No longer a boy’s club: First class of women to attend HM

Nishtha Sharma, Staff Writer

When Liz Baum ’78 entered the school as a junior, she was humiliated and intimidated when a foreign language teacher looked right at her and said “this is Horace Mann School For Boys.”

Baum was one of  the first 47 girls admitted as incoming sophomores and juniors to the school in 1975, following the school’s 88-year history as an all-male private institution.

The decision to become co-educational happened when the school merged with Barnard school, a school that was located at what is now the Lower Division campus.

The school had announced plans to begin the admissions process for female students about a year before they were admitted. Gary D. Miller, the Director of Admissions in 1974, expressed that the school planned to publicize their plans for coeducation via the news media, according to an article published in vol. 68 of the Record.

However, many women had expressed interest in the school prior to plans becoming public.

Some women, like Margaret Spring ’78, chose to attend the school because they wanted to be in a new, academically challenging environment, she said.

“We had heard a rumor that [the school] might be open to girls, so I applied and I got in. It was a real relief for me to move from a large, rambunctious school to one more academically-oriented,” Spring said.

Likewise, Karen Davis ’77 fell in love with the “gravitas of Tillinghast Hall” when she first visited the campus. “It felt like a place for learning and I had been in a public school where being smart was not always the best thing.”

Cynthia Steelman ’77 was taking summer geometry at the school between her freshman and sophomore years of high school when she was encouraged by the school to apply for the following year. “They made it seem like it was competitive, but looking back, you can see they got a really diverse group,” she said

The new female population challenged the presiding and social norms. “Girls came in as a huge social force and were kind of disruptive in the way things had been forever,” Baum said.

“The physical changes were minimal,” Lawrence Golub ‘77 said. However, socially, it was a big change on campus, he said. “Think about going from all boys to a campus where there were sometimes boyfriends and girlfriends holding hands. [It was] shocking.”

During her first day at the school, Marjorie Kaufman ’78 P’18 P’19, was bewildered along with the other girls in her English class when she saw all the boys in her class stand up when their teacher walked in the room, she said. The next day, people stopped standing up, she said.

“Men are taught that if someone walks into a room, you have to stand, so teachers were almost embarrassed when women had to stand,” Davis said. “They didn’t know how to deal with that and got very flustered.”

Kaufman felt that girls brought a more relaxed culture to the attitude of the school, she said.

However, while the dress code was rather lax, women weren’t always allowed to wear certain things they wanted to, Valerie Kossar ’78 said. “One time, a girl showed up in a nightgown and the school almost had a heart attack.”

“We were on the fringes in a lot of ways,” Baum said. “The girls bathroom, which was originally a boys’ bathroom, didn’t even have a tampon machine.”

Several members of the community were reluctant to the change. In one issue of the Record, Kaufman recalls an article published questioning if the school had reached down to the “bottom of the barrel” to bring girls in, she said.

Teachers were not used to paying attention to what they sounded like with females in the class, Baum said. She recalls an English teacher telling her class, “Boys, just make sure you look at your girlfriends’ mother because that is what your future wife is going to look like.”

Kossar sensed that teachers were impatient at times, she said. “Overall, you could say [teachers] were more nurturing to the male students. Some didn’t give us [women] the same priority. You just felt it when you walked into a room.”

“Some did treat us differently,” Davis said, “There was grumbling too, and they would say it to your face too. There was the notion that [the school] has lowered standards by letting girls in.”

On the other hand, Kaufman felt that she did not face any discrimination on a

large scale, she said. “Whatever the negative attitude was, it was individual. Maybe some of the guys felt that resources were being taken away from them; some didn’t always extend friendships to girls.”

The male students were reluctant to interact with the female students at times. “For the most part, guys were unaware and most had not had much experience interacting with females. It was an insular society,” Baum said.

While Joe Rose ’77 felt that the male students were not entirely welcoming, he did not think that the environment was hostile towards women, he said. “The guys, in most cases, were accepting.”

Apart from the occasional antagonism from some, many women felt welcomed and appreciated their time at the school.

“It was a decision that was most definitely endorsed by the student body,” Margaret Spring ’78 said. Spring found that the welcome from the boys was unbelievably warm, she said. “I was kind of stunned, but in a positive way. I felt like I could compete on a leveled playing field.”

“I think we were uniformly welcoming in spirit and intention. Some of us, the shy ones like me, were maybe not so great at expressing that sentiment,” Golub said.

Spring was glad she got to experience all the school had to offer, she said. “Sometimes you feel like you’re not in the ‘cool’ clique, but I never felt intellectually shunned, or bereft of opportunity.”

Steelman felt that the programs for girls were small, she said, but “because there were so few girls, if you felt passionate and wanted to make something happen, you basically could.”

Baum found many male students to be welcoming, she said. “While there was not always a lot of sensitivity on the part of some professors, on the flip side, many were encouraging and made themselves available and supportive to me.”

Baum recalls her health teacher allowing her to teach some sex-ed classes when she was the only  girl in her health class. “I literally brought a shoe box with all sorts of contraceptives and showed everyone. Looking back, he let me do that because there was no awareness among the boys,” she said.

In terms of accommodating female students, the school went to great lengths to make them feel at home, Davis said. “It started with our weekend at Dorr. They had also asked some of the junior and senior boys to join us because they wanted us to have a social and emotional experience,” she said. “We all felt very welcomed and excited and challenged.”

Similarly, Kaufman has fond memories of spending time at Dorr, she said. “I thought [the school] did a pretty good job trying to pull us all together. I remember sitting around outside, listening to others play guitar, and all of us were just bonding and getting along.”

Richard Zinman ’78, felt that while there were some basic adjustments for the male students to get used to, such as smaller locker rooms and fewer bathrooms, everyone thought that the transition was a “complete breath of fresh air,” he said.

There were also several other changes happening within the school during that time, Zinman said. “[The school] became much less of a dead poet’s society. The dress code, for example, was abolished. Even the colors became more vibrant. It was a natural progression to have women come.”

Baum developed a strong relationship with her female gym teacher over the course of high school, she said. “She knew we needed a place to sit and talk about the unfamiliar situation we were in. It was kind of normalizing for us.”

However, athletics were not entirely accommodating for women, Kossar said. “They didn’t have a single thing when we came. I got them to start basketball and tennis teams, but we still had to find teachers ourselves to coach.”

The biggest challenge with girls sports teams was that the school did not want to give the teams the same facilities and equipment as the boys teams, Kossar said. “We never got the new gym because they felt the boys teams were more important and drew more people.”

Additionally, “sports were abbreviated with the number of girls we actually had to play,” Baum said.

However, Baum saw her sister, who graduated four years after her, have an entirely different high school experience, she said. “Our worlds were like night and day…they had caught up on sports teams and hiring.”

When Baum started, it was normal for her to be the only girl in a class of 20 students, she said. However, her sisters commonly sat in classes that had even gender splits.

“I felt like I was the pioneer. We were ‘the girls’ and kind of like tokens,” she said.

The school didn’t have a female SBP until about 1989, English teacher Dr. Deborah Kassel ’84 said. “Was there a greater sense of invisibility as a female? I would say yes.”

“Even though HM had been co-ed for several years before I arrived, it seemed to me that most teachers were male and had been around long before female students were admitted,” Kassel said.

Another problem that faced early female students was the inexperience of some faculty members in teaching girls, she said.

“I think the zeitgeist was such that many of these males had been conditioned to teach boys, and I think if you were shy or not aggressive or even assertive, it was harder to stand out in a class that was composed more of male than female students,” Kassel said. “There are a lot of ‘invisibles,’ like not getting called on as much if you were female or shy, that contribute to a culture of difference, but it’s very subtle.”

Since high school, Rose feels that he has gained more perspective on what it meant to be a women in a school that was historically all male, he said. “It’s a big deal to change schools in 11th grade, no matter what…I’ve recognized that it was an impressive thing to do. It took a lot of strength and perseverance on the part of the women who came [to the school].”