“Keep the Damned Women Out”

Here’s the inside story of how an all-male board of trustees brought forth the most significant reshaping of the College in its history.

President John Kemeny went home after a meeting of the board of trustees on Saturday, November 20, 1971, “very tired and worried,” he later recalled. Jean Kemeny, his wife, said he was, uncharacteristically, “quite depressed.”

The board had met all day to consider reports and discuss the many issues involved in year-round operation and coeducation. The vote would be taken on Sunday.

Kemeny had been president for only 21 months, and he had a modest reservoir of shared experience with his trustee colleagues. He had inherited a study about coeducation launched by his predecessor, and even though he had come to the presidency as a member of the study committee, it was not the sort of scenario for accomplishing major institutional change that a governance expert would have scripted.

As the board approached the moment of decision, Kemeny wasn’t certain he could win a vote for coeducation.

For all of Kemeny’s personal conviction about the desirability of coeducation, he had not been able to build the sure command over his board that characterized Robert Goheen’s leadership at Princeton or to equal the strong influence that Kingman Brewster wielded at Yale.

“I don’t have the votes,” Kemeny said to his wife.

She told him to list how he thought each trustee would vote. He made three columns—“Yes,” “Maybe,” and “No.” “The first was the shortest and the last the longest,” he recalled. “It looked like I needed all the people listed as ‘Maybe’ just to get a bare majority.”

Back in October the board unanimously approved five principles under which coeducation would be administered: All prospective undergraduates would apply to and be evaluated by the same admission office. Financial aid and student employment would be administered equally for all undergraduates. A single faculty would be responsible for undergraduate education. All undergraduates would be subject to the same regulations with respect to housing and dining, medical care, counseling, and other services. Finally, all undergraduates who fulfilled degree requirements would be awarded Dartmouth degrees. Approval of the principles did not mean that the trustees would approve coeducation when they met in November. Rather, it meant that if coeducation were to be instituted, the principles would be honored.

Knowing already that the faculty strongly favored coeducation, the trustees also asked for a faculty vote on the year-round operation of the College. That vote triggered an article in The New York Times on October 27. The paper accurately described the proposal for year-round operation, together with coeducation, that would be presented to the board at its late-November meeting. Dartmouth would have four terms of about ten weeks each. Students would normally complete their degree requirements in eleven rather than twelve terms: a traditional freshman year of three terms on campus, followed by eight out of twelve possible terms for sophomore, junior, and senior years, one of which would be a summer term, normally before or after the junior year. Students would be able to create personalized academic calendars, taking account of the seasons (Was spending the winter in Hanover appealing or not? Were there special educational programs—ecology, for example—that could best be accomplished at certain times of year?) and having the chance to make room for significant job experiences or foreign study. “The plan has generated enormous excitement at the college,” Kemeny told the Times. “What all started out as a means of expanding economically for coeducation has now emerged as a new pattern for higher education.”

What was not accurate was the article’s headline: “Dartmouth Acts to Admit Coeds.” “Disastrous,” board chair Charles J. Zimmerman, class of 1923, told his colleagues. The Times story “created an outburst of indignation on the part of many alumni,” who “have felt that the ground has been cut out from under the board to the extent where a fair, objective, and independent decision by the board has become an impossibility.” 

That was not true, Zimmerman assured angry correspondents: “The board will not be pressured into making a decision either pro or con. Each member of the board, I am confident, will vote his own conscience and vote for what he considers to be in the best interests of keeping Dartmouth as, hopefully, the preeminent undergraduate college in the United States.”

How that would unfold, however, was far from clear as the board prepared to make a decision.

Zimmerman’s assurances were well founded. The board was not about to be pressured into any decisions. But there was more work to be done before the late-November 1971 meeting, when the board would be ready to show its hand.

In early November the board asked for a vote of the student body. The results favored coeducation by a margin of 72 to 27 percent and year-round operation with coeducation by 57 to 42 percent. The board also reviewed reports by the consulting firm Cresap, McCormick, and Paget, one about coeducation at Yale and Princeton, the other assessing Dartmouth’s estimates of the costs of admitting women. Alumni opposed to coeducation had argued that Dartmouth should wait to see how things were going at Yale and Princeton. Although their motive—to slow down the prospect of coeducation at Dartmouth—may have been suspect, there was real usefulness in the analysis of finances, academics, and social life at the two schools. The reports concluded that the effect of coeducation had been “overwhelmingly positive.”

The board was briefed by a Washington, D.C., attorney about the political and legal environment with respect to equal rights legislation. The College had been following closely the effort by U.S. Rep. Edith Green (D-Oregon) to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs or activities at institutions receiving federal aid. The concern was how Green’s initiative would affect Dartmouth should it choose to embark on coeducation, because equal access was never part of the conversation in Hanover. With the presumed quota on the number of women to be admitted, some female applicants would surely be denied admission in favor of men with lesser credentials, clear evidence of discrimination. Whether establishing an associated school or coordinate college would be legally permissible was not yet known. In the end, the Senate did not include a sex discrimination amendment in the Higher Education Act, and the House struck the Green amendment when it approved the bill in early November. The decision gave Dartmouth the flexibility it desired to proceed.

Kemeny called it “a new venture in American higher education.”

The night before the vote, Jean Kemeny studied the names on her husband’s list and focused immediately on one man John had listed as a “No”—Lloyd Brace ’25, chairman of the First National Bank of Boston. He had led the search committee that selected Kemeny as president and served as chair of the trustees from 1967 to 1970. Jean recalled the story Brace had told them about the discrimination his daughter encountered in medical school and surgical training. That experience, she thought, would lead Brace to vote yes.

As John recorded later, Brace “took the floor” in the Sunday meeting and explained, calmly and eloquently, “why he felt it was essential for Dartmouth to admit women. The world was changing…the traditional reasons for all-male colleges were disappearing. Our students needed to learn to work with both men and women. And we did not want to eliminate half the leadership talent in admitting students.” Given Brace’s standing and influence, he swayed a number of votes.

The board voted unanimously to adopt the Dartmouth Plan for year-round operation and, by a “substantial majority,” to admit the first female candidates for the Dartmouth degree, effective in September 1972. Projected enrollment would be 3,000 males, 1,000 females. The total number of undergraduates on campus would be limited to about 3,400.

To the last, board members who were uneasy about coeducation did what they could to slow it down. Zimmerman suggested, for example, that they might announce a decision for coeducation but postpone implementation for two years, a prospect that appealed to a number of reluctant trustees. The governor of New Hampshire, Walter Peterson ’47, serving on the board by virtue of his office, spoke up forcefully to oppose that proposal. His political experience, he said, told him that unpopular moves ought to be made quickly and decisively. Postponing implementation would give the opposition time to rally to get the decision reversed. Peterson was “so persuasive,” Kemeny recalled, that “he single-handedly changed the board’s mind on that one issue.” The margin in favor of coeducation was 12 to 4.

One opponent suggested that if coeducation had to happen, it would be better to have a unanimous vote. But only two of the dissenters were willing to switch their votes, so the public announcement followed the board’s normal practice of not disclosing the actual vote count. This action stood in contrast to Princeton’s handling of its trustee vote, wherein a decision was made to be candid about differences of opinion—indeed, as Princeton president William G. Bowen reflected, “to celebrate them as evidence that real thought, and not pressure, had led to the affirmative vote.”

In a statement following the meeting, the trustees explained their decision: The historic purpose of Dartmouth College has been to train leaders for society. It is clear that women now will be playing an increasing role of leadership in our society and that Dartmouth can, and should, contribute to their education, making it possible for them to become, as Dartmouth men have through two centuries, outstanding doctors, lawyers, business leaders, scientists, and leaders in government. In endorsing both coeducation and the Dartmouth Plan for year-round operation we are acting to assure that Dartmouth will continue to serve as a leader in innovation in undergraduate education.

Although Dartmouth lagged behind Princeton and Yale in making the decision for coeducation, it trumped them in making an affirmative case for why the College should be in the business of educating women and in the way it accommodated the planned increase in numbers through year-round operation. Zimmerman said that the latter constituted “a breakthrough in making higher education more effective and more economical.” Kemeny called it “a new venture in American higher education,” a “creative design for expanding student enrollment without over-crowding and without major capital expenses for the expansion of the physical plant. It is our firm conviction that this new plan will make Dartmouth even more attractive to young men and women who prize freedom of choice.”

Responses from alumni, predictably, were divided. Plenty of enthusiasts waxed eloquent about their delight. A member of the class of 1918 declared, “Dartmouth in the future is sure to be a greater College with coeds than it could possibly be without them.” A member of the class of 1947 wrote, “I am delighted with the enlightened decision of dear old Dartmouth to go coeducational at last. Now I can contemplate in good conscience sending my son—repeat son—to Dartmouth, should he be admissible and wish to go.”

There were also plenty of outspoken opponents. “The board of trustees choked on the gutless decision of Dartmouth coeds,” wrote a member of the class of 1940. A member of the class of 1922 put it this way: “By vote of the trustees this revered college has, in effect, been destroyed.…The Dartmouth we knew will be gone forever.”

As the ensuing years passed, some loyal alumni who had been strongly opposed to coeducation changed their minds as they came to know individual female students and as their daughters and granddaughters began to matriculate. A woman in the class of 1977, who sang with the a cappella group Dartmouth Distractions, recounted her experience at a dinner in Boston at the outset of coeducation. Each of the Distractions was seated with a group of alumni. Her table consisted of men she estimated to be close to celebrating their 50th reunion. As she sat down, one of the men said, “Oops! We were going to be the anti-coeducation table!” After the Distractions sang, she recalled, “the distinguished looking fellow sitting next to me put his arm around me and said, ‘If they are all like you, I’m going to have to change my mind about coeducation!’ Pretty soon most of the gentlemen were discussing how to get their granddaughters interested in applying to the College.”

The conversion experience was widely shared. Kemeny recalled “a very difficult evening at a 50th reunion banquet” soon after he became president. The speaker had given “an eloquent speech against change, particularly against coeducation.” As Kemeny told the story, “Ten years later, that distinguished alumnus sent an ‘emissary.’ If he admitted via the emissary that he had been wrong on coeducation, would I receive him and please not mention the issue?” Kemeny agreed, and the two men had what he later characterized as “a very pleasant visit.” The common ground that enabled the good conversation: the alumnus’ granddaughter, “who was having a wonderful time at Dartmouth.”

Jean Kemeny recalled a lunch John had with an alumnus in the South. “My two sons and I went to Dartmouth,” the man told Kemeny. “For years, the three of us have worked hard for her. But when the trustees voted to make the College coed, we
decided to have nothing more to do with Dartmouth.” After a long pause, the alumnus continued, “On the other hand, my daughter—a sophomore at Dartmouth—has shown us the
error of our ways!”

In the spring of 1979, a woman in the senior class wrote to Kemeny, almost on the spur of the moment, in the wake of a discussion in her feminist philosophy course. “We were talking about givens in the use of language—Adam and Eve, men and women, boys and girls—how men always came first,” she said later. “President Kemeny,” she wrote at the time, “during my four years at Dartmouth you have always addressed student audiences as ‘Men and Women of Dartmouth.’ When you are addressing my graduating class, would you please say ‘Women and Men of Dartmouth’?”

When Kemeny did that at Commencement, the audience erupted in wild applause. A woman in the class of 1980 recalled: “ ‘Women and men of Dartmouth’—it reverberated through the audience.…The symbolism was not lost on any of us. It was a dramatically different statement from ‘Men and women of Dartmouth.’ Tears came to our eyes, shivers went down our spines, and cheers (mostly female) resounded through the audience. We knew we had made it, that we belonged, and that people who mattered wanted it that way.”

Dartmouth had moved a step closer to real coeducation.     

Nancy Weiss Malkiel is a professor of history, emeritus, at Princeton University.

Excerpted from “Keep the Damned Women Out”: The Struggle for Coeducation by Nancy Weiss Malkiel.  © 2016 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.

The headline for this story comes from a quote by a member of the class of 1929 who voiced his objections to coeducation in January 1970.

Illustration by Mike McQuade



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