The year that Amherst accepted its first cohort of first-year women, it also welcomed an unusually large number of transfer students—nearly 150 of us in 1976. I arrived as a junior and soon noticed my discomfort at Amherst based on socioeconomic class more than on gender, and without the skills to articulate either very well.
Sociology classes helped me better understand the class tensions. (Thank you, Professor Norman Birnbaum.) It took much longer to educate myself about the dynamics of sex and gender, part of my lifelong learning after graduation. There wasn’t yet a women’s studies department at Amherst, and I refused to take any of the few classes labeled as such, afraid to be seen as one of “those women” who, the wider culture told me, were troublemakers, probably lesbians and decidedly not much fun.
I wanted to fit in, not to stand out. Plus there was the small matter of my internalized homophobia, having not yet fully accepted my bisexuality, and with no LGBTQ+ support groups on campus in that era.
Not that I didn’t notice ways that I was treated differently as a woman at Amherst. My first meeting with my faculty adviser set the tone. He looked over my schedule—four classes that I’d picked because they created a synergy of my interests in literature, anthropology, politics and current affairs. He recognized that synergy. What baffled him was that I did, too.
“Do you see how these classes work together?” he said in surprise, repeatedly looking back and forth between the class list in front of him and me, as if the two couldn’t possibly be connected. “Do you?”
I doubt that he would have minimized me like that had I been a man. Simmering, I sat stone-faced, pondering my choices: confront my new adviser and become a “troublemaker,” or play along with his poor estimation of me. I tried to find a middle ground. Did I see the synergy? After a pause long enough to make my adviser uncomfortable, I stared him in the eyes and said flatly, “No.” He couldn’t tell if I meant it. He had no idea what to do. Our meeting soon ended. I never saw him again, save for one brief, required meeting. Perhaps I shortchanged myself, but I was too new at being assertive. He was new at dealing with women students.
So was Amherst as a whole. There was a big learning curve unique to that historical period that often went unnoticed by students preoccupied with day-to-day life. Many formerly all-male colleges started admitting women in the late 1960s and 1970s, because men increasingly chose to enroll in coed institutions. To retain the men, the colleges let in some women.
Then Congress outlawed sex discrimination in education by passing Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. An exception in the law allowed private colleges like Amherst to arbitrarily limit the proportion of women they admitted, if they chose, but once admitted, they had to treat all students equally. The federal government in 1975 finally approved regulations to implement Title IX after three long years of pushback by men in academia, mainly in athletics.
Thus in 1976 the new Amherst women’s coach walked the halls of dorms, recruiting any woman student who might be persuaded to join a team. Like nearly all college women at that point, I’d had no opportunity to play on a sports team in high school, so it hadn’t crossed my mind to look for one in college. Girls’ soccer, softball or basketball teams didn’t exist in most schools before Title IX.
When the coach caught me and a friend in the hall and said, “We’re forming a basketball team. Why don’t you try out? It’ll be fun,” I remembered shooting hoops in the driveway with my brothers and thought, “Why not?” Eight women gained skills and had the promised fun that first year on a team the College unimaginatively named the Lady Jeffs. When some recruits joined us in the next year’s freshman class, many felt the name was dismissive, but not enough to create a fuss. We were happy to be playing.
I didn’t learn of Title IX for more than a decade after it became law. It took me even longer to gain an understanding of the intersections of discriminations based on class, sex, gender, race and other factors. An Amherst education sharpened my skills for this lifelong learning.
I’ve grown and embraced feminism, as has the College. Women now represent 51 percent of Amherst students. Mammoth changes in the campus culture include a new sports mascot. And in this 50th anniversary year of Title IX, generations of girls across the United States who have grown up expecting equity are more willing to speak up and to demand fairness.
Boschert is the author of 37 Words: Title IX and Fifty Years of Fighting Sex Discrimination (The New Press, 2022).
Illustration by Tara Anand