Coeducation pioneers

The faculty members who opened the doors for others. 

Sandra Guzmán
November 5, 2020
Women faculty of Phillips Exeter Academy in 1983.

Women faculty of Phillips Exeter Academy in 1983. 

Perhaps editors at the newspaper of record regarded the historic decision to integrate girls into a 189-year-old boys’ preparatory school dead on arrival — but a group of pioneering people on campus worked assiduously to ensure that girls and women thrived. Among these courageous changemakers were the women who joined the faculty and paved the way for those who followed.

Stepping first onto campus and into the school’s classrooms, women faculty not only taught Harkness in their subject areas, but also championed greater equity for girls in all areas of the Academy, from academics and athletics to student programming and residential life. These early days were full of promise and also rife with challenges — challenges that were met head-on with clarity and courage.

In a series of recent interviews, as well as in past Exonian articles and historical recordings, several of the women faculty members who worked in the nascent days of coeducation shared their experiences. Here are a few of their stories.

Faculty firsts

Lynda K. Beck ’80 (Hon.) was 28 years old when she was appointed as the first woman instructor in the Science Department in 1972. Armed with a master’s degree and a doctorate in chemistry from the University of New Hampshire, Beck found her initial obstacle wasn’t in the classroom. The physical structures of the school itself vexed progress. “I worked at a girls dorm and the girls used to joke that their dorm had a sex change,” she remembers. “They used to put potted plants in the urinals and water them.”

The tougher conversations arose when she was confronted with mindsets embedded in a portion of the male faculty who were simply not ready for women to be treated as their equals. “They had wives and daughters, but women faculty were different,” Beck recalls. “Each time I came into a department meeting; the men would stand and when I left, they would all sit. This happened for many years and I thought, ‘Geez, this is just so ridiculous,’ but I didn’t let on. I just got into it until one day it stopped. ... It wasn’t easy, but I worked hard thinking that I didn’t want other women who came after me to work as hard as I did.” 

Lynda K. Beck '80 (Hon.), instructor in science.

The experience was not new to Beck. “I was used to a certain amount of sexism in college because I was usually the only woman in science classes,” she says. “I remember when UNH redesigned the science building, I was the only chemist Ph.D., and they asked me what kind of rugs I thought they should have. I’m not kidding!” Rather than hurling an insult at the male professor asking the only woman in the classroom about room décor, Beck instead listed the actual needs of the lab: fume hoods, eye washes and goggles. “You have to plug along, you have to bring people into leadership,” she says. “I didn’t want to make enemies, I just wanted to correct things.” 

It wasn’t easy, but I worked hard thinking that I didn’t want other women who came after me to work as hard as I did."
Lynda K. Beck '80 (Hon.), instructor in science

And correcting was what the New York native did in her three-decade tenure at the Academy. “It was very difficult,” she recalls. “Certainly, the community was very supportive and there was a lot of goodwill, but there was not a lot of understanding of what it means to be coed.” 

As tough as it was for her and the other women faculty, she says she used every microaggression she experienced as a teachable moment. “Each time something sexist was said, I corrected it,” she asserts. “These were men raised in the ’50s and many just did not know how to work with women in professional settings and as peers, including some women who were better trained than they were,” she explains.

Committee for change

In the early 1970s, a small group of women formed a women’s committee to discuss ways to tackle issues of inequality that they faced at the Academy. They had good ideas to promote change, but lacked the resources to enact many of them. Their efforts were substantially elevated in 1980, when the late William L. Dunfey, father of former Trustee Julie Dunfey ’76; P’08, made a generous gift to establish the Committee to Enhance the Status of Women at Exeter. “My dad came of age during the Depression and was a graduate of UNH thanks to the GI bill,” explains Dunfey, a renowned filmmaker and one of only 10 girls in the 1972 prep class. “He was profoundly and intellectually engaged with the world and committed to making it a better place. He always noticed what was not being done and worked to fill those gaps. Establishing this PEA committee was a practical solution to address broad issues of equity and inclusion for women and girls.”

Beck and Math Instructor Robert Cornell founded the committee and were joined by students, faculty and staff of all genders, including Patricia Peard, Jacquelyn Thomas, Molly Plumb, Jill Nooney, Kathy Nekton, Mary Frances Dagostino, Betty Pruitt, Charles Pratt and Ransom Lynch. The committee had practical goals, among them, recruiting and retaining women faculty, creating a faculty lounge, funding professional development, offering workshops for men, issuing a monthly newsletter, and organizing a women’s conference to bring women leaders and experts in coeducation to campus. 

Members of the Committee to Enhance the Status of Women at Exeter in 1982.

William Dunfey became a mentor to Beck as she rose through the ranks from the classroom to administrative positions that could effect systemic change. She served on several faculty committees, including the Principal’s Advisory Committee, the Educational Policy Committee and the Priorities Committee, before being named assistant principal, the second woman in the school’s history and the first openly gay woman to hold the position. 

Among Beck’s most consequential accomplishments, she says, was helping to write the Academy’s first sexual harassment manual — not because there were any cases that she knew about, but because she considered the issue important and thought everyone had to be clear on the rules of behavior and engagement. She also fought successfully to obtain benefit partner rights for gay faculty and created the first schoolwide communication network between departments. “When I was first appointed to assistant principal, a group of secretaries met with me and told me they were going to do all they can to help me succeed,” she recalls. “One of them would come in after I’d written a memo and say, ‘Are you sure you meant this?’” Without support from women like the secretaries, Beck says that her success would not have been possible.

She also credits the women’s committee with helping her learn the soft skills needed to lead successfully within an institution steeped in white, male tradition that did not include her gender when it was founded in 1781. Only recently has Elizabeth Phillips been recognized as a pivotal force in the founding of the Academy with her husband — an acknowledgment that took more than 200 years. 

Adapting for success

Susan (Jorgensen) Herney ’69, ’74, ’83 (Hon.) was an influential figure in the school’s coeducation efforts, tallying nearly four decades at the Academy in various leadership roles in the offices of the Dean of Students, Alumni Affairs and Development, and Admissions.

Susan (Jorgensen) Herney '69, '74, '83 (Hon.) in 1990.

Herney was first hired as an intern at Exeter Summer School to teach gymnastics in 1968, the year the first girls were integrated into the program. In 1971, the Wisconsin native was recruited to be associate dean of students for the regular session. She was 24 when she stepped into this role and recalled those early years as “magnetic.” She quickly learned that the transition to coeducation was not going to be smooth unless things changed. “A lot of people thought when we went coed that our standards were going to be less, and of course that just wasn’t the case,” Herney says. “We learned together that Exeter needed to embrace women maybe differently than they thought they were going to.”

Women needed to be recognized, needed to be validated."
Susan (Jorgensen) Herney '69, '74, '83 (Hon.)

Herney says the women’s committee was instrumental in helping to lucidly voice concerns of the women faculty and girls. “We invited the principal at the time, Stephen Kurtz ’44, to dinner at the Exeter Inn and laid it all out,” Herney says. “We really were very straightforward and very tough on him about the things that women needed. Women needed to be recognized, needed to be validated. Things are not going to change, and we are not going to be a true coeducational school until that happens.” 

To Kurtz’s credit, Herney says, he listened and “took risks supporting those things that made a difference in the long run.”

Retreats to recharge

To further unpack issues affecting them, a handful of women instructors would travel to a mountain retreat located a few hours north of Exeter for weeklong confabs. “These were women who understood something about the historic time they were living,” Beck says. “During the school year there wasn’t a lot of time to strategize and support each other,” Herney adds. “The retreats were times of wonderful reflection.”

When several male faculty members got wind of the first trip, they complained. The women responded, “You’re living a retreat every day,” Beck says with a laugh.

As part of the retreat’s professional development, experts were invited to help train attendees how to manage the challenges in a school that was in the midst of profound transformation. The issues they discussed were wide-ranging — from how to change the culture of male privilege and get women to move from sitting at the back of the room during faculty meetings to the front, to changing protocols like the one that disallowed single women faculty to have guests in their faculty apartments. “We were unpacking white privilege and specifically, white male privilege back then,” Beck says. 

Over the years, the committee helped spearhead other important initiatives, including a series that brought notable women such as Gloria Steinem to speak on campus. It also planned and hosted a women’s conference, inviting students and faculty from surrounding independent schools and bringing together the latest experts in women’s education and rights. “I remember girls coming down the corridors with tears in their eyes, crying, so happy like it was a revival meeting,” Beck says. “They felt seen.”

Symbolism in small changes

Kathy Nutt Nekton P’85, P’98, who was hired in 1973 to teach in the Physical Education Department, remembers the powerful impact the committee had on the school. “It was intentional work to try to help the Academy move forward in the whole experience of being a true coeducational school, not a boys’ school that added a few women and a few girls,” Nekton says. 

The women pioneers advocated for changes — even if some were deemed trivial. Nekton, who taught for 35 years, recalls the brouhaha over a sauna and the size of the women’s locker room. “Women faculty had a very small locker room and the men’s locker had a sauna and the women’s did not,” she says. “It was those kinds of things that were more symbolic than anybody having to have a sauna.” 

To handle the gender divide among the students inside the gym, Nekton remembers barricades were put in place so that girls could have a locker room of their own. Eventually a new wing of the gym was built on what is currently a world-class complex.

Kathy Nutt Nekton P’85, P’98 in 1990.

Beyond teaching, Nekton also coached the girls swim team and found that the attitude of some of the male athletes was lacking. “When we split lanes and the boys had four lanes and the girls had four lanes, [some boys] were incensed over the idea that girls could actually be as serious an athlete as they were,” she recalls. “It took a while.” 

Nekton says her husband, Roger Nekton, who was the boys varsity swim team coach at the time, was instrumental in starting and supporting the girls swim team and helping change boys’ attitudes.

The addition of women instructors prompted new administrative changes as well. When Nekton became pregnant in 1979, there was no maternity leave policy in place at the Academy and she lobbied for one. Fast-forward to 2020, and the school now offers a three-month paid parental leave and provides six weeks of leave for the supporting parent. Ditto for childcare. In the early days, faculty children were cared for in the basement of Tan Lane House. Today, faculty send their children to the Harris Family Children’s Center, thanks to the advocacy of early faculty parents pushing for change.

Honoring progress

Herney, Nekton, William Dunfey and Julie Dunfey have all been honored with the Founders’ Day Award for their innovative spirit and the lasting impact they have made upon the Academy. When Nekton received her award in 2019, she shared a picture that she keeps close by. It was a 1972 faculty photo that reminds her of the progress women have made. In a sea of nearly 200 male instructors, there are six women faculty. Today, there are 217 faculty members, 100 male and 117 female. 

[Change] is hard, frustrating, heartbreaking ... But when changes come, it's rewarding, exhilarating and even works."
Kathy Nutt Nekton P’85, P’98

“First you work hard because you were taught that’s what you do; then you realize there are things you come to believe in, people that matter, kids that count on you, and you begin to focus on what you can do in the big picture,” Nekton said in accepting her award. “[Change] is hard, frustrating, heartbreaking, and moves at a snail’s pace. But when changes come, it’s rewarding, exhilarating and even works.”

Beck echoed Nekton’s words and added that a lesson she learned on the women’s committee nearly 50 years ago applies today and in any struggle for social change. “We learned that it was important to come together, to lean on each other to know that we were not alone, and to know that there was power in the collective,” Beck said. “You can’t have the same advocates always agitating; you have to get new people, new voices, and also turn over the people who are advocating for something bigger, grander.”

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the fall 2020 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.

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