Rockefeller Center hosts coeducation panel, highlights struggle of first class of women

Panelists discussed the hostilities that many women suffered at the hands of male classmates and being told to not “rock the boat.”

by Emilia Williams | 11/8/22 5:00am

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Source: Courtesy of Joanne Blais

On Nov. 3, the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy hosted a discussion on coeducation and the College’s integration of female students with former state senator Martha Hennessey ’76 and Jenny Kemeny ’76, both members of Dartmouth’s first matriculated class of women. Also present was former Dartmouth government professor Lynn Mather, who co-founded the women’s studies program. 

The event, which was also live-streamed, was held in the Filene Auditorium. About 45 people attended the discussion in person, and it was moderated by co-president of Dartmouth Women in Law and Politics Jennifer Lee ’22. 

In 1963, the first female undergraduate students enrolled in a summer term at Dartmouth, and from 1968 to 1972, approximately 230 female exchange students participated in classes during the traditional academic year. 

Kemeny spoke about her father — former College President John Kemeny — and his role in bringing coeducation to Dartmouth. In November 1971, he announced “The Dartmouth Plan,” which would bring female students to campus without decreasing the number of male students in the process. That fall, following a student petition, Dartmouth’s Board of Trustees voted for full coeducation, and in September 1972, 177 woman first-year students and 74 woman transfer students matriculated to the College. In order to account for the lack of housing or funds to build more facilities, President Kemeny proposed that the campus would operate on a year-long schedule by incorporating sophomore summer and more off-campus study programs. 

Not only did President Kemeny believe that women would have important jobs in the future, but he was also motivated to address the declining number of applications to Dartmouth by opening up the school to female students, Kemeny said. She recalled her father’s 1972 convocation speech, the first speech addressing a coeducational class, which he began with the words “‘Men and women of Dartmouth’” — to which the crowd “went wild.”

Hennessey spoke of some of her “not so good” experiences as a woman in the first coeducational class at Dartmouth. She cited hostilities like male students throwing rocks into women’s dorms with notes telling them to “Go home” and putting dead fish in women’s mailboxes.

“I was surprised when Dartmouth male students displayed hostilities towards women — not all men of course — but enough of them did,” she said. “A group of men would sit with numbers as women would walk into Thayer Hall ... and try to rate them as if they were Olympic scorers.”

Hennessey acknowledged the Dartmouth culture that her class stepped into and how, combined with the sexism that female students faced, it created a unique set of challenges. She recounted some of the things that female students were “regularly reminded” of. 

“Girls should be just one of the guys, don’t rock the boat, don’t stick out, don’t give men any reason to make the College feel that they made a mistake in admitting women,” she said. “Bad things happen everywhere, why should Dartmouth be any different?” 

Although Hennessey described many of her most negative experiences as a woman in a historically male space, she added that she has still “loved” Dartmouth — “warts and all.”

“I believe that in our hearts everyone wants this College to be the best it can be,” she said. “[But] I also know that institutions do not thrive by avoiding difficult conversations or shunning opportunities for change.”

Hennessey concluded by giving advice to women currently at the College. 

“Remember, this is your College now,” she said. “Soak up your time here, all of the amazing things you can learn and incredible people you can meet. Seek out people who are not like you and opportunities that scare you … And don’t be afraid to imagine how Dartmouth can grow and become amazing for generations to come.”

Mather, who was first hired as an instructor at Dartmouth in 1972, said that her experiences teaching at the College during the first decade of coeducation were “very, very difficult,” citing the intimidation and violence that many women faced as a campus minority. 

“[Women came to my office hours and] began talking about the difficulties they were having on campus. Pretty soon, I’m doing counseling for rape victims, for whether or not to have an abortion — all kinds of things that I had absolutely no qualifications to do, but there was no one else doing them,” she said.

Mather said that in 1972, she was one of just 26 female professors out of 315 faculty members. According to data from 2017, there were 116 tenured woman professors at Dartmouth. However, Mather said that her experience as a woman in Dartmouth’s faculty actually became worse as time went on due to the College’s poor retention of female professors, which would not change until the College implemented policies such as spousal hiring, maternity leave and childcare. 

“The problem was retention. [Women] wouldn’t stay,” she said. “Disproportionately, women were leaving, and it was not an individual explanation — it was a structural problem that the College needed to address”

Love Tsai ’23 said that the event was “eye-opening.”

“I don’t really think about coeducation at Dartmouth here, because it feels like that’s what we are walking into, so we take it for granted that there are both male and female students here,” she said. “To hear about how hostile the environment [Dartmouth’s first class of women was] walking into was really shocking.”

Madeleine Saraisky ’26 said that she attended the event because she wanted to learn more about coeducation for her class, WGSS 10, “Sex, Gender and Society.” Saraisky added that she was able to talk with Hennessey after the event to hear more about her experiences as a member of the first coeducational class. 

Hennessey said that when the women of the Class of 1976 arrived on campus, the Class of 1926 had placed roses and a welcoming note in their dormitories. The Class of 1976 in turn, Saraisky said, gave all students of the Class of 2026 an encouraging note and flower after matriculation. 

Saraisky said that she also attended the event because she had been “interested since matriculation,” from “that first introduction when they gave us flowers.”

The event concluded with a Q&A session in which Hennessey and Kemeny discussed other topics related to their time at the College, such as feeling intimidated to speak up in a male-dominated space and the presence of Greek life on campus. 

After the event, Lee said that she thought each panelist offered a “unique perspective” as storytellers of coeducation.

“What was striking to me was the pressure to be quiet about how difficult it was to be a woman — whether you are a student or faculty member,” she said. “It reminded me that the history of coeducation is so important to every single student’s experience here today.”

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