Navigating Personal History: Gina Barreca, Gender and Dartmouth

Gina Barreca is academic success, a women who gets things done and does them well. One of the first women to attend Dartmouth College in the 1970s, she earned a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center and has enjoyed a long career at the University of Connecticut where she holds the title of Board of Trustee Distinguished professor of English and Feminist Theory. Barreca has written ten books, edited eleven, received numerous awards, appears regularly in the popular media, and is on several boards. She’s funny, too, and much of her work is often at the intersection of gender, power, literature and humor.

In 2005, Barreca wrote Babes in Boyland: A Personal History of Co-Education in the Ivy League. It’s a personal history, not a scholarly account, drawn mostly from the journals that Barreca kept as an undergraduate at Dartmouth. The college had just started accepting women students and she was one of the first women in the 1970s to attend. The tone is breezy and conversational. It’s a very easy read, with Barreca’s strong narrative voice cracking jokes and making asides while charting her journey through some very interesting waters.

Barreca grew up in Brooklyn and Long Island in a working class family. Her mom, French-Canadian, died while she was in high school. Her father, Italian-American, was a World War II veteran who worked in a plastics company. Barreca, who really did not know much about higher education, applied to thee colleges as a high school senior: Queens College, CUNY; McGill for her mom’s heritage; and Dartmouth because a boyfriend suggested it. She did not know much about the college or what to expect. It was a key milestone in her life.

Barreca’s experiences at Dartmouth were framed by issues of class and gender. In her book, though, what gathers equal attention are the more universal questions most young adults face. She thinks about how to become an adult, a woman, to have a career, and about men and relationships. Through it all, Barreca has good cheer and abundance of wit. She describes her time at Dartmouth with pride, affection and mostly astonishment. It’s a book that has the reader cheering along the narrator. It turns out well, too. After all, Barreca is writing years later with a very strong resume.

At the same time, reading Barreca’s memoir raised more than a few problems for me, particularly as someone who has spent decades in higher education. We’ve made some major progress when it comes to inclusion and treating everyone as having value and a place in academia. But when we think about sexism today, it is clear that the past is not all that long ago. Many of the problems Barreca faced are all too familiar. Barreca fought and joked her way through consistent and pervasive sexism, misogyny and discrimination. It was so prevalent, so deeply ingrained in the culture and practice of Dartmouth and the larger environment at the time that it was often not even an item of discussion. Barreca and some her friends were aware of it, to be sure, but the overall power structure was not anywhere near as attentive. Dartmouth may have granted access but it was far from inclusive. Dartmouth did not stand alone in that regard, either.

Barreca’s book has a personal, individual perspective. It is about her story, her making sense of her time in college and her journey. She writes about abstract issues as well as the day to day triumphs and failures that shape the life of an undergraduate. An an undergraduate, she was a scholar in the making. Barreca gets excited about reading and good class discussion. She speculates about her teachers’ personal lives. She is very aware of her appearance, whether or not she is viewed as attractive, appropriate, or serious – and in what settings. Questions such as “What does one wear?” matter. Yes, they are often important, but read today, in the context of Barreca’s situation, they carry a hefty impact. As one of the first women at Dartmouth, appearance was much more than appearance. Barreca and her fellow feminist undergraduates were wrestling an extremely challenging and shifting environment.

There were difficulties, too, when it came to friendships and mentoring. Students like Barreca were very much aware of the power of class to separate the haves from the have-nots. Add to that the absence of many adult women in a positions of authority at the institution, and the challenges increased. There were very few women faculty at Dartmouth in the 1970s.

Barreca’s personal story is impressive. There is no criticism intended here with how Barreca dealt with her situation. She could have hit harder in this book, but it is her prerogative to tell her story as she sees fit.

I do wonder, though, if it would have been all that difficult for the powers in place at Dartmouth in the 1970s to establish a different kind of college experience, something significantly more inclusive and more invested in the value of the individual student – regardless of their race, class or gender. The introduction of women to the institution, which was contested for decades, was a good step. Much more than access was needed. More than access is needed today, too. Thinking about Barreca’s story raises awareness and questions of the myriad of ways that power is expressed and routed in higher education. We have much ongoing work to do.

Barreca does not give those questions much time in this book. She is smart and aware of the issues, though. She hints at how the education provided by Dartmouth forced a re-evaluation of self and society. She admits exploiting and evading her working class identity. She recognizes social and economic spikes – and also notes that the education she received was hers forever. Most importantly, she notes that a good education “can be subversive, even when it apparently endorses conventional moral and cultural doctrines.” Barreca credits Dartmouth with helping her to become a troublemaker.

The world can always use more educated troublemakers. Let’s make sure that our institutions of higher education continue to produce them and celebrate them.

David Potash

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