First Men at Vassar, 1970-1972

by Jonathan Levy, Class of 1972

It wasn’t until I was twenty years old that I finally figured out all the problems I was having with life in general, and the problems I was having with women in particular. Or at least I thought I had, even though later events would prove me to be completely wrong on both accounts. But on that one glorious morning in Poughkeepsie, New York, with the April sky busy warming itself up with the first serious sunshine of the year, I convinced myself that life finally made sense. Bright new flowers were bursting out of their sleepy winter states, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if the campus birds had started flapping around my ears singing “Zippity-Doo-Dah” as I walked towards my class in American History that morning. I suppose that’s just the wonderful, glowing feeling I had back then when I became so very enlightened at the great all-seeing age of twenty.

I was in my first year at Vassar College, as a junior, a situation which actually seemed more comical to me than anything else. After more than a hundred years as an almost Ivy League college for women, Vassar, in September 1970, was in the process of going co-educational. That year Vassar had taken in a freshman class which was half made up of men, but I was part of a much smaller group of upperclassmen who had transferred in from other schools. This still made the entire student body of about 1,600 students about 80% female. Of the other 20%, the male students, there seemed to be about 5% gay types, but the rest were guys who somehow thought they had all suddenly died and gone straight on to heaven.

Why did I think the whole thing was all a joke for me in spite of Vassar’s high academic standing? It turns out that I was getting a complete scholarship to attend this very expensive liberal arts college, mostly as a result of the “Guns and Butter” policies of the American government during the Viet Nam War. In an effort to keep people happy and to convince them that America could both maintain its lavish lifestyle and support something as devastatingly wasteful as the war in Viet Nam, the government was throwing heaps of money at the civilian population.

It was a time of troubles for America, though, with the nightly TV news blaring out reports of endless American combat deaths in Southeast Asia, and deadly race riots in Newark, Watts, and many other places. People were taking to the streets in outright protest, and life seemed to be hanging in the balance back then in the early 70’s. Many young people were questioning the very basic values of their parents’ generation and were apparently doing some very odd and some very unusual things to try and track down this new lifestyle somehow. Rock music, drugs, organic farming, back-to-the earth communities, Hinduism, free love, homosexual relationships and all sorts of other trends were being tried by the nation’s young people, as their worried parents watched them helplessly from somewhere off in the distance.

Having struggled to save enough money to attend an all-male Lafayette College in Pennsylvania in September 1967, I became sick with Type 1 diabetes at the end of my first year at college. Under the famous guns and butter policy, I was awarded a full scholarship to college so that I could become a teacher. I went back to Lafayette, finished my second year there and then dropped out of school in a mist of hippie-induced stupidity.

In the middle of my year off, though, I got a letter from Mr. Fat-Tie Guy at the Disability Office claiming that if I didn’t go back to school I would lose my scholarship and probably end up as a forty year old guy working at McDonald’s. He claimed that I should apply to a college in New York State this time because, after all, that was my home state and the Unemployment Office was just not kidding around any more. “No more Mr. Nice Guy,” he seemed to be saying to me as both the American bombings in Viet Nam and the loud public protests just kept getting more and more vehement.

Well, I was living in the basement of a hippie house with some friends of mine who were going to Brandeis University outside of Boston, so in between my job as a worker in a mental hospital where I was still busy trying to learn about “life”, I applied to several SUNY schools in New York. Just for the hell of it, I applied to Vassar, having seen the name in a list of expensive private schools in the big book of colleges that were in the process of going co-ed. I don’t even remember if I had an interview with Vassar; apparently my marks at Lafayette had been good enough and they seemed to like what I had written to them on my application essay. Or maybe they were just looking for males…I really don’t know why, but I was accepted for school starting the next September.

When I drove up to Poughkeepsie to start school that September, I must say that I felt that I had entered into a whole new universe. Green lawns and huge trees, large brick and ivy-covered buildings spread out all over the campus, which was far away from the ‘center’ of economically troubled Poughkeepsie. Wandering around, I noticed a Main building with its Mansard roof from the previous century and a large, overblown Gothic-inspired library building where I would eventually spend many hours doing my research to get my degree in history.

My dormitory, named Josselyn Hall in great reverential tribute to somebody or other, was a large building with four floors divided strategically between men and women in a carefully thought out new housing plan. I had the feeling, though, that the little old ladies who guarded the doors in the dormitory, known locally as the “White Angels,” took a critical look at the new male arrivals and thought to themselves, “This is all going to take some getting used to, isn’t it?” It was a time of changing social standards in the whole country, and Vassar’s very serious rules on male visitation had just gone flying out the window, taking along with them the traditional after dinner coffee called “demi-tasse,” which had been served graciously every day to the prim and proper female Vassar students.

It wasn’t until I went to the dining room for the first time that I noticed that there seemed to be a whole lot of women wandering around the dorm… I mean, there were a hell of a lot of women wandering around the place. Now, you have to remember that it was 1970, and I was a kind of hippie-type who believed in women’s liberation, truth and justice, and the right of everyone, regardless of color or sex, to live out their lives to the best of their abilities. But, in spite of all that theoretical stuff, it just turned out that there were thousands of these amazing young women everywhere you looked. I walked slowly into the dorm’s dining room, mostly with my mouth flapping wide open, to have breakfast on that very first morning.

There was a certain amount of uneasiness at that first breakfast, with the upperclass women greeting their friends after the long summer vacation, but at the same time, keeping their eyes on the new male students. A lot more hands went to a lot more hair during the cornflakes that morning, but most people just got on with the serious business of getting ready for class that day. Some of the freshman women, who apparently didn’t know any better, went on as normally as you would in a co-ed school, but some of the older women actually sent some rather dirty looks in our direction. It seems that many of the upperclass women already had steady boyfriends in Ivy League colleges whom they would all meet at various intervals over the course of the school year. The rest of the time, however, they felt they were certainly entitled to a little peace and quiet in their lives when they buttered their toast in the morning. I mean, that was the original purpose of going to a woman’s school, wasn’t it? Vassar always had a strong tradition of feminism and women’s liberation, and some of the leaders of that movement were a little upset at having all these men spoiling their breakfast.

There were, it seems, only minor incidents of romance and chance encounters in the hallways as fall slipped into winter. I eventually became friendly with several women, and became their “buddy” to have coffee with or sit and chat in the lobby…like we were all just part of one big happy family. I was looking for “Miss Right,” of course, but just couldn’t seem to locate her. I had a short fling or two over that semester and some interested eye searchings in the dorm lobby, but nothing much more really ever came of that. Studying seemed to be the major interest on campus and dating one another seemed to be the last thing on anyone’s mind.

Things seemed to operate differently at Vassar than they did at my former college. Here there were no fraternities with their wild, beer guzzling party rooms and loads of girls shipped in from neighboring small town colleges. I, personally, was living on the edges of the dope-smoking hippie world at Lafayette, but my “normal” fraternity brothers continued to drink themselves dumb and blind on Friday nights. I also remember looking around Vassar for fraternities or their equivalents when I first got on campus and wondering to myself where the hell the party was going to be. But the truth is that even on that very small campus, I never did ever manage to locate it. Looking back on it now, I guess I was looking for a deep emotional contact with someone, but all I kept getting was a lot of small talk about life, school assignments, and the size of the great chocolate ice cream cones at the snack bar in the Main building. I knew I was always trying to find a real partner, a true lover among all my women friends, but I just couldn’t seem to make the right connections.

Every day brought new things which seemed to completely change Vassar’s feminist status entirely. I started playing on Vassar’s first male lacrosse team, which we named “The Big Pink,” after Bob Dylan’s rock and roll album, and jock straps appeared on the order forms for Vassar’s rather limited athletic budget. They later changed the name of all the athletic teams to “The Brewers,” based on [the brewing tradition of the Vassar family], but we never knew what to call ourselves and just stuck with the semi-serious name for Vassar’s first male teams.

One thing that happened though, much to the disgust of the Women’s Libbers and staunch lesbians, was that the men started taking over some of the classes. It turned out that the loud-mouthed men spoke more in discussions in the classrooms than some of the shyer women who just started fading away. This truly enraged the traditional Vassarites, who saw Vassar as a chance for women to express themselves and become stronger individuals. There was a lot of headshaking going on, even though the usual things the males tended to contribute weren’t worth a hill of beans.

Although none of us wanted to admit it, given Vassar’s long-standing liberal, non-sexist views, it turns out that there is a natural force separating the sexes that you can’t always deny. It’s not a good thing and it’s not a bad thing, and there are strong individuals on either side of the spectrum, but all of the professors were soon commenting about this new development. I mean, in Child Psych class we were taught that the current Vassar feminist philosophy was that there is no difference between little boys and little girls…it was argued that it’s just that the boys are encouraged to play rough games and the girls are encouraged to play with dolls. It wasn’t until years later when I was married and had my own child that I realized that the whole concept simply wasn’t true. It later became clear to me that there are always boys who like to play with dolls and girls who can tackle a halfback running downfield at full speed, but while they may exist in great numbers, they are not the general rule. Anybody has the right to fit themselves in somewhere along this social stream of capabilities… a viewpoint which formed my social outlook and ruled my life, I think quite positively, for many years.

Winter showed up with heavy snows, with the sidewalks miraculously swept clean on campus by silent workmen who seemed to live in a different universe than the Vassar students. Late March was harsh, with the snow melting from the ground, leaving little patches of hope for the expected spring avalanche of new life and glorious colors. There was a kind of expectancy in the air as the world turned itself over in preparation for our spring break and a chance to cut free and party somewhere to relieve the tensions of the difficult academic year.

That was the morning that “The Truth” struck me in the face like the fisted glove of a heavy weight champion. I noticed my fellow Josselyn students as well as hundreds of other women from other dorms were all enjoying the warm new sun on the lawns in front of the various buildings that morning. I can’t explain it really, but that was the moment that the world became quite clear to me, or at least as clear as the world gets for someone in his early, sex-starved twenties. It was as if, by some direct mysterious order from the Almighty, all of these women on the lawns had been commanded en masse to take off all their boots and thick sweaters and heavy winter gear and don light and fluffy spring clothes. In an instant, as if they were answering an order from some Unknown Divine Grace, all of these women were wearing short skirts and cut off jeans, tight t-shirts, and flowery light dresses. I stopped for a moment and tried to catch my breath. It was a sight that even I, who had already gotten used to having all these wonderful women hanging around all winter, had to stand still for a minute just to take it all in.

Looking back, it may seem to be a bit shallow to write about this vision, but, believe me, for a twenty year old guy it was all like a gift from the gods. These were all magnificent creatures spread out in front of my eyes; the beautiful and the not so beautiful or maybe even the just plain-type women, but they were all full of life and vibrancy that made my eyes tear.

Let me get one thing straight here. I honestly knew all that stuff about women’s liberation and the hippie revolution in free love theoretically, of course, but now I really KNEW IT… going from a basic knowledge from all the movies, current literature, wild rock and roll music and the work of radical philosophers, to a deep understanding that made things seem perfectly obvious to me. I was no fool, you know, and I knew there was a sexual revolution going on among young people all over America. But the truth was that I had never been able to figure out how to enlist to join forces in that struggle. I mean, I certainly was willing, but this sexual freedom stuff always seemed to me to be happening to somebody else.

Now I felt like a little kid with his face pressed up tight on the windows of the biggest candy store in the world. All of the other sexual relationships that I had already in my short life had always been based on the thought that men were always looking for “it” and women were always withholding “it” until they captured the perfect man. Now the old Victorian double standards were crumbling fast in the new America, way beyond the grasp of what was being taught in our parent’s Ozzie and Harriet bedrooms. It dawned on me that it was now spring time, that I was twenty years old and that all of the free-thinking Vassar women were spread out in front of me like a great and glorious Renaissance painting.

My feelings about sexual freedom were further reinforced on the very last night of that junior year when most of the students, including my roommates, had gone home for the year. I was approached by K., a woman who had just graduated and had already packed her bags. She had been a friend, nothing more, and it was clear that we would probably never see each other again, in spite of our denials of that ever happening. She looked at me straight in the eye and said, “I’d like to sleep with you tonight…it might be our last time.” And so we did, sharing some leftover cognac from my roommate Bob, with K. rising early to get into her car and start her long drive home. And, of course, I never did see sweet K. again.

Still sometimes today, some forty years later, when I’m washing the dishes or shaking my head at the endless sexy, almost slutty, 14-year-old rock stars waving their long curly hair on the TV, I am reminded of the soft, skimpy dresses of all the young free-thinking women on that lawn so long ago. And, you know what? To this day, that special morning at Vassar still remains my own very private vision of heaven. It reminds me of all the infinite possibilities that life tends to throw in our direction whenever we should probably all be very busy doing something else.