Gender imbalance, songwriting, and a Nassau Hall takeover — classmates reminisce

Students at a Nassau Hall sit-in in 1978.
Students at a Nassau Hall sit-in in 1978.
1978 Bric-a-Brac

A year ago, PAW invited members of the Class of 1978 to talk about their undergraduate experiences in interviews recorded at Reunions. Fifteen did. Classmates spoke about dealing with the gender imbalance on campus, finding their place in clubs and activities, writing their senior theses, and taking part in anti-apartheid demonstrations. Here are some excerpts. Recordings and transcripts will be added to the University Archives.

With 341 women in a freshman class of 1,124, the Class of 1978 reflected a move toward greater representation of women. But alumni who spoke with PAW recalled that the campus still seemed far from balanced.

Sarah (Finnie) Robinson: When we arrived, I think the ratio was 5 to 1, or at least that’s what I’ve been saying all these years. You were sort of looking around for the freshman girls. But the other five were also looking around for the freshman girls!

Tim James: That was a word you heard all the time at Princeton: the ratio. It was just part of the dialogue — usually males complaining about the ratio, from a social point of view.

Catherine Caldicott: It felt like about 12 to 1. I remember searching crowds for other women. I really felt very, very outnumbered.

Barbara Brink Chapman: It got so much better as those four years rolled by. It seemed like Princeton changed quite a bit in terms of the numbers.

Alexandra Halsey: We used to get annoyed at our male classmates because they would complain about how few women there were, and then they would road-trip down to Rider College. ... What, are you afraid to date us because we’re smart?

Nancy (Lester) du Tertre: We weren’t really good enough [laughs]. We were nerdy, and not that attractive, and we were too smart, obviously, for anybody to be interested in us. So they’d bring in these really attractive girls — bus them in — for the big parties.

While academic experiences were part of every conversation, alumni spent more time recalling their extracurricular activities.

Bob Peskin: I was a songwriter [for Triangle Club]. You would slave over these songs, and they became like your children. And then ... the crit session would happen, and you’d watch your “children” get slaughtered. So I had some hard times with that, but in some ways it was a great experience.

Sarah (Finnie) Robinson: One of the many, many things that Princeton gave to me, without me even knowing it then, was the idea that I could do anything. ... After a few years, I started a magazine here with a friend, and pretty soon there were like 45 people working on it.

John Aristotle Phillips: It was my roommate and good friend David Michaelis [’79]’s idea to set up a pizza-delivery agency. The University, at the time, had this setup to supposedly spur entrepreneurship, called the Student Agencies. It actually was ideally suited to spurring monopolies. ... The quality [of the pizza] was always subpar, I think, but that’s the virtue of monopoly.

Meg Monroe Zellinger: My primary thing was hockey — the year that I joined was the first year that it became an official University team. ... I don’t think we ever stayed in a hotel. The fundraising was for things like helmets and visors and uniforms. We definitely did it on the cheap, but that helped with the camaraderie.

Putting a year’s worth of research into one paper left a lasting impression. Most had positive memories, but some also experienced anxiety and loneliness.

Alexandra Halsey: I think [the thesis] is fabulous. I’m so glad the school required it. ... It was phenomenally hard work — and may I point out, as I’m sure others have, that we were one of the last classes who did all this without a personal computer. ... I did independent work on Hegel my junior year, and I did my thesis on Søren Kierkegaard. ... Intellectually, it was totally delicious, totally exhausting.

Mary Kilty: I could sit at my carrel in the art-history library and just have four hours fly by, and I didn’t even notice because I was so engrossed in what I was doing. That’s very memorable to me.

Dorothy Bedford: Putting it together, sitting down and getting it organized, and putting pen to paper ... I think it was just so lonely.

Tim James: Near the end of the year, I discovered my study carrel and did a little work there, but mostly, I didn’t care for being burrowed down underground.

Barbara Brink Chapman: We had a lot of fun in the library ... pretending we were tortured, knocking on each other’s carrel windows to say let’s get something to eat or let’s go get a beer.

Soon after their theses were turned in, several class members took part in one of ’78’s landmark events: a takeover of Nassau Hall.

Alexandra Halsey: When we were here at Princeton, campuses were politically in a lull. It was not like the ’60s. There weren’t very many burning issues. The big burning issue at the time was getting the University to divest from its South African holdings.

Bob Peskin: The feeling got more and more intense during the four years that I was on campus, leading to campus demonstrations pretty much all throughout my senior year.

Dorothy Bedford: I remember writing my senior thesis to the chanting — the march that happened every day at lunchtime.

James Beck: I was contacted about a takeover/sit-in of Nassau Hall, and I agreed to do that. ... There were over 200 of us, as it turned out. ... We stayed in Nassau Hall for two days, demanding that the trustees divest from stocks of certain companies who were doing business in South Africa.

My father came up, unannounced, the weekend after my thesis was [due] and found out that he couldn’t see me because we were taking over Nassau Hall. His remark was, “He doesn’t want to graduate, does he?” But in the end, it was a very Princetonian-type occupation: Nothing got trashed. We even cleaned up after ourselves when we left.

Interviews conducted by Brett Tomlinson