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The Class of 1972: a lively generation facing war and fighting for women’s rights

Women from the Class of 1972 sat down with the Hallmanac during She Sails, on April 29, to remember their high school experiences. They were in school during one of the greatest periods of activism in American history. The United States had invaded Cambodia, and the women’s movement was underway. Their high school experience was marked by activism and by changes in the school that reflected the larger society.

In the Vietnam War, eighteen-year-olds were considered old enough to die in the war, but too young to vote. This aspect was one of many that created a generational rift between young people and adults. The Class of ’72 were sophomores when the class of ’70 organized a teach-in about the war at Dana Hall. Lynni (Evelyne) Handy Ryan recalls her naiveté while she watched upperclassmen have informed discussions with their fathers. Other alumnae, such as Marian Dines, were very politically active and would “would go to protests at Wellesley College.” Indeed, Marian expressed surprise that the March for Climate Change was not a part of the She Sails weekend activities. All women remember their independence on the campus. Lesley Loomis said, and many others in the group nodded in agreement, “The school wanted us to form our own opinions.”

As politically active as some of the students were, Dana Hall was not a diverse campus in the sixties. Janis Anderson ‘72 was the only black student in her class. She came to Dana on an A Better Chance scholarship (ABC), which gives students of color the opportunity to attend private schools around the country. The contained environment of Dana Hall was “not as diverse [as now], but it was inclusive,” according to Janis.  For Lynni, and many of her classmates, Janis was the first black student they had had in their class. Susey Dorsey  remembers being affected by Janis, saying, “We fell love with your joy, and we gravitated to you.” Marian, who was originally from Colorado, remembers Dana Hall as being “less diverse racially, with religion, economically…” than her previous school.

When asked about whether there was a stereotype at the time of Dana Hall as a “rich girls’ school,” some alumnae immediately said “yes,” while others answered that “it comes down to the question of perceptions versus reality.” During the interview, Leslie shared a part of her life that she had hidden from her classmates when they were at school together. She explained, “My father was a well-to-do man who could send his children to private school, but everything changed in the seventies when the stock market crashed.” A family friend paid for her tuition for her last two years of high school. She told the story of the Head of School Edith Phelps, who scolded the students for wearing ripped clothing in 1970s fashion when they had so much privilege. Leslie confided, “The clothes I owned were the clothes I could afford, where everyone else was wearing ripped clothes as a choice.” On-campus jobs did not exist before Lesley because she was the first boarding school student to petition to get an off-campus job. She never sought the pity of her classmates, stating, “Dana was my home, and Dana saved my life.” Many of the alumnae gathered had never heard this story before because Lesley had kept it so private; several wiped tears away as she spoke.

The class of ‘72 was a transition generation, experiencing a switch in the expectations imposed on them as women. More than one alumna had the same experience as Lynni, whose family had the expectation that Dana Hall would be a “finishing school,” and that she would find a man to “take care of her” after college. It was not until after she landed her first job that she realized that she wanted to stay in the work world. On the other hand,  Janis, who went to Harvard after Dana Hall, said, “I went to Dana to get an education, to go to college, and to get myself together.”

In addition to the national and international changes the students encountered, they were experiencing changes closer to home. In the second half of their sophomore year, Dana Hall eliminated school uniforms. Several of the alumnae remembered their parents being irritated at the change because they had just invested money in buying the uniforms. In the same year, Dana Hall conducted a co-ed experiment with St. Paul’s, a boys’ school at the time.  St. Paul’s sent several students to Dana Hall, and Dana Hall sent several students to St. Paul’s. Having young men on campus affected the older students as expected. Barbara Harmon said the boys were “walking gods on campus,” and she describes with amusements the big hair and heavy makeup from the girls trying to capture their attention.

Interestingly, St. Paul’s became a co-ed school after that experiment, while Dana Hall continued to be an all-women’s institution. The 1972 alumnae agreed that the school subtly pushed its students to be leaders. For Susan Dorsey, there was an “opportunity to be the best students, and to be uplifted to go as far and as rich as we could.” Barbara, whom her classmates remember as a star pianist, talked about the “amazing arts, buses to concerts, and the movies on campus.” Lesley knew she  wanted to become a psychologist because of a psychology class she took at Dana.

School is always more than academics, of course, and Marian said that she “learned to curse like a sailor” at Dana Hall, while Lesley was an avid participant in food fights.

For the next generation of Dana Hall graduates, the Class of ‘72 has three pieces of advice. The group agreed that financial literacy was important, especially for women. Holly Ewald added, “For those with privilege, there is a responsibility that comes with privilege, responsibility to address the problems of world.” Lastly, Pam Smith advised, “Don’t afraid to be loud, go ahead and be a loud nasty woman.”

Photo source: Adam Richins Photography.