‘Girls of the Ivy League,’ 1979

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The popularity of “Animal House” stirred interest in campus shenanigans in the fall of 1978. Playboy magazine jumped right in with its September 1979 issue, the first of three about “Women of the Ivy League.” Playboy cover via The Daily Beast.

Stop staring. The text is down here!

I had forgotten all about this until I stumbled into it in my journal. The “Animal House” phenomenon of 1978 aroused so much interest in campus shenanigans that Playboy magazine launched its first of a series of “Girls Women of the Ivy League” issues. Coeducation was new to many of the Ivy League schools. Dartmouth started admitting women in 1972. By this time the ratio on campus was three men to every woman.

Yes, you read that right. You can imagine what pressures that put on both sexes on this relatively isolated campus. Many men became more aggressive, more sexist, if that can be imagined. Not all, of course. I was the perfect gentleman.

The women had to deal with being hit on and degraded, far more than they would have been on a 1:1 campus. The first few classes of women were greeted by “No Co-hogs” protestors. This atmosphere encouraged a movement of courageous feminism on campus.

So you can imagine the reaction when Playboy started interviewing in Hanover. The candidates had to push past protestors at the Hanover Inn, where the auditions took place. That’s the environment that prompted this entry in my journal:

The shit that has been hitting the fan on Playboy’s survey of Ivy League women came to a head today when a 1/4 page in the ‘D’* claimed that ‘Freedom of the press does not mean freedom to exploit.’ I felt like responding with the famous feminist line ‘Women have the right to do with their bodies as they see fit.’ Exploitation exists only in the mind of the exploited.

An ironic note: tonight’s radio counterpoint to last night’s interview with the photographer was canceled for lack of interest. Hmm.

Howard W. Fielding, “Journal, Volume II,” 19 January 1979

So if exploitation exists in the mind of the exploited, what did Dartmouth’s representative in this issue think of it? Fortunately, we know from this personal essay in the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine some four decades later:

Dartmouth women who protested the Playboy project were way ahead of me in the evolution of their thinking about women and our position in society. I caught up with them in subsequent years, but in 1979 I was still quite immature. I’d had little exposure to feminism and did not grasp the concept of objectification.

For me, the decision to pose was an expression of personal freedom and autonomy over my own body—in line with sexual revolution ‘values.’ Looking back, I see that I placed way too much importance on male attention and mistook notoriety for real achievement.

Nor did it cross my mind that my actions might undermine respect for women at the College—still a somewhat shaky phenomenon in those years.

Sharon Lee Cowan ’78, Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, March-April 2020

If her perspective changed with four decades, what about mine? Granted, I am not a woman and have not suffered the indignities she faced to in the workplace as a journalist and working for the United Nations.

I am a journalist with libertarian leanings. Freedom of the press, freedom of expression, and freedom of choice are important to me. So I still argue that an adult woman — or man, for that matter — has the right to make choices that I would disagree with as long as no one else is hurt.

Freedom of choice includes the freedom to make bad choices, choices that we might regret someday.

Would I tell that to my own daughters? I have. Would I let them pose naked for Playboy? I don’t really have any say in the matter now that they are adults. They’ve made choices that I’ve advised against, but nothing like this one. I love them even when I disagree.

That’s how you grow up to be a free and independent woman — or man, for that matter.


*The Daily Dartmouth, aka The D, is the oldest college newspaper in America, although the title of oldest daily college newspaper goes to the Yale Daily News.

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