Thursday, April 27, 2023

(In)Equity Found in the Margins

1972 was a landmark year for both Dartmouth and the United States at large regarding women’s equity in education. Not only was it the first year women were admitted as students at Dartmouth, but it was also the year that Title IX was passed. Title IX is intended to provide for equity in any education program or activity that receives federal funding. Over the coming years, and even decades, the most hotly debated aspect of Title IX became its coverage of women’s sports. Dartmouth, a school with a long history of athletic achievement and long-held pride in its education of young men as a school for men alone, was grappling with these issues and more as they tried to integrate women into the student body in general while simultaneously opening up opportunities for women in sports.

Photograph of Agnes "Aggie" Kurtz coaching the Dartmouth women's lacrosse team
Dartmouth hired their first female athletic department member in the summer of 1972, Agnes ‘Aggie’ Bixler (later Kurtz). She came in as an Assistant Athletic Director, but it was clear that her charter was to begin the women’s sports program at Dartmouth. In that first year, she managed to start six intercollegiate teams and continued to grow the program over the years as the female student body at Dartmouth grew, the athletic department’s number of female staff members grew, and the desire and opportunity for athletic participation continued to grow as well. In these years though, Dartmouth’s athletic department, often seen as one of the “last bastions”2 of male pride at Dartmouth, was not altogether excited for integration. As the most outspoken region of campus against coeducation in the first place, the athletic department was slow to support women’s sports once coeducation was implemented. There was never outright hostility, but instead, everything fell to the women to ask, and if they didn’t ask, the men certainly did not go out of their way to provide.

Instead, Aggie had to build the program nearly autonomously, which had its benefits. Unlike at schools where there was heavy oversight and the women “had a much harder time because the male athletic director was trying to do everything,”3 Aggie had control. That autonomy also had its pitfalls though. As Aggie explained in an interview reflecting on her time as an administrator in the department, “You had to find out what was going on and what could be done and then push for it because they weren’t about to tell you.”4 The men were often not intentionally obstructive, but there also was not a clear desire on their part to actively engage with the progression and development of Dartmouth’s women’s program. Thus the marginalization of women in sports continued, and it is in the margins of internal departmental memos that the true nature of women’s athletic development at Dartmouth becomes clear.

On February 2, 1977 the Athletic Director Seaver Peters wrote a memo to Margaret Bonz, an Affirmative Action Officer for the college about the Title IX Implications for the DCAC (Dartmouth College Athletic Council). CC’d on the notice were Aggie Kurtz and Frank Smallwood. This memo was written in response to an earlier memo about the needs expressed by Margaret Bonz on behalf of the women’s athletic program to DCAC. A copy of Peters’ response to the requests by the women are then covered in handwritten notices in the margins by, presumably, Agnes Kurtz. In many of the internal memos between members of the athletic department, especially Agnes Kurtz and Seaver Peters, there are similar notes in similar handwriting, and as only Aggie Kurtz and Frank Smallwood received carbon copies of this memo, the onion skin source is most likely commented upon by one of them. These notes reveal an altogether different, and not entirely seamless relationship between women in the athletic department (Agnes Kurtz) and the predominantly male leadership of the department itself.

On page 2 is the clearest indication of the baseline “if you don’t ask we won’t give” attitude of the department. Peters’ memo explains away the small support budget for women by saying “I simply must rely on the assistant director responsible for women’s athletics to adequately reflect her needs in the annual budget presentation.” This comment is then surrounded by the notes:

“No!” And “after a verbal reply that we not get another full time sec[retary] but use Laura plus part-time help”

Annotated excerpt from Seavers' memo to Bonz

This attitude of the women must ask is thereby clearly stated, but then simultaneously called into question. Maybe, the women did ask and the department denied, so the relationship between women’s athletics and the department at large was even more uneven than it seems. The other notes in the margins of this document further convey the contentious atmosphere between men’s and women’s sports in early eras of Title IX at Dartmouth. Many of the comments are slight adjustments to language which can change the perspective from clearly equal to clearly unequal:

Annotated excerpt from Seavers' memo to Bonz

Annotated excerpt from Seavers' memo to Bonz

 blatant refutations of Peters’s points:

Annotated excerpt from Seavers' memo to Bonz

Annotated excerpt from Seavers' memo to Bonz

or further clarification on the realities of unequal situations:

Annotated excerpt from Seavers' memo to Bonz

From this memo, and many others like it, we can see that the relationship between men’s and women's athletics at Dartmouth was certainly more contentious than the official notices make it seem, and that responsibility for the progression of women’s athletics fell nearly entirely on Agnes Kurtz and other women. The slow progress made for women’s athletics in this era was hindered either actively or inactively by the men in the Athletic Department, and the number of women on campus was so small that the number of women in the Athletic Department remained few, so even as women’s representation grew incrementally, women remained in the margins of the department. So, in order to see the true work and fight that turned an all male department in an all male school learning to become coeducational, one must look to the margins, both figuratively and literally.

To see the 1977 memo from Seaver Peters to Margaret Bonz, ask for the Dartmouth College Athletic Council Records (DA-169), Box 8055, Folder "Affirmative Action 73-76". To explore the oral history interviews with Agnes "Aggie" Kurtz or Mary Kelley, ask for DOH-13 (Kurtz) and DOH-296 (Kelley).

Posted for Sara Pickrell ’24, recipient of a Historical Accountability Student Research Fellowship for the 2023 Spring term. The Historical Accountability Student Research Program provides funding for Dartmouth students to conduct research with primary sources on a topic related to issues of inclusivity and diversity in the college's past. For more information, visit the program's website.