co-education and its counterpart, year-round operation — the current-day D-Plan. As the release read, Dartmouth’s “piquant qualities … with its strong male tradition and relative isolation” gave it a singular role in the nationwide move towards co-education. By voting against admitting women, the release continued, the Trustees would “re-affirm Dartmouth’s 202-year tradition as an essentially male college.”
By this time, the issue had already taken root far beyond the Upper Valley, as Dartmouth students and alumni alike chimed in on the debate. According to a report to the Alumni Council from January 1971, most students and faculty were in favor of co-education, with 61% and 91% approval rates, respectively. Some alumni voices, collected in an extensive series of Letters to the Editor of the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, echoed this support, such as Roy Pfeil ’55, who wrote, “it is inconceivable to me that any educational institution … sensitive to the main currents of social progress in America will choose to remain virtually all-male.”
A few women contributed to these conversations, as mothers and spouses of Dartmouth alumni. In her letter, Moira Haag, married to a ’70 graduate, wrote that she was “one of the young people who was unable to go to Dartmouth because of her sex.” She insisted that while “some of the charm of the all-male Dartmouth will be missed,” co-education would create a situation in which men and women could “know and understand one another as individuals. Women are as capable of contribution and discussion as men are: on the Green, in the Hop, and in class.”
This opinion, however, was not common across most of the letters. “I am damn mad,” wrote David Ames ’25. “If Dartmouth goes coeducational then it will no longer be the Dartmouth College which did me so much good.” Henry Lowell ’14 echoed this loss of a ‘true’ Dartmouth, writing that “as soon as women become members of the Dartmouth undergraduate body, the ‘Dartmouth experience’ will no longer exist.” In a particularly passionate letter, Whitney Cushing ’39 railed against Dartmouth for following suit with other Ivies. “Be damned to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton!” he wrote. “Dartmouth’s a small college for men in the hills of New Hampshire and no females should clutter up the best damned college in the land … Damn!”
I flipped through page after page of scathing letters, full of white male alumni grappling with the inconceivable concept of educating women in the hallowed halls of dear old Dartmouth. One entry, from S.C. Strout ’18, made me pause, not only because it was a rhyming — and derogatory — poem, but because it illustrated the world into which these women would be entering. “But, after all, why not put it straight,” Strout wrote. “It makes it easy to get a date!”
At the time, the idea of women entering Dartmouth as full-time students was uncharted territory for students of any gender. As the reality of co-education grew clearer, the Dartmouth social fabric would have had to shift substantially. The role of female students within the Dartmouth community was still unscripted: would they be accepted — both academically and socially — as legitimate Dartmouth students? Or would they be seen simply as potential love interests, a new surplus of weekend dates?
The questions of the effect that a female presence would have on the College persisted even after Susan Corderman ’76 matriculated as the first female Dartmouth student. The welcome for Corderman and her fellow “coeds,” as these first women were called, proved rocky from the very start, when during the 1972 matriculation ceremony, six male students protested the switch from singing “Men of Dartmouth” to “Dartmouth Undying.” During that first year of co-education, men outnumbered women nine to one, creating an extremely uneven power dynamic within the student body. As one professor observed, “as long as the coeds are in a minority, it will always seem that they are not equal.”
“Can you imagine being one of the 400 girls on this campus right now?” a student wrote in the alumni magazine. “They must feel incredibly self-conscious and inhibited walking across campus … Can you imagine walking across the Green and thirty guys are walking by saying ‘Hi!... Hi!... Hi!’” Surrounded almost entirely by men, the coeds faced a school that was not designed for them, and that was often set staunchly against them, particularly in terms of social life. One account describes how many female students were “disheartened that the general social life focuses on fraternity row,” and a 1979 Time Magazine article titled “Hanover: The Big Green Battle of the Sexes” wrote that female students were warned not to go near certain fraternity houses “without taking a solidly protective date.”
Some coeds faced physical danger — such as broken windows or shouted obscenities — and all of them bore the emotional brunt of carrying out a long-awaited and deeply fracturing change in Dartmouth history. Particularly at a school like Dartmouth, where tradition is held in such high regard, the first coed years provoked passionate and, at times, hateful responses from students and alumni. Clicking through photo archives, I found a shot of Russell Sage — the dorm where I live now — covered in banners reading “keep Sage all male,” “No Coeds!”, “Hell no we won’t go,” and “it’s all a damn Commie plot.” The Time article quoted a fraternity member saying, “have you seen many of the women up here?” he says. “I doubt if the “Playboy” people could find anybody they’d want. Men get in here because they’re good athletes and are generally pretty good looking. Women get in because they are smart.”
In his sexist but glaringly backwards argument, this frat member touches on some of the countless prejudices faced by the coeds. As the number of women at Dartmouth grew, the name “coed” turned into the slur “cohog,” a combination of “coed” and “quahog,” a type of clam and a derogatory reference to female genitalia. In 1975, during a performance of “Hums,” the clever — and often inappropriate — jingles performed by fraternities during Green Key, the “Cohog Song” marked its debut. Ultimately voted “Most Creative and Original” by Dean of the College Carroll Brewster, the “Cohog Song” proclaims, among other equally-vulgar lines, that the coeds are “all here to spoil our fun,” that “they’re all a bunch of dirty whores,” and that they “have ruined our masculine heaven.” The chorus, sung to the melody of “This Old Man,” goes: “with a knick-knack, paddy-whack / Send the bitches home / Our cohogs go to bed alone.”
The first coed years at Dartmouth were certainly troubled as women struggled to find a home in Hanover. Reflecting on the co-education transition in an Alumni Magazine article, Professor Joan Smith put it perfectly: “we have still not addressed the underlying questions of what it means to have women in Hanover.” Looking back fifty years later, it is clear that these questions of gender also underlaid questions of race, class and other social classifiers, which were conversations that had not yet gained momentum in Dartmouth’s homogenous student body back in 1971.
Although in 2022 we have come a long way from the “Cohog Song,” Professor Smith’s words still hold some resonance. Dartmouth’s struggle with gender equality — across all gender identities — is far from resolved. While many decades have passed since Dartmouth was an all-male institution, vestiges of that time period are still visible throughout campus culture, particularly within Greek life. As a school, we are still working towards the ultimate goal of gender equality, towards which co-education was a crucial first step. In doing so, we follow the footsteps of those first coeds, who, over fifty years ago, claimed Dartmouth as theirs, too.