I Attended Felicity Huffman's Boarding School And I Learned More Than I Bargained For

An unsettling disconnect exists between what elite progressive schools claim to stand for and what often actually transpires on their campuses.
Allison Lirish Dean (top, smiling) as a young student, with a friend on the campus of the Putney School, spring 1985.
Allison Lirish Dean (top, smiling) as a young student, with a friend on the campus of the Putney School, spring 1985.
Courtesy of Allison Lirish Dean

Media stories about sexual assault and the culture of toxic masculinity at elite boarding schools have become so routine that nobody is surprised when another one emerges. Such stories involve schools like Saint Paul’s, Milton Academy, and Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s now-infamous alma mater Georgetown Prep, all classic boarding schools with preppy dress codes, honor codes, an emphasis on orthodox academics and sports, and serene campuses whose brick buildings and tidy lawns suggest history and tradition. But sexual assault also happens at elite progressive schools that don’t fit these stereotypes.

I speak from personal experience. In the mid-1980s, I was sexually assaulted at the Putney School in Vermont, a famous progressive school in both the pedagogical and the political sense of the word. Founded in the 1930s by Carmelita Hinton, a women’s rights advocate and pioneering social reformer, Putney makes high-minded claims about educating students for political responsibility and democracy, and shuns conventionality and competition. The school treats manual labor, the arts and traditional academic subjects equally, and boasts a working animal farm, which students help run.

We wielded axes on “woods crew,” washed hundreds of dishes on “dish crew,” and on “carrot day” cheerfully harvested the orange roots from the school’s vegetable plots. Courses ranged from “peace studies” to printmaking, and every Friday evening students attended an obligatory all-school singalong. There were no dress codes or grades, and a decidedly countercultural atmosphere prevailed.

Like other elite boarding schools, Putney has famous and wealthy alumni, but they’re more likely to be artists or writers than lawyers or financiers. Actor Téa Leoni, tech entrepreneur Reid Hoffman, filmmaker Errol Morris, playwright Wallace Shawn and musician Harper Simon (son of Paul Simon) all went to Putney. My Southern background left me ill-prepared to navigate this lefty elite environment. I said “y’all,” wore preppy clothes and was into bands like Duran Duran. A different set of tastes had currency at Putney: kids embraced The Grateful Dead, The Velvet Underground and punk rock groups like Black Flag. They wore alternative styles of dress I couldn’t pull off without a wardrobe makeover, and used drugs with an ease that terrified me.

Lacking the right cultural capital had serious social consequences at Putney. I was frequently bullied, and my few friendships felt tenuous. But there was one kind of capital I did have: sexual capital. I was pretty and got a lot of attention from boys. Any dim sense I had that wielding this power might come at a price did not stop me from doing so. This largely meant responding to the sexual cues of older, popular boys, my association with whom I vaguely hoped might improve my bleak social status, especially if I could land any of them as real boyfriends (I didn’t).

But sexual capital alone couldn’t make up for everything else I lacked, and I quickly gained a reputation, which only intensified the bullying I experienced, especially from girls, who understood the threat that my winning attention from “cool” boys posed to their own positions in the overall pecking order. At best, I had too many confusing, and just plain bad, sexual encounters. At worst, boys ruthlessly targeted me for sexual conquest.

“Lacking the right cultural capital had serious social consequences at Putney. I was frequently bullied, and my few friendships felt tenuous. But there was one kind of capital I did have: sexual capital.”

In one particularly memorable incident, a popular senior boy cornered me alone in the basement of the dining hall, where I had gone to use one of the school’s few payphones. This boy, 18 or 19 years old to my 14, began pressuring me to have sex with him. I refused, but he persisted, complimenting my looks, professing his desires, and masterfully laying on the charm. Eventually, feeling worn down and not knowing what else to do, I gave up and schlepped with him across campus to his dorm room. We had sex. I don’t recall hating it, or feeling much of anything — just numbness. In any case, I must have subconsciously reasoned, he was friendly enough, and good-looking, and it was better than being bullied.

For a long time, Putney’s reputation as a famous progressive school was an obstacle to my making sense of this incident, and the ruthless teenage culture surrounding it. Bullying, gender extremes and sexual predation seemed utterly at odds with the emphasis on social justice and “changing the world,” but I wasn’t the only one who experienced them, as I witnessed then, and as interviews with students from my era that I’ve conducted have confirmed.

What was going on?

To be sure, the 1980s were a time of crisis for Putney, whose administrators had allowed their belief in student independence and self-direction to go too far, resulting in a “Lord of the Flies” atmosphere. At times, it felt as if my suffering was simply due to my inability to handle such a free, i.e.,“progressive,” sort of place. But decades later, as I began trying to make sense of my experiences, I realized that the school’s chaotic conditions only amplified a more systemic problem. Simply put, Putney’s progressive ideals were in conflict with its imperatives as an elite school.

One of prestigious boarding schools’ main goals is to induct students into membership in elite society. This starts with formidable barriers to entry, like high tuition — Putney’s is now over $62,000 per year — and selective admissions processes. But economic resources and good transcripts alone don’t confer eliteness. As the social scientist Rubén Gaztambide-Fernandez has shown, once inside an elite school, students must prove they belong there by demonstrating certain behaviors, knowledge and aesthetic choices, the precise nature of which varies from school to school. The degree to which students succeed or fail at this task determines their place in the school’s status hierarchy. Nonelite students pay a higher price in this game because succeeding at it often requires them to reject aspects of themselves that are in conflict with the elite status that an esteemed boarding school bestows.

This is especially important to grasp as boarding schools increasingly tout their economic and social diversity. Roughly 49% of Putney students currently receive some kind of financial aid, and the school boasts a large proportion of international students. But the reality is — and recent research shows — that all students at elite boarding schools, regardless of background, must learn to behave as part of an elite status group.

Kids from upper-class backgrounds already know how to do this. It’s the ones who aren’t who find they need to change. In other words, it’s not that what it means to be elite is expanding to encompass a wider range of people, but rather that a wider range of people are being given the opportunity to go through the ordeal of altering themselves to fit the narrow definition of white American eliteness. This upends the whole notion of American meritocracy. In order to survive socially at Putney, I had to learn to dissociate not only from my Southernness, but also, painfully, from the cultural practices and beliefs of my family and community back home. This has had lifelong consequences.

While my original trauma was one of social class, it was compounded by my experience of gender at Putney. Social scientists have recently documented how girls at elite boarding schools are pressured to be sexual objects in order to fit in (see ”Perfectly Prep by Sarah Chase). The reasons for this are partly historical: elite boarding schools were created to educate the children of New York City bankers and Boston Brahmins, who consolidated wealth in part through marriage (hence the “trophy wife,” a primary way upper-class men signal their status). And these schools were always a male domain structured by competition, hierarchy and “survival of the fittest” values that tacitly encourage gendered behaviors.

“It’s not that elites are more prone to social hierarchies or sexism than other groups — these problems permeate all of society. But they are particularly insidious in expensive progressive schools like Putney because of the sharp disparity between the branding and what’s really going on inside.”

As a progressive school, Putney prided itself on rejecting these norms, but this only hid the fact that rigid gendered behavior was still going on, just in a different guise. Girls signaled status through a finely-tuned sense for the right vintage, punk or bohemian look, and by holding their own with boys, be it in sports, drugs or their ability to retain an aloof, tough exterior. But while boys used sexual conquest as a route to enhanced status in their male counterparts’ eyes, girls had to carefully cultivate sexual attractiveness without actually having too much sex, lest they be branded sluts.

The Kavanaugh hearings this past fall were a dramatic demonstration of how such intersectionality operates within elite circles, allowing men to maintain credibility in the face of convincing accusations of sexual misconduct from their female peers. Progressive elite men need not identify with Kavanaugh’s ilk or hold explicitly sexist values to reap the benefits of this system. Long before Putney, I learned that women’s status comes in part from the men with whom they associate. But the need to act on this lesson was undoubtedly intensified in an environment in which my social standing was suddenly so precarious. In other words, gender helps articulate and reinforce class inequalities among students at elite schools.

It’s not that elites are more prone to social hierarchies or sexism than other groups — these problems permeate all of society. But they are particularly insidious in expensive progressive schools like Putney because of the sharp disparity between the branding and what’s really going on inside. The tangible consequence is that families spend money on an education that is not entirely as advertised, diverting resources away from genuine progressive causes.

Putney alumna Felicity Huffman’s alleged cheating on her daughter’s college applications is emblematic of the way the need for elite social status trumps our alma mater’s supposedly progressive ideals, laying bare the contradictions between what elite progressive schools say and what their students and graduates actually do. Such contradictions reveal deeper truths about these institutions’ values. This is important because their alumni often wield disproportionate power and influence, and because demystifying eliteness can help us better understand how inequality works across the class spectrum.

If the mission of eliteness tends to undermine social justice-oriented progressive educational principles, then what is to be done? Putney Head of School Emily Jones told me that I am not the only student from my era who has contacted her to share bad experiences from the 1980s, and that, on campus, she “feels ghosts around her” from that period in the school’s history. After talking with her, I felt reassured that Putney is a much better place today.

Jones says part of the change is generational — adolescents today have grown up with a lot more “emotional intelligence,” are more gender-fluid, and talk more to adults about their lives than we did. The school is also proactively addressing issues of class and gender with mandatory courses about sexuality and consent and faculty-moderated panels on race, class and gender. I’m glad things have improved, and am sure much more could be done, but do we really need elite boarding schools?

As a parent, I value progressive education, no doubt in part because, despite the trauma, Putney did illustrate to me the value of schooling that is connected to real life, citizenship and community. But it’s these very values that make me uncomfortable with the idea of expensive private schools of any kind, which perpetuate a system in which some people go to schools where the gym has been condemned, and some go to schools that offer 30 different sports. Ideally, progressive educational values would be combined with a truly public school system in which a child’s educational prospects would not be determined by their family’s ZIP code. The root issue is inequality, and solving that will require efforts on many fronts, both in and beyond schools.

Allison Lirish Dean is the host and producer of “Ear to the Pavement,” a podcast about progressive urban planning. She researched and produced the award-winning documentary film “My Brooklyn” (2012), which has been used as an organizing tool by anti-gentrification activists around the world. Allison has covered the arts as well as urban planning and policy issues for public radio shows such as Studio 360, and for publications such as Next City, HuffPost, The Brooklyn Rail and Gotham Gazette. She also researched and produced “Someplace Like Home” (2008), an award-winning video for Brooklyn-based community organization Families United for Racial and Economic Equality. For more from Allison, follow her on Twitter.

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article had the assaulter’s age as 17 or 18. Public records have indicated his age was 18 or 19.

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