The 1960s and 1970s were two of the most tumultuous decades on college campuses across the country. The Vietnam war raged, civil rights battles grabbed headlines, and the counter-culture movement changed the way young, idealistic students looked at the world.
At Smith, the atmosphere was particularly charged as students not only grappled with these issues but also revolted against strictures that for so long had held back their mothers and grandmothers, challenging traditional norms and bringing topics like abortion, sexuality, and equal pay into mainstream discussions about women’s rights.
During a May 20 Reunion panel discussion, “Change and Turmoil: The ’60s and ’70s Experience at Smith,” alumnae from the classes of 1961, 1966, 1971, and 1976—what Smith President Carol Christ called "one of the biggest periods of change in recent US history”—reflected on the tremendous and, at times, tumultuous cultural shifts that shaped their college years.
Anne Mollegen Smith ’61, an editor and founder of Qwerty Communications, read excerpts from comments submitted by classmates, many of whom noted that they belonged more to the 1950s than the 1960s. “We were on a fault line that erupted just after we left Smith,” Smith said, citing a classmate's observations. Nonetheless, Smith proved to be the foundation for their feminism. While on campus, her classmates confronted, perhaps for the first time, issues like race and class. They joined causes and began speaking up for themselves and others, and they began to discuss—even if it was in whispered tones—sex and birth control, two topics that elicited blushes in those days. “We certainly graduated a lot of self-identified virgins from Smith in 1961. More than I would have expected,” Mollegen joked.
Lindy Hough ’66, a poet, writer, and cofounder of the journal Io, said that echoes of the 1950s still existed when she and her classmates arrived at Smith in 1962; however, things began to change profoundly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy during their sophomore year. Politics, she said, became much more prominent. Fellow students worried that Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, couldn’t lead the country through the Vietnam conflict, and during their junior year students joined the civil rights march in Selma. Still, she said, one subject that was not discussed openly was sexuality. “Now I often think about who was gay and how uncomfortable it must have been for them on campus during that time,” she said.
Some of the most enduring changes came academically, Hough said. At the time, arts and poetry were exploding on campus and new majors like government introduced students to the hot-button issues of the times. “I was exposed to faculty who were involved in the civil rights movement and who brought speakers to campus,” she said. “Up until that point, I hadn’t experienced any kind of direct political activism at all.” She credits Smith for nurturing her as a writer and is glad to see how vibrant the Smith community is today. “I’ve benefited enormously from building a very strong foundation here,” she said. “I’m proud and pleased at how dynamic the college has become.”
By the time Randi Gronningsater Stroh ’71, a performer, educator, and arts advocate, arrived at Smith, the campus and its student body were on the cusp of significant social change. “[The class of 1971 is] a pivotal class and a tipping point,” she said. “The change in our years was often abrupt and involved the disruption of many fundamental and deeply rooted assumptions and structures.”
Being a student at the time, Stroh said, was exciting because you got to be on the frontlines and see the effects of various movements, especially for civil rights and women’s equality. “We had the opportunity to shape and react to events that we did not plan or expect,” she said. “The choices we made helped create the legacy of the late 1960s and early 1970s in American culture.”
In particular, when the class of 1971 graduated, it was possible for women to attend Ivy League schools and pursue careers that had been closed to them. “We came in one world and left in another,” Stroh said.
Writer and Web strategist Francie Grace ’76 said the women of her time at Smith felt an enormous sense of liberation. “We thought we could do anything and that the days of women not being considered equal to men were over. I thought they took care of it,” she said, jokingly pointing to the alumnae on stage who graduated before her.
She described her classmates, who increasingly came from more diverse backgrounds, as being “both progressive and conservative.” “We wanted to change the world but weren’t interested in destruction,” she said.
Grace acknowledged that there was a slight contradiction in the actions of students and their expectations, saying, “Regardless of what choices we made in sex, drugs, politics, religion, and careers, most of us still expected to get what we were promised growing up: nice husbands, children, houses, cars, and vacations.”
Grace came to Smith with dreams of becoming a reporter and wanted to learn as much as she could so she could write responsibly about the world. “Looking back,” she said, “I couldn’t have had better preparation for life as a writer.”