Stories including anthropology

Vassar in the 1940s

Vassar 1945-1949. All women. What a wonderful four years! We were in love with the beautiful campus, and the professors were excellent and exciting – particularly Art and Anthropology for me. I remember great speakers and performers: John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Maya Deren, Joseph Campbell, George Gamow, Wanda Landowska. I was interested in writing but had the bad luck to have a teacher who didn’t seem to like women very much, and said openly there were no great women poets.

I was part of a very special joined class, ’48-’49. We entered together [for the 1945-46 school year], then ’48 went out in three years – the last class to accelerate. We sang all the time, after dinner, in the halls and at events, and still create wonderful reunion shows. Our 50th Reunion show, “The Hallelujah Chorus Line,” was set at the Pearly Gates for our 100th reunion. It was a very funny, full musical, performed in the Chapel for all reunion classes that day. A DVD is in the Library’s Special Collections. We were great friends and we’re still learning from each other at age 82.

We wore sweaters, cut-off jeans and men’s shirts – but skirts were obligatory for dinner.

I lived in Raymond, which was a lovely, diverse house. We laughed at the Gold Bobby Pin set (socialites) who lived in Josselyn. We had to deal with many rules about curfew, boys and alcohol (no one even knew about drugs.) It was the end of World War II, so we all worked, swept corridors, cleaned bathrooms, waited on tables and sat on [at the] message center – no phones in those days! It was important to do and also a way to meet people. We had no TV, no computers (just typewriters), no soda machines, no refrigerators or stoves – but we survived happily. We bicycled to the “Cider Mill” and hiked up to the apple orchard – where you could see the whole campus laid out below.

We loved to go up to the Pub for food and beer, and listen to the Weavers , Pete Seeger’s group that had just made the national charts. The serious drinkers went to the Dutch a few streets away. We ate in our dorms but Vassar food in wartime was quite poor, except on Sundays. I had a good laugh when I learned later about the Great Food Rebellion – just before they took Student’s Building away from us to create ACDC – when Cushing put all the evening’s “mystery meat,” in envelopes and mailed them off to the Director of Halls.

There was an unspoken expectation from the Vassar faculty that Vassar women would make a difference in our world, and we learned wonderful stories of Vassar women who had made important contributions in many areas. As we got older we also learned about our own classmates who had gone forth and helped transform their communities, or the world.

At home, it was clearly understood that young women were to marry as soon as possible, have children, and keep their husbands happy. If you worked it would be just a temporary job until you found the right man. So a lot of time was spent visiting men’s colleges, looking for this ideal man to please you and your parents. By the 1950s, more than a few of our class were miserable, isolated in the suburbs with children – and husbands who, paying for everything, felt they ‘owned’ them. This would set the stage for the Women’s Movement and the ‘60s revolutions: Sexual, Black and Gay. The only escape in the 1940s was graduate school, or being a ‘career woman’ (starting, of course, as a secretary).

Since transportation was limited, we tended to stay on campus on weekends. Student’s Building was ours and had a great stage so we did many plays. I learned more there and had much more fun than in the Drama Department, my major. These years became the era of the Great Musicals – full shows with terrific original scripts and songs – now archived in the Music Department and Special Collections of the Vassar College Library. I directed our Soph Party, a musical that was a feminist’s dream: the heroine loved the men presented to her, then said, ‘Thanks, but I want to wait and be a scientist first!’

The student government (I was president ’48-‘49) was a farce. Students had no power at all, but I think in those days we really didn’t care. The college was run by the President (Sarah Gibson Blanding), the Warden (now called Dean of Students), and the Financial Officer. There were many extracurricular activities, including religion, and politics (we had conservatives and some wonderful ‘Lefties’ on campus (pre-McCarthy)). We had two newspapers, the Miscellany News and the Chronicle – but the Misc was the smartest and most liberal. We had some excellent athletes who, sadly, were not valued either by us or by the college – later I learned they even had to pay their own way to events.

If you realized you loved women you lived in deep silence. ‘Gay’ hadn’t been invented then, I knew no one else like me, and there was no one to talk to. See my book, Wolf Girls at Vassar: Lesbian and Gay Experiences 1930-1990.

We had octet singing groups. The Night Owls were the best and always in demand to sing at men’s colleges. I remember one evening, as a freshman, I opened the door of the theater in Student’s Building. It was a cavernous room, and dark. There was one light on stage and the Night Owls were rehearsing. A magical moment with such beautiful women’s voices and harmonies!

I remember the night after graduation, sitting out under the great English Plane tree between the Library and Main, sad that it was all over. I’ve had a great life since and done most of the things I wanted to do, but Vassar will always be a special place and time.

To Vassar, the Apple of My Eye

I think of my past four years at Vassar like I think of an apple. One of those light green and burnished red ones whose colors mirror the leaves’ transition from summer to fall. A honey crisp, maybe, that tastes sweet, is not too grainy and has a good bite-just the right amount of lingering tartness. Like eating a honey crisp, I have devoured the sweetness and tartness of Vassar over the past four years: pierced the skin of the apple of knowledge, bitten into the smooth flesh that lies beneath and pondered the remaining core and the perfect wholeness of the seeds.

I came to Vassar right before apple season. Arriving from Colorado, I was struck by the fields and fields of apple trees near campus. The abundance of apples that came in the fall was a kind of miracle to me: so many kinds, so many tastes. My classes were equally diverse and delicious, each like a new variety of apple. I studied anthropology, sociology, art history and English. I learned how to think and ask questions about the origins of ideas; their many tastes; how to cut into them, parse and divide them; and how to relate these slices to each other. I discovered the joy of slicing into an apple to savor its sweet, juicy, tart essence in every bite. After a period of tasting-searching for the juiciest bite into the wisdom I sought-I eventually fell in love with culinary anthropology and French. I delighted in thinking about the intersection of culture and food and became addicted to the taste of the word “pomme” (the French word for apple) rolling from my tongue. Professors would pluck apples from the highest branches of trees that I could not yet climb on my own and pass these pieces of wisdom down to me. They pushed me to strive, taste, seek, discover and cultivate my own orchard of apples.

The apples grew. I fertilized them with joyous, sun-dappled afternoons spent listening to my friends play fiddle in the Vassar orchard; cat naps between bouts of intense studying, reading and writing in the chairs of the Vassar library; and classes that left me hungry for more. I watered my trees with occasional tears from the pains of growing and learning and sweat from the heat of getting boxes up and down four flights of stairs on move-in day. I discovered new varieties of apples during my junior year abroad in Paris, France, where I fell in love for the first time, strove to make a perfect tarte aux pommes and learned about living in another culture. When the lower branches of my trees leafed out and started to bear fruit, I shared what I had learned with other students who were hungry to discuss knowledge: how to write a better paper in the Vassar College Writing Center or another way to get at the core of culture as an Anthropology Department academic intern. The spring days were long, lingering and sweet, and my trees blossomed.

And, now, too soon, I have come to my last season at Vassar. I will not be here in the fall when the apple trees again bear heavy, ripe fruit. I will be in Arizona, where there are fewer apple trees, making pastry at a restaurant in Flagstaff and satiating my taste for life in the Southwest. My little crop of Vassar apple trees goes with me. I have tasted the sweetness of the knowledge of the Vassar community, and I will never stop hungering for the crisp, sweet-tart taste of learning something new.

I think of Vassar and the taste of apples fills my mouth.

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