Racing the Clock at Curfew? Learning to Wear a Miniskirt? Welcome to the Class of 1971

Racing the Clock at Curfew? Learning to Wear a Miniskirt? Welcome to the Class of 1971

     My five years at Northeastern as a member of the class of 1971 were a time of seemingly faster-than-typical shifts in the political and cultural landscape, dominated by reaction to the Vietnam War, but with other changes developing along parallel and/or intersecting tracks.

 Much has already been written about those times, and explaining them properly cannot be done in this short a space.  But as I was rummaging through my memories of that period, I found that even trivial issues like dorm living and clothes reflected this evolution. The following small collection of my scattered reminiscences, presented more or less in chronological order, includes references, some subtle, to developments under way in society as a whole.

     Vietnam hung over everything. At one point, when frustration that our collective protests over a senseless war were not being heard and fear for the men who were being drafted reached a fever pitch, I felt like we were under siege. Siege is the exact word I remember saying to myself at the time. I was too afraid to participate in all but the tamer protests, but I was proud of my friends and classmates who were courageous enough to face the riot police and tanks in Boston and Washington. 

Racing the clock at dorm curfew time, the angst of a Saturday night captured by artist Tom Rozum

     To start back at the beginning, I arrived at one of NU’s big concrete dormitories for women with a wardrobe consisting of at least one tweed suit, several knee-length skirt and sweater sets, and some dresses, including a basic black one designed to be worn anywhere nice. All proper, lady-like wear, society-approved for women of the day — that day, anyway. I never wore that black dress, because my fun in those early days at NU included Friday night frat parties and casual get-togethers in nearby apartments, where clothing that could tolerate splashing beer and sweaty dancing was more practical. When fashions began to change, all opportunity to wear that black dress was lost.

The writer wearing a proper linen suit in 1966 pictured with her grandmother and sister

     By the end of freshman year, dresses and skirts were less proper-looking and starting to get shorter. Note I haven’t mentioned slacks; women were not allowed to wear pants, nice ones or jeans, in the dorm or on campus, at most times. I don’t remember the exact rules for pants but do remember very few exceptions. I’m pretty sure males didn’t have such a restrictive, if any, dress code. The ban on pants didn’t last long; it was phased out over the next year or so. 

     Clothing rules were just a small part of attitudes toward the “gentler sex” at NU and in society as a whole that prevailed at the onset of those five years, but which increasingly appeared archaic. Domicile requirements were stricter for females than males. While noncommuting men were required to live in dorms freshman year, NU required nonlocal female students to live in dorms — female-only, of course — for at least their first two years. (There were no such residential limitations for out-of-Boston co-op jobs; most of my co-op time was spent out of state, living in apartments.) 

     Curfews — for females, that is — were also pretty restrictive. The freshman men had much freer rein to come and go; my friends and I don’t recall any curfews for men. First-year women had to be back in the dorm by 10 p.m. weekdays and 11 on Saturdays, with a few special-occasion Saturday midnights. One hour was added to each of those limits for sophomores.  

     Sometimes the early curfews were actually convenient, if one were looking for an excuse to end a date anyway, but mostly they just felt, well, paternalistic. And the mad dash to get in the door before it was locked could be nerve-wracking, as the alternative was to ring the doorbell and come face-to-face with the stern house mother. Since I never dared the latter, I don’t know what punishment was in the offing for late-comers, or whether just having to face her directly was scary enough. 

     My “paternalistic” comment aside, this description of the more restrictive rules for women than men is meant to be merely that, a simple description of how things stood at the time. NU was essentially reflecting the attitudes of society, and in doing so probably reassured many parents of potential female students that their daughters would be protected. 

     One little fun fact regarding dorms: the intercom system for announcing a “guest” or a “visitor.” One of those words was used if the person was female, the other if a male had come calling. I can’t remember which word was for which purpose. Guess the powers that be thought we’d appreciate notice in case we needed to comb our hair or tweak our wardrobe. 

     At the time I entered the university, my older brother had been serving with the Marines in Vietnam — as a volunteer rather than draftee — for a matter of months. I tried not to worry too much about him, and was distracted by the newness, challenges and fun of college life inside and outside the classroom. I think it was also freshman year when he asked if any of my friends in the dorm would want to be a pen pal. I didn’t know how that would work, because none of my friends shared my brother’s conservative politics. One friend volunteered, and they corresponded for a while. His own views on the war eventually turned around, but that came later. 

     Reflecting the evolution of attitudes in society, dormitory rules for women loosened progressively after my freshman year. I’m not sure what, if any, limitations may have remained for freshmen, but by junior year, if not sooner, I was curfew-free, and overnights only required a simple sign-out. Males were even allowed to visit in the dorm rooms on certain occasions, initially on selected Sunday afternoons, with room doors ajar, and later on some evenings — which I forgot about at least once, when I darted down to the bathroom on my floor wearing just my nightshirt. 

     I moved out to apartment living midway through junior year, but I assume liberalization continued my senior year; at minimum, I believe male visitation expanded that year. 

     As a footnote, NU today requires first- and second-year noncommuting students of both sexes to live in dormitories, but the dorms they must stay in are coed, have no curfews, and permit overnight guests (the latter with some limit on duration). Efforts at protection now seem to be focused on overall security rather than on gender-based rules for students. 

Mini skirts and bell bottoms crashed college dress codes

     Clothing fashions shifted dramatically over the five years. Hemlines rose sharply. Following the lead of friends with better legs than mine, I shortened my skirts 6-8 inches, and learned to lower myself by bending my knees rather than leaning over. Once when I complained to my boss on co-op about workmen whistling and tossing comments my way, she said if I wanted to avoid the attention I should wear longer skirts. I was a bit too young to see the connection, or at least to agree with her. 

     After miniskirts came bell-bottom pants and old jeans, and in summer, cutoffs and T shirts — all perfectly legal by then, if not always well-kempt. I saved my skirts for co-op.  Really casual wear, such as denim and khaki, was practical for war protests, especially the more rough-and tumble ones, and expanded into the wardrobe for the college population. 

     I became a bit judgmental about fashion. At the big march on Washington my senior year — the one where as many as a half million people of all ages and from all walks of life, not just denim-clad students, walked peacefully in an attempt to convince the politicos that much of the general populace opposed the war — I spotted a woman beneath a tree, not far from where our little group had settled in to wait for the speeches. She was being photographed in a professional sort of way, which is what drew my curiosity, and was dressed up in a nice skirt and high heels. I wondered if she were some celebrity I didn’t recognize. My sensibilities were particularly offended by the woman’s high heels, which seemed silly for a protest march, and even the rest of her outfit seemed rather dressy for the setting. I can’t be certain of this, but my memory is telling me that we were told she was Germaine Greer, a star of the emerging women’s-lib movement. What the heck, I guess a woman can wear — or do — what she wants.