Stories including Sarah Gibson Blanding

Entering a Different World

It was my freshman year, and I had only been at Vassar for a month, maybe. There were four of us in our rooming group in Strong—two suburbanites, two city girls. Three of us were on scholarship. The civil rights sit-ins in the South were taking place, and a group of Vassar students wanted to support the students on the front lines by picketing Woolworth’s in Poughkeepsie.

We four roommates spent intense hours debating whether or not we would join the picket line, and at the end the personal decisions split by geography. The two city girls could not imagine not joining the demonstration, having grown up in a tradition of taking a stand on ethical and liberal political issues. The two suburbanites had no such upbringing, and we were terrified that if we picketed at Woolworth’s we would lose our scholarships. Our city friends scoffed. They went; we stayed on campus.

The marchers returned, and to my utter amazement I learned that Sarah Gibson Blanding, the president of Vassar, had participated in the demonstration! I could hardly comprehend it. Vassar College was truly a different world, opening up vast new possibilities.

Four years later I stood on the Mall in Washington, D.C., listening to Martin Luther King Jr. mesmerizing an audience of 200,000 with his “I Have a Dream” speech. Although the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was the first and last demonstration I joined (except for a minor protest in my Capitol Hill neighborhood over an historic building being torn down), I never forgot the moment when I first understood that “standing up” and challenging authority for a belief was a normal expectation.

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.

Vassar Changed the Direction of My Life

In 1946, I returned to Poughkeepsie from the Western Pacific and the 20th Army Air Force on Tinian, ready to take up my deferred admission to Dartmouth, granted before I entered service. To my dismay, I was told I was still welcome, but there would be no dormitory space available. I would need to find rooms in Hanover. My sister, Vassar ’42, and my mother, Vassar ‘16, pointed out that Vassar was temporarily taking Veterans. “Just go to Vassar,” they said, and live at home instead. So I did.

At Vassar, my prior interest in engineering evaporated, and literature and creative writing became my focus. That change could be attributed to the faculty that I had, and to the fact that literature and writing had always been a major interest for me, while engineering had been what “real men” did in those pre-war years when gender roles were often defined.

Many faculty encouraged me. Frances Foster, in English 105, who encouraged my writing. Ann Kendall, in English 215, (and who left Vassar to marry Richard Scowcroft, second in command to Wallace Stegner at the Stanford University Writing Program) who encouraged me to apply to Stanford for graduate study. Maud Makemson, in Astronomy, who gave me a job as a lab assistant (and found an interest in Astronomy and the Mayan Calendar perfectly compatible with an interest in creative writing). President Sarah Gibson Blanding, who welcomed the men to the campus. Catherine Wolkonsky, whose love of Russian Literature was infectious. Ida Treat Bergeret, who was my creative writing senior thesis advisor. Edna MacMahon, in Economics, who reinforced my liberal political tendencies, and who later served on the first Board of Trustees for Dutchess Community College, where she urged me to take a position as a founding faculty member and head of the English and Humanities Department.

All great women and great teachers, the Vassar influences on my life.

There was also the most important fact that I first met Janet Boehm in that English 105 class with Miss Foster and, after the requisite four years (during which we two often found ourselves in the same classes), married her in 1950, the July after our graduation. The two of us left the Northeast for Palo Alto, since Janet (with a Vassar Fellowship) was accepted at the last minute for graduate study in Philosophy at Stanford, where, incidentally, she became the first woman to receive a masters degree in Philosophy from the Stanford Philosophy Department (previously a fortress for male philosophers). Vassar had told her that as a woman she did not have to take second best.

Four children and four grandchildren later, we have celebrated our 60th Wedding Anniversary.

Of course, Vassar changed the direction of my life. Of our lives.

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