In the spring of 1968, I was one of the first six men at Sarah Lawrence after the College became coeducational. I was there only one semester. (My leaving Yale, even for a term, horrified my parents.) But Sarah Lawrence was one of the most intense, perplexing, difficult, and profound experiences of my life.
It began like a tornado. On the first day of the term, I stepped out of Westlands and was grabbed by an assistant to President Esther Raushenbush, who dragged me to an interview. Reporters were everywhere. That night the male students were on all the local TV stations. Soon afterward one of us learned that his photograph had appeared in a newspaper in Japan.
Academically, Sarah Lawrence was wonderful for me. I took terrific courses on utopian literature with Ilja Wachs and on Russian history with Francis Randall. Most important, I worked with sociologist Bert Swanson as he studied the ugly school integration battles in nearby Mount Vernon, my home town.
But being one of the famed six men was like living in a goldfish bowl. Sarah Lawrence had only 550 undergraduates, and 400 of them lived on campus. A female student noted that for Sarah Lawrence women, “Your academic life is private but your social life is public.” And there we were, rather conspicuous.
My most vivid memories are of my first meals at Bates. I’d open the dining hall door, see 200 female students, try not to panic, then head for the serving line. Next came the daunting question: Where do I sit? Often I couldn’t spot any familiar faces. Sometimes I sat alone and female students joined me. Sometimes not. Sometimes I sat with strangers who were friendly. Sometimes they were cold and distant.
I felt extremely vulnerable. Often before or after meals I would retreat to the gym at Bates and shoot baskets all alone. There were choices, choices, choices, and they seemed so personal yet so thoroughly public. I wasn’t the only one who felt this. One of the male students tried to keep secret his romance with a female student. I discovered the truth only when I saw her climbing out his ground-floor window rather than using the front door.
For me, the women of Sarah Lawrence were a shock and a revelation. They were bold, independent, outspoken, different. At a dance in Bates, a female student I’d just met ended up playing the drums. Similarly, a student working in Westlands told me she wanted to become a forest ranger. These were rare pursuits for women in the pre-feminist 1960s.
I was sheltered, but Sarah Lawrence women apparently had been everywhere, knew everyone, and had done everything. One night I was proudly showing off a small reproduction I’d bought of a painting by Stuart Davis. “Oh, I know Stuart!” said one female student casually. “I just saw him last month!” Another student told me that at 16, she’d had an affair with a man who was 43. She’d told her mother the man was 27, but her mother was still quite unhappy.
In that explosive spring of 1968, I was fortunate enough to come to know many of the school’s political radicals. They challenged me, they educated me, and they inspired me. My writing, teaching, and activism over four decades have all been deeply influenced by those young women.
I was in a different world at Sarah Lawrence, a world I really wasn’t ready for. I felt off balance for most of the semester. I had to make major emotional adjustments rather quickly. I made some bad decisions. But I met many remarkable women, and I learned a hell of a lot.