Dartmouth and Women: What's Changed?

Janis Joplin, patron saint of every girl who ended up with a guy because he couldn't get the girl he really wanted, was singing "Take Another Little Piece of my Heart Out Baby" as I walked onto the Dartmouth campus in the hot late autumn afternoon in September of 1975. It would remain my anthem until I left on a Greyhound bus out of White River Junction in December of 1978, completing my degree a couple of months before our class would officially graduate.

Joplin's song is a bet, a dare -- a challenge. C'mon, give me your worst, Joplin invites, because I can take it; don't worry about me, baby, because I can deal with what you can dish out.

Great. Terrific feminist theme song, huh?

Let me explain.

The song has stayed in my head all these years because a bet, dare and challenge is what Hanover was in 1975. At least for women, or at least for working class women or at least for short, curly haired women who looked more like Janis Joplin than Farrah Fawcett (whose ubiquitous poster and perky nipples seemed to greet us from every freshman guy's dorm room). Okay, so maybe there weren't all that many of us who fit that description -- okay, maybe I was the only one -- but one thing I've learned after 25 years is that there are more people who believe they didn't fit in than those who imagine they were at the center of the universe.

And those folks don't play well with others. Or age very well. The best part of getting older is learning that there is more we have in common than we ever dared -- or wanted -- to admit.

So. 1975 was, among other things, the time when the last of the old male bastion colleges and universities faced the fact that they had to (groan) go co-ed, whatever the consequences -- even if it meant having actual females on campus. It was also the pre-AIDS era of women's liberation when sex with strangers did not yet carry a possible death penalty. The only thing it slightly affected was one's marriageability -- and that was only to certain types of men.

Besides, nobody -- male or female -- went to Dartmouth thinking "Oh, this is a GREAT place to find a mate in a really uncomplicated manner." Not with those "Better Dead Than Co-ed" banners fluttering across fraternity row in the warm autumn breeze, newly painted even though women had been admitted as freshman to the college several years before we arrived. Not with the guys holding up signs on the balconies in front of the Mass dorms, grading the girls who walked to Thayer for dinner on a scale of 1-10, as if three years at an all-male prep school made you into a judge for the Miss USA contest. Not, to be fair, with the women looking towards the faculty for our dalliances, or at least towards upper-class for our diversions.

I tried to fit in. Really, I did. I didn't wear my high-heels, at least not during mud season; I traded tight black jeans for corduroy pants even though corduroy pants made that weird "schwoosh, schwoosh" sound when you walked. I even -- and this is hard to admit without cringing -- braided my hair. I tried to pass for what I wasn't. I worried that if my peers discovered the scared and scarred girl under all that eye makeup (which no other girl in Hanover seemed to feel she needed for disguise) they would reject me. That the place would disown me. Then I'd have to become somebody I didn't want to be: a tough cookie who spent her time, singing, taunting, proving "Didn't I show you, baby, that a woman can be tough?"

Being a woman at Dartmouth College in the 1970s was like having a double major. You were not only a freshman, you were also a "co-ed." You were not only a physics major or a government major, you were a "female" physics or government major -- as if more estrogen in your system changed everything. More and less was expected of you: you had to prove yourself worthy of the college, but because a punishing rhetoric (often disguised as playfulness) presumed success was impossible unless you were given a head start, your achievements were also often dismissed. You were graded not only by your professors, but also by the boys on Fraternity Row.

Aged alumni as well as freshman boys told you, "The college never should have admitted women. When my grandfather went here, there were no women." You learned to answer, "Hey, when your grandfather went here there were also no indoor lights. Sometimes things get better."

You were asked "Are you a lesbian?" because "Only a lesbian would want to go to a men's college" to which you learned to reply "If I were a lesbian, sweetheart, don't you think I'd have gone to a woman's college?" (Or perhaps, when asked if you were a lesbian, you learned to answer with a kindly, unblinking little smile "And are you my alternative?")

You learned, in other words, to undermine grim, tight-lipped, earnest and inflexible all-male traditionalism by being a tough cookie, by being a wiseguy, by being a feminist.

Women at Dartmouth and similar institutions had to learn the rules and play by them in order to figure out how to change them. We knew they needed changing as much as the college song needed changing from "Men of Dartmouth..." to lyrics which acknowledged our existence.

We learned quickly and as part of a very small community how to find our voices and find ourselves -- and how to speak up and make trouble. We learned what it feels like to fail and lose -- and how it feels to succeed and triumph.

In other words, we learned exactly what girls and women are still learning today: how to challenge institutions of power from within and how to invent a site for yourself even when no blueprint exists for your place inside a granite-hard establishment.

And isn't it terrific that some of us, more grown up now, maybe wiser, more successful and less nervous about how others will judge us, have been privileged enough to enjoy the last laugh?

You know you got it, baby, if it makes you feel good.

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Printed with permission from Babes In Boyland: A Personal History Of Coeducation In The Ivy League by Gina Barreca, published by UPNE