Amherst in the 1950s and 1960s

Marietta Pritchard was what was once known as a "faculty wife." She arrived in Amherst in 1958 at age 21, just out of Radcliffe, and was soon turned down for a teaching job in a Northampton private school. She went back to school, doing graduate work in education at UMass, completing an M.Ed. and teaching part-time in various places while raising three sons. She eventually joined the Daily Hampshire Gazette, where she worked for 13 years as writer and then as features editor, leaving to become a freelance writer and editor in 1989.

In 1969, she joined one of the Valley's first women's liberation support groups, which met first in the fall of that year in the living room of Mel Heath's house. Pritchard's book, Life Support, chronicles the lives of the women in that group nearly 40 years after its beginnings.

from LIFE SUPPORT, an unpublished book by Marietta Pritchard, completed in 2007
now in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College

That Was Then: The World of the Valley

We lived in a valley full of colleges. Education was, then as now, the main industry. On both sides of the Connecticut River, private single-sex colleges, Smith, Amherst and Mount Holyoke, continued to educate well-heeled students, while the coeducational public University of Massachusetts, a land-grant college and former agricultural school numbering about 5,000 in the late ’50s, was gearing up to quadruple in size, becoming a major research institution. Hampshire College, founded in 1965, was a brand-new addition.

When my husband, Bill Pritchard, and I arrived in Amherst in 1958, the forces of womanly tradition were well represented. Ladies’ organizations dating back to the 19th century were still meeting regularly. There were cultural groups, such as the Tuesday Club, membership by invitation only, that met monthly to hear talks by members and to serve tea. UMass had its University Women, and Amherst College, where my husband was teaching, sponsored a group called the Ladies of Amherst. Founded in 1906 to provide auxiliary services to the boys of the college, it was by now mainly an organizer of tea parties and similarly innocuous social events. Faculty wives like me – there were no women teaching at Amherst, so no faculty husbands – were automatically enrolled. People wore hats and white gloves to the formal teas where cucumber sandwiches were served and the college president’s best silver service was on display. Among certain senior people, an exacting style of etiquette still existed. Jane Marx remembered with amused horror that she was paid a formal call by two older faculty wives. The visitors, all dressed up, of course, and bearing calling cards, arrived unannounced, and found a disheveled Jane doing the family laundry in her jeans.

Inside our own houses, most of us observed the conventional gendered division of labor – the women taking charge of the household and children, the men earning a living, some men lending a hand, especially on weekends, with outdoor chores or fix-it projects. It was an era when you rarely saw a father pushing a baby stroller, much less providing moral or other support in a hospital delivery room. My husband and I led a lively social life, since we had a ready-made group of people of similar descriptions living nearby. It was a kind of continuation of graduate school existence, but without graduate school and with babies. We lived in a faculty neighborhood in what was essentially a company town. Subsidized housing – the inexpensive rental of college-owned apartments and houses – was distributed on a strictly hierarchical basis, by seniority and professorial rank. And although none of us was earning much (Bill’s starting salary in 1958 was $5,000), we lived, as it seemed to us, quite well. We drove our own second-hand 1950 DeSoto. We went on modest vacations, renting cottages by the sea. We gave and went to a lot of evening parties and gave and went to a lot of dinner parties, prepared invariably by the women. We dropped in at each other’s houses, unapologetically drank hard liquor and smoked cigarettes. I can remember putting out a dozen ashtrays before a large party, and having to empty them at regular intervals. “Gourmet” cooking – usually meaning French-influenced (thank you, Julia Child) – became popular, even a kind of competitive sport. A seven-course “gutbuster” put on by one gifted woman included, among other courses, a Beef Wellington that would have passed muster in any fancy restaurant. I was far along in my second pregnancy during that meal, which, for me, was memorable more for discomfort than for culinary pleasure. I had to leave the building after the main course to walk around the block.

Children did not come along to adult parties. We hired babysitters – local teen-agers or elder ladies – at 50 cents an hour. We also had barter arrangements with our neighbors in the faculty apartments, trading hours of evening childcare with each other. When our first child, born in 1960, was about 2, we had a regular morning play group, consisting of three little boys and one girl. Each mother (fathers all out working) took them for a morning, giving the others three mornings off. There were lots of children in our neighborhood, and in later years, there was always a whiffleball game or some other contest taking place on the empty triangular lot near our house. Organized soccer for little kids hadn’t happened yet, and regular day care was just a remote concept. Later, although our children took various kinds of music lessons, I don’t remember spending my days chauffering kids around. A school bus took them to public school from kindergarten on.

Amherst was provincial, a small town, with lots of open space, little traffic and many working farms. Northampton, across the river eight miles away, was provincial too, but it was a city, the county seat, and had a courthouse, a good-sized hotel and a department store. There was a Sears, Roebuck store and a catalog store for Montgomery Ward, where I picked up children’s clothes I’d ordered. Northampton had a number of women’s clothing stores that catered to the Smith College trade, including a branch of Peck & Peck, with its solid, preppy outfits, where my parents once bought me a red wool winter coat for Christmas. There were also smaller, more expensive stores catering to older ladies, and one that specialized in ball gowns for debutantes. Northampton had several good new and used book stores, and there was also a well-stocked store where we bought our piano and vocal scores, presided over by knowledgeable Mr. O’Shea. The hospital where our children were born was in Northampton, as was my obstetrician and our dentist. Smith College had a fine museum and provided a high level of cultural events. On the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1963, we heard a concert in Smith’s John M. Greene Hall by the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, with George Szell conducting.

“Downtown” Amherst had retained its rural New England self-sufficiency, with Hasting’s, an excellent stationer’s, where our kids could buy candy bars and sit on the stairs and read comics, two hardware stores, two independent drug stores, a dimestore, two shoe stores, a four-storey furniture store, and a movie theater. There were three stores that sold traditional men’s clothing, useful since the men taught in coats and ties, and Ann August, a branch of a Northampton store that sold both women’s and children’s clothing. You could eat a big traditional Sunday dinner in the dining room of the Lord Jeffery Inn; Grandonico’s, an Italian restaurant on Main Street, served spaghetti and meatballs; and, tucked in behind the Amherst Savings Bank, there was Joe’s, an old-fashioned diner. It was my husband’s favorite eatery, serving hot pork sandwiches with mashed potatoes and gravy and canned peas. When it closed, in the beginnings of downtown “modernization,” he took it personally and gave up going out to lunch. Amherst also had a couple of coffee shops, where you could get a hamburger or a tuna sandwich, but no one had heard of a burrito. Asian food was represented by Kim Toy, which served mainly those great American favorites, chow mein and chop suey. At Amherst College, you could see student theatrical and musical performances, along with the occasional “foreign” film.

Inside the colleges’ ivied walls, in the early ’60s, authoritarian regimes reigned, though with quirky variations. Most colleges still had strict, required curricula. In the Amherst English department, this was known to be a form of intellectual boot camp – not only for the students, but for the young instructors as well. There was no participatory democracy here. The literary canon, the Western tradition of thought, featuring the writers now sometimes disparaged as Dead White Males – these subjects prevailed and were not in dispute. The young male teachers were allowed – no, encouraged – to tease and badger their students. At the women’s colleges, parietal rules decreed the hours of people’s comings and goings, and men were banished from dorm rooms. On the rare occasions when men were allowed in, the rule was: Open door, one foot on the floor. Both the men’s and women’s college kept up their rituals, the men, of bad-boy fraternities, with humiliating but mainly non-violent hazing; and on the other side, the traditions of “gracious living.” At Mount Holyoke, milk and cookies were provided in the dormitories every evening. On Wednesday evenings, the students had to wear stockings and skirts, and could invite their professors to dinner. Girlish graduations were complete with white dresses, candles floating over water, garlands of flowers, and the implicit competition for who would marry first.

The homegrown inhabitants of the various communities – farmers, bankers, shopkeepers, lawyers, firemen – cast a cool and perhaps slightly weary eye on the hijinks, both traditional and newly sprouted, of the growing college and university community. After all, Amherst College had been there since 1821, the university since the 1860’s. The town police were accustomed to dealing with student disturbances, especially on the weekends, when beer flowed freely at the fraternities. Both Amherst and Northampton had histories of certified eccentrics: Emily Dickinson had spent her life scarcely emerging from the family house on Amherst’s Main Street, while Northampton had been home to the fiery 18th century revivalist minister, Jonathan Edwards. Both Northampton and neighboring Florence had produced a number of utopians and “communitarian” reformers. The charismatic ex-slave and abolitionist Sojourner Truth wrote that no other place had offered her the same “equality of feeling, liberty of thought and speech and largeness of soul.”  Sylvester Graham, inventor of the graham cracker, among other dietary improvements, lived on Northampton’s Pleasant Street. Was there something in the water? As Kerry Buckley, director of Historic Northampton said, the city always carried with it “a whiff of bohemia.”

The Valley, as we referred to the place we lived, was full of human variety, even as some of us breathed the rarified air of academe. The living was cheap, certainly by current standards. Artists could rent lofts above stores on Main Streets. Students could afford to return after they graduated, wait on tables or find other marginal jobs, play in bands or work on their novels and still manage to eat and rent apartments near the center of what had become a lively cultural scene. People felt safe to express their unconventionalities, protected by a benignly laissez-faire atmosphere. There were, of course, misdemeanors, bad behavior and occasional scandals, but these tended to be private, self-contained matters, not connected with institutions or movements.

But that wasn’t always the case. In September of 1960, Smith College became the scene of a shocking abuse of civil rights that brought the issue of homosexuality into the open. Several well-closeted male academics, the most famous of them Professor of English Newton Arvin, had been arrested for possessing so-called pornographic materials. These turned out to be what today would seem like rather mild beefcake magazines. But receiving them through the mails and sharing them with others was, at that time, a criminal offense. The police searched Arvin’s house in Northampton and got him to give up the names of other homosexual friends. It was Labor Day weekend and Bill and I and our 3-month-old baby, David, were returning from a vacation on Cape Cod, when Bill picked up the Boston Herald with its banner headline: Sex Scandal at Smith. We were horrified. We knew some of these people, knew they threatened no one. Smith College officials, however, did not respond generously, did not come to these men’s support. Their careers were ruined. One young classicist, a friend of ours, spent decades in and out of psychiatric and financial crisis.

Despite this stunning violation of privacy and human dignity on our very doorstep, it took time for us to see that this was not just a local aberration nor an isolated incident, to see how pervasive and lacerating homophobia was. Nine years later, the year our support group started was also the year of the Stonewall riots, a turning point in public awareness of gay-bashing, when homosexual men actually fought back against police raiding a bar in New York. But the issue of gay rights was only just then joining the other civil rights causes, including that of women’s rights.

As the ’60s drew to a close and the Vietnam War rolled on, in our community, as in other college towns across the country, anti-war demonstrations became a regular feature of the landscape. Civil rights and other anti-establishment groups flourished both inside and outside the academies. Something called the counterculture was making itself known, with back-to-the-land hippie communes in the hills and head shops in the towns. The Valley was not wild-eyed Berkeley, but it certainly was a place beginning to seethe with new ideas and attitudes. The town of Amherst, where students and faculty now outnumbered the more conservative, indigenous “townies,” became a haven for liberal ideas. By the ’70s, our children were attending a high school that had an “open campus” and was experimenting – unsuccessfully – with “alternative” classrooms for the more disengaged students, among them, our eldest son. After the Town Meeting declared us a nuclear-free zone, satirists pronounced Amherst the only small town in America with its own foreign policy.

I am looking at newspapers from the late ’60s. On November 19, 1969, about the time of our first women’s liberation meeting, a front-page banner headline in the New York Times triumphantly announces that American astronauts have landed on the moon for the second time. The same page reports the death of Joseph Kennedy, patriarch of the clan described, even then, as a “political dynasty.” Elsewhere in the paper, a sense of ferment comes through almost every printed line. While the secretary of state expresses his pessimism about the possibility of peace in Vietnam, the justice department is looking into prosecuting war protesters for possible violations of the “Federal antiriot law.” The Chicago Seven, who had disrupted the Democratic National Convention the previous year, are defendants in an often raucous trial where flamboyant defense attorney William Kunstler spars with an angry Judge Julius Hoffman. Students at colleges and universities are holding sit-ins, the most recent one at Fordham protesting the presence of the R.O.T.C. program on campus. And in Fort Benning, Georgia, an investigation is just getting under way of an American soldier named Lieutenant William Calley for the alleged murder of civilians in the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai.

So much of that news feels eerily like events of four decades later during the Bush administration – an unpopular war that had eroded the public’s confidence in the government; an arrogant executive branch that showed little interest in telling the truth, but insisted on wielding blatant propaganda in its own defense. In the My Lai story, there’s was emerging national shame that seems now to prefigure the human rights crimes and coverups in Iraq and in the prisons of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo.

But of course there are enormous differences, too. One is the sense in 1969 of a protest movement spearheaded by young people and minority groups, something notably missing in the early years of the 21st century. The changes afoot then were bubbling up from underneath, and at their best, engaged the energies of idealists of all ages. There was a sense of hopefulness, naïve though it might have been. But the mood changed during the Bush years to something resembling sullen resignation. There were, it’s true, large protests against going to war in Iraq in 2003 and several since, but the marchers have been mostly gray-haired, and the streets and campuses have been notably quiet. Perhaps, as has been widely suggested, the reason for campus silence is the absence of the military draft.

Nevertheless, as I look at those 1969 newspapers, not everything is public politics, nor is everything in flux. Many areas of life were yet to see enormous transformations. I am especially interested in the place of women, who were at that moment mostly notable by their absence from the news. True, there is a picture of a woman suspected of bombing a court building, but otherwise women appear infrequently, except on the Times’ “Food, Fashions, Family, Furnishings” pages. In the obituaries of prominent women, much is made of the accomplishments and status of their husbands and fathers. In a writeup that is almost a parody of the genre, Florence Vanderbilt Twombly Burden [sic] is described as “active in charities and cultural work.” Clearly her money and position are inherited and the narrative of her life is quickly swallowed up in that of her illustrious father: “Mrs. Burden was the daughter of Hamilton McKown Twombly, a graduate of the Harvard Class of 1871 and later an officer or director of more than 30 corporations….” Wedding and engagement announcements go on in much the same vein. That was then.

Now take a look at the weddings and engagements pages of today’s Times, where you might say the newspaper has bent over backwards to demonstrate its even-handed, egalitarian stance. Same-sex and multi-racial unions are now celebrated, often with short, perky tales of how the couple met and wooed each other. The accomplishments of parents and other ancestors are still listed, but much more inclusively: the school janitor no less than the corporate CEO.

The 1960s, as someone has wisely said, were for the most part not “the ’60s,” but the tail end of the ’50s, at least here in this corner of New England. But the times were ripe for change, and for some of us, that change began in a big old farmhouse in Amherst.