Coeducation enhanced College performing arts

This article is the second in a two-part series about female students’ impact on the arts at the College leading up to and just after coeducation. 

When 200 women joined the Class of 1976, the male-dominated Dartmouth community reacted with mixed emotions — some welcomed the female students, while others displayed hostility. The music and theater departments, however, largely avoided the eye of the storm.

Renowned for the strength of its teaching professors and state-of-the-art Hopkins Center facilities, the theater and music departments benefited from female students’ participation. As early as 1968, year-long female transfer students participated in Dartmouth’s theater productions, and following coeducation, women joined ensemble groups like the Dartmouth Symphony Orchestra.

Martha Hennessey ’76, who participated in Dartmouth theater productions at the College, said the department was insulated from turbulence elsewhere on campus. She could participate in a full range of productions, from musicals like “Guys and Dolls” to plays, includingWilliam Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labor Lost” and Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge.”

“There was never a single time I felt unwanted in the arts department,” Hennessey said.

Arts summer programs, playwriting contests and interfraternity play competitions promoted experimentation in the arts on campus. Theater professor Joseph Sutton ’76, who studied theater at the College, described the department as “very dynamic” and inclusive of women in productions.

“We never struggled to cast women’s parts,” he said.

Sara Hunter ’76 still remembers participating in “Spoon River Anthology” her freshman fall, a theater department production following coeducation. Hunter also played a lead role in Beta Theta Pi fraternity’s production for an inter-fraternity play competition.

“I remember a big football player in a tutu on stage with me,” she said. “Theater was a wonderful way to make friends.”

Hunter also wrote a play for the Eleanor Frost Playwriting Competition titled “Alice’s Adventures in Dartmouthland,” a parody of “Alice in Wonderland,” in which the protagonist navigates the trials of a recently coeducated College. Students directed and performed the plays before a packed crowd and panel of judges in the Hopkins Center, she said.

Instead of Alice’s climatic croquet game with the Queen of Hearts, Hunter’s characters dueled in a game of pong, she said.

Female students also started new groups in the arts, such as the Dartmouth Distractions, an all-female a cappella group that later became the Decibelles. Since women could not join the Dartmouth Glee Club at the time, Jody Hill Simpson ’74, a transfer student from Middlebury College, Hennessey and Hunter began their own group with 12 original members.

Starting in fall 1993, the group toured with the Glee Club and performed between acts at concerts on campus, Hennessey said. After initial success, members added shows at fraternities, performed in termly a cappella concerts and co-hosted Spring Sing, an a cappella concert featuring Dartmouth and other schools’ collegiate singing groups, with the Dartmouth Aires.

The group began to be viewed as “ambassadors of coeducation,” Hennessey said. Former College President John Kemeny invited the women to perform at reunion events, though not all the alumni were happy to see them, she said.

Hennessey, however, fondly remembers singing for Theodor Geisel ’25 at one such performance in Alumni Hall.

Outside the Hop, female students encountered hostility from their peers. Simpson recalled seeing signs telling “co-hogs,” a derogatory term for female students, to leave Dartmouth. In classes, some professors would ignore female students, she said.

Fraternities could be especially unwelcoming. A friend of Hennessey’s was urinated on at a fraternity, and another had her hair cut off when she fell asleep on a fraternity’s couch, she said.

“It became a cool thing to be anti-women among the frats,” Hennessey said.

During her senior year, Hennessey was physically assaulted in a fraternity basement. Someone grabbed her keys as she was trying to leave, threw her against the house’s fireplace and beat her, she said.

In spring 2012, Hennessey transformed this traumatic experienced into a scene for “Undue Influence,” a dance ensemble production about sexual assault and violence on campus. Theater professor Peter Hackett ’75, whom Hennessey had worked with as a student, directed and produced the show.

Though “things weren’t always good,” Simpson said she enjoyed her time at the College. Forming the Dartmouth Distractions allowed her to excel as a singer and performer, despite some resistance to the group’s formation, Simpson said.

Sutton said he could not imagine Dartmouth remaining a single-sex school, he said.

“It was a very exciting time, and I think that the women who were in those first four classes were some of the bravest people I’ve ever known.”

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