By Caroline Curtis
As Upper School English teacher Cindy Douglass walked along the grounds of Dartmouth College on her first day as a student at the Ivy League school in 1973, she did not expect the eye-opening experience she was about to endure. Douglass was in the second-ever co-ed graduating class at Dartmouth. She was unaware of the growing animosity towards women that the male population at Dartmouth cultivated: “I just assumed that since they went coed, it was all normal.”
Growing up, Douglass and her two younger sisters lived all around the world because their father was in the Navy. She was born in Indiana and lived in many parts of California, including San Diego and Oakland. At one point she and her family lived in Japan, before moving back to Cherry Hill, New Jersey, where her dad worked across the river at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital as a Navy psychiatrist and where she spent all of her high school years. Douglass has two children; her daughter Dr. Erin Chiu is now a pediatrician at Pediatric Associates here in Richmond, and her son Scott Douglass (also a Dartmouth graduate) now works at St. John’s College High School in Chevy Chase, Maryland as a teacher and orchestra director.
Douglass always enjoyed English class and reading when she was younger; some of her favorite authors include Louise Erdrich and Ray Bradbury. Douglass considered careers in both music therapy and teaching. “I decided that what I loved most of all was books, and being a teacher would allow me to marry my interest and my profession. It has turned out to be a great decision, it suits me,” said Douglass. Her love of books carried into her professional life where she became an English teacher at Collegiate in 1993. She taught many different aspects of English, including American literature, world literature, a course called Madness in Literature, and at one point she served as the department chair. Douglass retired in 2016 to spend more time with her four grandsons, three of whom live here in Richmond, but she is back for the 2017-2018 school year to teach one section of English 10. She is “so glad to be back in this office” for this year and is looking forward to teaching her Z period class.
Looking back at her time in college, Douglass says it was her father that urged her to consider Dartmouth: “My father was the one who said to me, ‘You should look at this school, I think they’ve gone co-ed.” So Douglass, who “never really thought about the difference between men and women academically,” applied to the university and was accepted. Before 1972, there had been several foreign exchange students for periods of time at Dartmouth but never a full graduating class with women. The process began with a quota of 30% female admission, as designated by the alumni, who did not like the idea of admitting women.
Douglass’ first week on campus almost felt normal, as the growing bitterness and animosity had not hit her yet because she spent most of her time with the other new female students. But as time went on, she began to notice the subtle (at first) exclusion and resentment of women. There was an all-male glee club, and the director did not want to admit women, but the university administration forced him to integrate. So the director only held auditions for basses, baritones and tenors, positions typically only men are capable of singing.*
Douglass and a few other women fought back and created a group designated to helping certain areas around campus to accept women, including the creation of an all-female glee club that was separate from the men’s. Although she had not been a vocal activist before, Douglass became one: “So at one point I became, what you could call a feminist, but it was sort of born out of necessity.” She distinctly remembers one of the glee club trips that she took. On trips, the club was housed by local alumni while they performed in the area. On one trip, when she and her roommate were picked up, the host family remarked, “Well, I didn’t expect girls, I made lasagna!” This made Douglass and her roommate laugh as she began to realize people’s perceptions of gender in her world.
Douglass’ sophomore year, she was housed in a dorm previously known for its vandalism and violence.** Many freshman women were placed in this dorm as a proposed solution to these problems. The reaction of the men in the dorm was to hang white sheets with red writing that read “CO-HOGS GO HOME,” and they would walk outside chanting offensive songs about the women. Douglass was troubled because “there was antipathy that I couldn’t figure out where it came from,” and that it was clear that there was a select group of men that did not want the women there. Although these particular men made it tough, they were a minority. Douglass met her husband John, now a law professor at the University of Richmond, at Dartmouth, and they both still have many friends that graduated during their years there that did not have the same feelings that some opponents of coeducation did.
By her junior year, the situation had already begun to improve, and since then it has improved dramatically. Now the Dartmouth gender ratio is almost even, and Douglass believes that “times have changed, for the better, and I hope they keep moving forward.” In fact, she even said that women have changed Dartmouth for the better by evening the social power and creating competition in the classroom. Although the separation of men and women was defined during her early years at Dartmouth, Douglass would not give those years up for anything because she feels that now she better understands the topic of gender separation.
Douglass’ education at Dartmouth College extended beyond the classroom and not only shaped who she is but also pioneered the way for equal education in America. She said that “the sixties and seventies were a turbulent time, and that was my piece of it.” She grew up listening to stories of her grandmother’s traditionally stagnant role as a woman in society, and then she’s watched her daughter become a successful doctor. Seeing this change, from her grandmother’s life through her daughter’s, has really put things into perspective for Douglass, and she realizes that things for women are only moving forward.
*This sentence previously stated: So the director only held auditions for altos and tenors, positions typically only men are capable of singing.
**This sentence previously stated: Douglass’ sophomore year, she was housed in a dorm previously known for its vandalism and violence.
Featured image: Douglass at the Women’s March on Washington in January. Photo credit: Cindy Douglass.