Chapter 28 Vassar Virgins
Poughkeepsie, NY 1959-1962
Sadly, technically speaking, I was one, more or less, on April 4, 1962, when President Sarah Gibson Blanding gave her famous speech. No one knew why we had been abruptly summoned to the chapel for this unusual all-school compulsory evening gathering. After a brief announcement and explanation of the need to increase fees for the following year, Miss Blanding, her hair in its usual bun and her saddle shoes firm on her feet, surprised us. She launched into a stern denunciation of premarital sex and excessive drinking. She told us neither would be tolerated at Vassar. Disciplinary action would be taken against those who did not follow the “innate standards” of the college. We sat in embarrassed astonishment as Miss Blanding declared that promiscuity was indecent and immoral. She advised those students who could not follow the rules to withdraw voluntarily from the school, before they were asked to leave. Virginity and temperance were required of Vassar students.
I wondered how they would know for sure who had broken the code. Would we be summoned to the Warden’s office to swear that we were neither wantons nor drunks? If we were already indecent or immoral how could they rely on us to adhere to Vassar’s honor system? Were we all to have a mandatory gynecological exam? What a horror — to spread my legs before the infirmary doctors and nurses.
We had all already endured one unbelievable breach of privacy — the “posture pictures” which were mandatory for every incoming freshman. One at a time, stripped naked, we had been made to enter an empty room where a voice directed us to stand just so, to turn to the right, to the left, while someone took photographs of us. Mercifully we couldn’t see the photographer, but, shivering and humiliated, we wondered who was on the other side of the camera. How many people would look at these pictures? Where were they kept? We were told, of course, that they would be handled with discretion, but what did that mean exactly?
The purpose of these pictures, supposedly, was to determine any faults of posture which could then be addressed and corrected in an amazing course called “Freshmen Fundamentals.” In “Fundies,” as the course was dubbed by its unwilling participants, we were taught how to sit gracefully, stand elegantly, walk fluidly, and most important of all, how to lift a suitcase correctly onto the luggage rack of a train. We strove, of course, for perfect posture in each movement.
One of my hall mates, her small frame muscled and taut from prep school softball, was assigned, much to her disgust, to "Remedial Fundamentals" when it was determined her hamstrings were too tight. In "Remedial Fundamentals," learning to keep one’s knees together and ankles crossed while seated was supplemented by additional hours of stretching and flexing.
But what had caused the president’s sudden outrage? Had she discovered someone in flagrante delicto? Did she really expect seniors with less than two months until graduation to confess and to leave without a diploma? As far as I could remember, our handbooks had not said Vassar was for virgins only.
As incoming freshmen, we had learned from the sophomores and juniors in our dormitories that a man’s jacket hanging on a closed door meant, “Do Not Knock. Do Not Enter. Do Not Ask What is Happening in This Room.” As long as the door was closed, fornication apparently wasn’t anyone’s business except the participants’. It didn’t seem fair for the president to be stating an anti-fornication policy retroactively.
When we were freshmen, the warden had told us in an orientation lecture that Vassar considered the custom of going off on weekends to men’s schools a valid part of student life. These weekends were more or less unsupervised fraternity debauches. Had the college really been unaware of what had been going on both on campus and off?
Lord knows there were plenty of unpleasant possible consequences that carried their own grim punishments. The fear of pregnancy and venereal disease was sufficient to frighten many of us into some sort of self-restraint. Religious conviction prevented others from “going all the way.” Nothing, however, was sufficient to keep us all from the pleasures, mysteries, and misadventures of sex.
And what about “excessive drinking”? Alcohol was not allowed on campus or in the dormitories. Those rules were pretty well respected. We did our drinking off campus, legally, since eighteen was the legal age for drinking in New York State at that time. I had watched a very drunken girl throw up all over our housefather’s shoes once. As freshmen, a group of us, having consumed the Gallo Port we carried in our wineskins (a most sophisticated accoutrement, we thought) went swimming in our underwear in the drainage creek behind the faculty apartments. Sophomore year, the handbook added the creek to the territory to be kept alcohol-free. But surely, I thought guiltily, that freshman indiscretion could not be the cause of this chastisement.
Excessive drinking was harder to conceal than lack of virginity. Looking around, I really couldn’t tell who was a virgin and who was not, whereas a drunk would have been detectable by the smell, if by nothing else. Of course, for the most part we knew such facts about one another. We knew who returned hung-over from weekends (most of us, if truth be told.) We knew who had succumbed to the importuning of a fiancé with much misgiving and subsequent guilt. We knew who hung out at the “townie” bars and gaily rode away on motorcycles clinging to the back of a tee-shirted stranger. We suffered pangs of jealousy at the pretty and willing among us who went off with the Kingston Trio after its on campus concert. We knew, or suspected we knew, those who had had abortions. We knew, more or less, who was spared the temptations of sex with a man by a preference for sex with women. Was sex with a woman premarital sex? Was it promiscuity? Until Miss Blanding’s lecture, we had considered our behavior to be a private matter of conscience or appetite or hope or despair.
The aftermath of the speech was really rather unpleasant, pitting the un-fallen against the fallen, the good against the wicked, in bitter argument. A college poll of 1,040 students out of a total student population of 1,450 concluded that fifty-two percent of us agreed with Miss Blanding that we should be pure and temperate. Forty percent of us disagreed. The rest of us were undecided.
We were further embarrassed by prurient reporters asking impertinent personal questions. Most of us scuttled to classes, trying to avoid them, but every major newspaper and magazine wrote stories about us and about our reaction to President Blanding’s surprise.
However, the poll contained an additional proposition. “Social morals are a personal matter that should be of concern to the college only when they bring the name of Vassar into public disrepute.” Eighty-one percent of us agreed. This was perhaps a portent. Although I voted for privacy along with eighty-one percent of my fellow students, I sometimes thought it might be pleasant to have no choices, for rules to be so explicit and generally accepted, that no moral decisions remained to be made. I was only slowly stumbling into the autonomy of adulthood.
Apparently Miss Blanding’s speech was more of a cri de coeur, a last blast from a fading moral position, than an actual statement of policy. As far as I know no moral delinquents were drummed out of school. None of us was summoned to an inquisition. I’m quite sure future handbooks did not state virginity as a necessary condition for admission.
Within two years Miss Blanding had retired. The social revolution of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s rendered her speech quaint, dear, and irrelevant. Soon after Miss Blanding left Vassar, the student movement dismantled the concept of in loco parentis. Then Vassar and its dormitories became co-ed. For a few gaudy years, until some sort of balance was restored, I’ve heard that many young women felt like prey in a hunting preserve. In 1962, drugs had still been a rumor. We had heard of marijuana, but only a tiny minority of us, the truly rebellious, had tried it.
I don’t know how any young woman negotiates the pressures of freedom these days. I had enough trouble making my way in my own less complicated era. From what I read “hooking up” is unproblematic to the majority. It would terrify me.
Elizabeth Raby’s memoir, Ransomed Voices, published by Red Mountain Press in 2013, received an award from New Mexico Press Women. She is the author of three books of poems, This Woman (2012), a finalist for the 2013 NM-AZ Book Award, Ink on Snow, (2010) and The Year the Pears Bloomed Twice, (2009) all from Virtual Artists Collective (www.vacpoetry.org).