First matriculated Dartmouth women share experiences and lessons learned, 50 years later

The first co-ed class matriculated at Dartmouth in September 1972, fifty years ago.

by Emily Fagell | 8/31/22 5:45am

dartmouth-rowing-barge-1972
Source: Courtesy of Martha Beattie

This article is featured in the 2022 Freshman special issue.

On Nov. 21, 1971, College President John Kemeny announced that the Board of Trustees had voted in favor of coeducation. The following September, 177 female first-year students and 74 female transfers matriculated at the College — becoming the first group of women to fully enroll at Dartmouth, which historically had been an all-male institution.

Over the next four years, female members of the Class of 1976 experienced various hardships on campus — hostile fraternity basements, bricks through dorm windows, crude remarks in the campus dining hall and derogatory songs at their expense, to name a few. But the first women were also embraced by an “intense and wonderful community,” according to Ann Fritz Hackett ’76, the first alumna trustee of the College. Now, fifty years after the start of coeducation, former vice president of Alumni Relations Martha Beattie ’76 said she wants to change the narrative of coeducation.

“I would love for the narrative to be changed, that [the College] was full of all these horrible-behaving males, and it was so tough for women,” Beattie said. “It was such a gift to be part of the making of this history. And there were so many men on campus that were incredible partners in making that history happen.”

The Road to Coeducation

Although coeducation officially began in 1972, the College had previously hosted women for various co-educational weeks and exchange programs, according to the anniversary webpage. In Kemeny’s inaugural address on March 1, 1970, the new president expressed his desire to transition to full coeducation, calling it “one of [the College’s] most urgent tasks.” The next academic year, 1971-1972, would be the last year of the exchange programs before his wish came to fruition.

Kemeny’s drive to implement coeducation was met with hesitation by older alumni and the Board of Trustees, according to College archivist Peter Carini. In fact, among those who graduated between 1883 and 1925, only 46% supported coeducation. And though the board knew that admitting women “was on the horizon,” Carini said members on the Board of Trustees expected the transition to take five or six years — not less than two years — after Kemeny assumed office.

Support for coeducation was stronger among students, faculty and younger alumni — 71% of undergraduates, 86% of faculty and 81% of alumni who graduated between 1960 and 1969 supported coeducation, according to College data. Ultimately, these support groups prevailed: After two days of deliberation, the board — spurred by both “agitation by students” and  “very vocal” women faculty — voted in favor of coeducation, Carini said.

Though the November announcement came late in the college admissions process, women submitted their applications in droves. According to former trustee Nancy Kepes Jeton ’76, six of her classmates had already been accepted to Middlebury College, but they independently convinced the dean of admissions to suspend their early decision commitments there. Brewer Doran ’76, on the other hand, said she had “never wanted to go anywhere else.” 

Campus Culture

Once they arrived, the first women were met by a “male-dominated” social scene, according to Sara Hoagland Hunter ’76. She explained that the campus was “fraternity-central” — the first sorority, Sigma Kappa sorority, was not established until 1977 — and there was “no place that women [had] to gather.” Although women were allowed in fraternities, they were occasionally met by antagonistic or inappropriate behavior. Stefanie Valar ’76 recalled an incident in which a fraternity brother entered the basement “wearing nothing but sneakers,” while Kipp Barker ’76 remembered the infamous Hums incident, in which a fraternity won the Green Key parody competition with their derogatory song, “Our Cohogs” — a derogatory play on “coeds,” the nickname given to women students.

“I will say we were always welcomed, but I never really felt at home in a fraternity,” Doran said.

Hostilities also extended beyond Greek spaces. Kepes Jeton said some men would rate women’s physical appearances as they walked into the dining hall, while Fritz Hackett said a brick was thrown through her dorm window during her first week on campus. Naomi Baline Kleinman ’76 added that men came to her residence hall to punch out the glass in the back door, kick in  women’s trash cans and set their memo boards on fire.

Despite these incidents, most women from the Class of 1976 reported an overall positive experience, according to Ann Waugh Page ’76, Med ’79.

“From my perspective, the overwhelming story of the ’76 women is how we adapted to, thrived in and then genuinely loved what we consider to be our college,” Waugh Page said. “Almost all the women I knew in that first year felt privileged to be at Dartmouth and proud to be in that first class. Obviously, there are little hiccups along the way, but my overwhelming sentiment is that it was a really positive experience for me.”

Hoagland Hunter agreed, calling her experience “magical” and her friendships with both men and women “absolutely terrific.” Baline Kleinman added that there were more hostile alumni than men on campus.

“I can’t say enough about the fact that there were a lot of incredibly welcoming men across all the classes,” Baline Kleinman said. “The juniors and seniors in [Butterfield Hall] were, across the board, just so happy that we were there and were very kind to us.”

Making Space for Women

Although the Dartmouth social scene was still dominated by fraternities, the women of 1976 found their place on campus. According to Carini, many women turned to athletics, which provided an arena to “excel on their own, without competition from men.” 

Fritz Hackett, who played varsity field hockey and tennis, agreed that sports provided “a way to have a critical mass of women,” while Beattie referred to her rowing teammates as her closest friends. Waugh Page added that joining the ski team was a highlight of her Dartmouth experience. 

“That was a great move because we had a really close group of women,” Waugh Page said. “We had this fantastic mentor as a coach. We could sit around her office and chat. She was like our mother, and it was a really nice group — and a group that I still get together with almost annually.”

Beyond athletics, Barker said that women were active in campus activities. Waugh Page said she was involved in the Dartmouth Outing Club, for example, while Hoagland Hunter said she had a lead role in a drama production and co-founded the first female a cappella group, the Dartmouth Distractions.

“Women participated pretty fully in the extracurricular life,” Doran added. 

According to Baline Kleinman, women also found community within their residence halls. While Valar said she enjoyed living in a coeducational residence hall — explaining that her male neighbors were “protective” of the women — Fritz Hackett said that her all-female building, North Massachusetts Hall, helped foster strong female friendships.

“It was much more than just a dorm experience,” Fritz Hackett said. “I remember the extraordinary friendships and spirit and camaraderie that we shared … It was always wonderful in those early days of coeducation to be able to come back to the dorm at the end of the day and know that 75 amazing women would be there.”

Excelling in the Classroom

Many women reported a positive academic experience. Hoagland Hunter said that classroom atmospheres were “joyful and accepting,” while Beattie said “the faculty did a remarkable job of blending the genders.” In the few instances in which professors did make rude remarks, Kepes Jeton said that male students stood up for their female classmates.

“I had two or three times where the professor would turn to me and say, ‘What is the women's point of view on this?’” Kepes Jeton said. “And I didn’t even have to answer. Guys in the class spoke up to the professor and said, ‘That is such a stupid question.’”

Women also excelled academically, which Baline Kleinman said created a “culture shock” as the men realized that they “did not exist solely with makeup on.” In 1973 — the first year in which women graduated from Dartmouth — 51% of the women and only 20% of the men graduated Phi Beta Kappa, according to the timeline. Three years later, the Class of 1976 — the first fully coeducational class — graduated a woman valedictorian, Doran added.

Jim Beattie ’76 said that the women were “probably smarter” than the men because “they were here for the academics.” Carini added that the women were motivated and “knew what they were getting into” when they chose Dartmouth.

“They’re not shrinking violets,” Carini said. “They knew that things were going to be different here. Some of them may have found that the academic environment was easier than where they came from.”

Lifelong Lessons

Women from the Class of 1976 said their experiences at Dartmouth left them with valuable lessons. Kepes Jeton said that Dartmouth “taught [her] to be fearless,” while Valar said she learned to stand up for herself. Doran added that Dartmouth prepared her to navigate a male-dominated workforce.

“I have no regrets about anything at Dartmouth, good or bad, because I learned from all of them,” Doran said. “What I learned [at Dartmouth] about standing my ground has done me a whole lot of benefit throughout my entire career, and it’s something that I’m grateful for that I don’t notice when I’m the only woman in a room.”

Fritz Hackett added that her time at Dartmouth spurred a “tremendous amount of learning and growth.” 

“I felt like I was given an opportunity to understand a lot more about human nature, diversity and institutions going through enormous change than most people do at that phase and time of their life,” she said. “And [it taught me] to have the courage to find my voice and be authentic and be who I am and not shy away from opportunities.”

To celebrate the 50th reunion of coeducation, the Class of 1976 has planned several on-campus and virtual events for the community this fall, which can be found on their webpage. 

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