Friday, May 5, 2023

Deflating Misogyny

"Reaction To A Sink Night Letter" article in The Dartmouth“There was a lot of trashing,” recalled one woman in Boston Magazine about her freshman year at Dartmouth. “It was not uncommon–I’d say it happened several nights a week–for drunk guys to come by and scream, ‘Hey you cohogs [ie, coeds]! Get out here and spread your legs. That’s all you’re good for, anyway!”

It was 1972, the year that the College matriculated its first cohort of female students. While this year marked an historic and pivotal moment in the institution’s history, the integration of women to Dartmouth was far from seamless. The College enrolled only about 250 women that first year, resulting in a skewed gender ratio of just one female student for every nine male students.

Throughout the early 1970s, the campus climate was palpably charged. Women’s dorms were broken into and vandalized. “It was not unusual to go home and find your wastepaper basket full of vomit, in protest of your being there,” remarked one woman who came to Dartmouth in 1973. Men coated the toilet seats with honey in one dorm and displayed an axe on the front door of another. Entering the dining hall, a female student could face jeers, cat calls, food fights, or a group of fraternity men holding cards numbered 1-10 to rate women as they walked in. Men urinated on women’s bikes and, in some cases, on women themselves. One woman recalled her third night on campus, when she was blindfolded, kidnapped, and left in the middle of a field with a fraternity pledge class. She and the group had to hitch-hike back to campus.

Woodward Hall letter
Hover to view image.
April 1973 brought one of the most brazen instances of harassment from those first few years. It was the morning after “Sink Night,” the culmination of rush, when pledges commit to their fraternities. A letter addressed to “C***s” was slipped under the door of every room in the all-female Woodward Hall. It demanded that women make certain changes in order for “all of us to live in harmony.” Among the demands:

  1. Women go topless in the dining hall (“Perhaps you consider this unreasonable – well, f*** you”);
  2. Women’s “services” be made available at all times; 
  3. The women’s softball team play naked on the green (“C***s with large floppy tits may wear bras. The butt area must remain uncovered”); and
  4. Women perform oral sex on President Kemeny, so that he might “lose his f** tendencies.”

The letter further commanded women to “reform accordingly” or “deal directly with the syndicate.” “These are not idle threats,” it warned. “Our movement is large.”

On April 11th, three days after the incident, a letter titled “Reaction to Sink Night Letter”, was published in The Dartmouth by junior Barbara Dills. She condemned the Woodward letters as acts of violence and “manifestations of a deep and serious disease, which it seems the fraternity system as it exists at Dartmouth tends to perpetuate.” She added: “Along with my anger, I must feel compassion for these sick souls who can never know the ecstatic beauty of shared love.” Dills then boldly announced that she was “not the least bit intimidated,” writing, “I openly challenge every ‘man’ involved in this act to express these sentiments put forth in the circular to my face. If no one ‘rises’ to this challenge, I shall be convinced, as I already suspect, that their sickness is merely compounded by weakness and cowardice.”

She ended the letter simply and powerfully: “I live in 309A So. Topliff.”

This April, fifty years later, I spoke to Dills about her time at Dartmouth. She was on campus for only one year, 1972-73, through an exchange program that Dartmouth coordinated with Smith and other women’s colleges. She spoke of Dartmouth fondly, but also vividly recalled the hostility and resentment that certain members of the Dartmouth community directed toward female students.

When I asked her about “Reaction to a Sink Night Letter” and her decision to disclose her dorm location, she told me she didn’t run the idea past anyone; there was never hesitation in her mind. “I just kind of boldly did it… I don’t know if it was a combination of naiveté and strength. But I think what I wanted to do was call their bluff.” 

Around midnight a few days later, Dills was sitting in her small dorm room in Topliff when she heard a pounding on her door and recognized loud male voices. Despite the racket, Dills wasn’t scared. She opened the door to two extremely drunk men hurling the c-word at her and referencing her letter in The Dartmouth.

Dills responded, “Why don’t you come in and sit down?”

The two men seemed shocked that Dills didn’t scream back at them. “I completely disarmed them,” she recalled. “They were like two little puppy dogs.” Dills felt she was “in her power.” Stunned, they walked in and took a seat.

“I just said, you know, ‘So what right do you think you have to treat people like this?’” The men didn’t have an answer.

“It was like they were just sitting in front of their mother scolding them…They just became these completely different people,” Dills told me. “We had a short conversation and then they just kind of went away with their tails between their legs.” After the two left, she remembered thinking, Did that just happen?

Dills was never threatened again, and didn’t recall any similarly offensive letters during her time at Dartmouth. This incident just confirmed for Dills the suspicions she had already voiced in her letter in The Dartmouth: “It was so revealing of how basically impotent the force was against [coeducation] at Dartmouth.”

To see the Woodward Hall letter, come to Rauner and request the "Women of Dartmouth" vertical file. To see Dills' letter in The Dartmouth, come look at our archives of The Dartmouth for 1973.

Posted for Kira Parrish-Penny ’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.