Coeducation trailblazers

The first girls at Exeter.

Sarah Pruitt '95
November 5, 2020
Girls rowing crew

Gloria (Bilson) Nagel ’75 never felt so foreign as the day she stepped onto Exeter’s campus, located less than 10 miles from her home in Hampton, New Hampshire. It was the fall of 1971, and Nagel was one of just 10 girls who arrived to begin their prep year.

“I didn’t realize how few of us girls there would be until I was actually there,” Nagel says. Her mother had heard about the school going coed the previous year and mailed in her daughter’s application for her. 

“It was much like stepping onto Mars,” Nagel adds. “We were a curiosity, an attraction, an oddity, an experiment, and a foreign species, and in those early days, [we] certainly felt like one.” 

Thirty-nine girls had entered the Academy Building a year earlier, filing in under the Latin words inscribed over the front entrance: “HUC VENITE PUERI UT VIRI SITIS,” or “Come hither, boys, that ye may become men.” Nine girls graduated in the spring of 1971, out of a senior class of more than 200.

We were a curiosity, an attraction, an oddity, an experiment, and a foreign species, and in those early days, [we] certainly felt like one.” 
Gloria Nagel '75

Linda Lanton ’74 also arrived on campus that fall of 1971, one of 128 girls (including the first 81 female boarders) enrolled for the coming school year. As a new lower from Memphis, Tennessee, she had been recruited to Exeter by A Better Chance, a Boston-based organization that aimed to place academically talented students of color in high-achieving schools. 

A couple of months after unpacking her steamer trunk — “I had everything I owned in there” — in her room in Bancroft, Lanton joined her fellow students in moving books from the old Davis Library (now the Davis Center) into the newly opened Academy Library designed by Louis Kahn. “I remember walking into the center of that huge magnificent space in the middle, with its bold geometric shapes,” she recalls. “It was elegant in its simplicity, but it [was] a library with stacks of bookshelves.” Lanton resolved in that moment that she wanted to become an architect. “I wanted to know how to do something that impacts people the way [the library] impacted me.” 

Gloria (Bilson) Nagel '75 in 1971 and today.

Nagel also remembers moving books as part of the “human chain” that transported some 60,000 volumes from the old library to the new one. As a day student, she was then assigned a carrel in the Academy Library, but also spent a lot of time in the day student girls lounge, set up in one of the girls dorms. 

Ellen Fleischmann ’72 was another new arrival in 1971, but she was no stranger to Exeter’s campus. Her father had taught history and coached football at the Academy; the family lived in Dunbar Hall, and Fleischmann remembers playing four-square with the dorm boys as a kid. The family moved away when she was a young teenager, and she attended high school at the Kent School, in Connecticut, and a public high school in Meredith, New Hampshire, before deciding to spend her senior year at Exeter. “A lot of the faculty knew me from growing up there, so that was part of the experience,” Fleischmann says. “It was sort of like coming home in a weird way.” 

Her perspective

Fleischmann found the experience of being one of only a handful of girls “awkward,” but not too disconcerting, as she had three brothers and was used to being outnumbered. “I was very comfortable being around boys, actually maybe more so than around girls, so I don’t think I felt quite as on display as some of the others did.” 

“Most of the time my point of view was welcomed,” adds Lanton. “Other times it was discounted by some of the teachers, [and] you could tell where their vote was on the issue of admitting girls.” 

In those earliest years of coeducation, Nagel, like Lanton and Fleischmann, often found herself the only girl around the Harkness table. “I remember sitting there, and then all of a sudden there would be a silent pause, and inevitably either the teacher or one of the boys would say, ‘Well, let’s hear from the female perspective,’” she says. “And all eyes would turn to me.” 

Nagel says she and other female students sensed in those moments “that what we would have to say would be credited to half the world’s population. ... While this may have caused us to be more thoughtful before speaking, it also bred in us a bold confidence to speak our mind and impose our voice in those early years. The culture of the early 1970s was loud with feminist voices promoting equal rights for women, but we were living it, every day.” 

“Exeter demands excellence from you. It’s the kind of place that’s populated by so many bright people that you want to rise to the occasion, because it’s the standard.”
Linda Lanton '74

Lanton recounts one experience with a male English teacher, a Shakespeare expert, who took her to task for her diction and threatened her with a demerit every time she mispronounced a word. Lanton accepted the challenge, performing a flawless soliloquy from Henry IV that earned her a round of applause from her classmates and a perfect score from the teacher. “Exeter demands excellence from you,” she says. “It’s the kind of place that’s populated by so many bright people that you want to rise to the occasion, because it’s the standard.” 

As for the boys, they seemed to welcome the arrival of girls — in their own way. “They were extremely polite, as if they had guests,” Lanton says. Nagel remembers having boys offer to carry her books between classes, or pull her chair out for her in the dining hall.

Linda Lanton '74 in 1974 and today with her son, Franklin K. Galloway '97.

Her confidence

Nagel and other day student girls felt singled out in a more negative way during the ninth-grade physical education program. They were automatically placed in the lowest-level group, despite scoring in the 90th percentile on the physical challenges they were given to assess ability. “They had us doing some kind of calisthenics, or simple gymnastics,” she recalls. “I remember the forward roll, specifically, because the girls were the only ones in our group who could do them.” 

Nagel decided to speak up. “I felt strongly that I should be placed where I scored, just like any other student,” she recalls. She argued her case to Ted Seabrooke, then chair of the Physical Education Department and coach of wrestling and lacrosse. He agreed to place the girls in the advanced group for the rest of the term. 

“Our little band of girls summoned all the grit we had beyond our teeth to run obstacle courses, stadium steps, play basketball, lacrosse, baseball, ice hockey, swim, and even wrestle in classes with the best male athletes in our class,” Nagel says. “We failed abysmally ... but we never quit. We stuck it out and fought hard every day to do our best in spite of what others might think.”

Inspired by the experience, Nagel went on to play varsity soccer, squash and track. “In the early days, it was pretty much whoever wanted to sign up could make the team,” she says. She and her teammates played full seasons in all three sports, competing against schools like Pinkerton Academy, the Tilton School, St. Paul’s School (which went coed in 1971) and Abbot Academy, the girls school that would merge with Andover in 1973. 

We failed abysmally ... but we never quit. We stuck it out and fought hard every day to do our best in spite of what others might think.”
Gloria Nagel '75

Lanton came to Exeter as an athlete, having played soccer and basketball and run track in Memphis. After seeing her run, track coaches Bucky Bruce and Ralph Lovshin asked her to practice with the boys. “If Bucky thought I was falling behind too much, he would start yelling, ‘What do you think we’re doing here, playing patty-cake?’” she says. “He never cut me any slack just because I was practicing with the boys.”

Lanton’s speed in events such as the 100-yard dash, 220-yard dash, and 4 x 440 relay earned her the nickname “Flash,” though others at Exeter still called her by her childhood moniker, “Puncan” (the Southern pronunciation of “pumpkin”). 

Fleischmann wasn’t interested in team sports, but she did start practicing yoga while at Exeter, and took advantage of a newly introduced physical education program called Outdoor Challenge. Rather than take gym class, she learned first aid, hiked and rappelled on the big boulders at Pawtuckaway State Park in nearby Nottingham. 

In addition to athletics, Nagel participated in Glee Club and joined a new fencing club, started by a friend of hers. She also remembers taking part in the poetry troupe run by Dolores Kendrick, future poet laureate of the District of Columbia. Kendrick arrived at the Academy in the fall of 1972 as one of the school’s first Black female instructors. “She was very cutting edge, avant-garde,” says Nagel of Kendrick. “She brought poems written by Black artists and set them to movement, and we would perform them as a group in a combination of lyrical dance and poetry.” 

Ellen Fleischmann '71 in 1971 and today.

Later in life, Nagel relied on the discussion-based classroom methods she first saw around the Harkness table in her work as a teacher of humanities, including poetry, performance and drama, to middle and high school students. “Maybe some Dolores Kendrick rubbed off on me,” she says with a laugh.

Fleischmann, now a history professor at the University of Dayton specializing in the history of the Middle East, believes Exeter was the place that — in some unconscious way — served as the foundation for her becoming an academic scholar. “I feel like what I learned there was how to learn,” she says. “I was not very directed or focused, but I could be, and I think Exeter tapped into those parts of me that could have been at that time.” 

Lanton did end up studying architecture at Cornell, but after getting her MBA she started working in finance, where there were more job opportunities. She later went back for her law degree at Boston University and began working in international mergers and acquisitions for Motorola. Drawing on her desire to combine knowledge and goodness for the benefit of others, she now consults for clients in the health care industry. “My ultimate goal is to have some meaningful impact in the field of mental health, and to make some major contributions that will benefit patients,” she says.

Her strength

Anne Marden ’76 started at Exeter as a new lower from Concord, Massachusetts, in January 1974. By that time, the school’s boy-girl ratio had reached 3-to-1. She initially lived in Bancroft, where she and her three roommates crammed their beds into one room and used the other as a “studying room.” Still uncertain of her place at the Academy, Marden at first gravitated to friends she met from the town of Exeter, who reminded her more of the kids she had hung out with back in Concord. 

For her upper year, Marden moved to Lamont, which had become a girls dorm with only single rooms. “Eventually you find your way to the people whom you connect with,” she says of the older girls she met there. Despite hanging out in the butt room a lot, these dorm mates were also serious about their studies and proved to be a point of inspiration for Marden. She began to apply herself more to not only her academics but also rowing, which she had picked up during her lower spring as a “lark.” 

Anne Marden '76 in 1976 and today.

With the guidance of Sharon Vaissiere, a celebrated rower from Boston University who coached the girls varsity crew in 1974 and ’75, Marden began training seriously on her own, including running and lifting weights. She bonded with Kendrick, who took an interest in her writing, and with Anja Bankoski, a new teacher in the Math Department who took over as coach after Vaissiere left, despite having no experience with rowing. “I think it was really hard for the female teachers there,” Marden says. “They were really brave.” Bankoski, later known as Anja Greer, would go on to found a summer math conference at the Academy for high school teachers that bears her name today. 

It was during Marden’s years at Exeter, she says, that she “started really developing the habits as an athlete that propelled me to the Olympics.” After rowing at Princeton, Marden competed in three Olympics, winning silver medals in the quadruple sculls in Los Angeles in 1984 and the single sculls in Seoul in 1988 — the latter while working in finance at J.P. Morgan in New York and London. 

“I think it was really hard for the female teachers there. They were really brave.”
Anne Marden '76

Christine Taylor-Butler ’77 came to Exeter as a new lower in the fall of 1974. A self-described “free-range kid” from Cleveland, Ohio, she immediately chafed at Exeter’s rules governing student behavior, many of which she saw as arbitrary. 

As a Black student on a partial scholarship, Taylor-Butler felt tensions around both race and class at Exeter. “They expected people to be grateful for the gift of being there,” she says. While she wanted to try sports like squash and rowing, coaches kept steering her toward basketball. “My application says I go to the art museum and the library for fun, and I ride a unicycle,” she says she remembers thinking. “Where did you get basketball?” 

This was only one of multiple “microaggressions” that Taylor-Butler experienced at Exeter, although she says she wouldn’t have known to use that term at the time. One of the worst occurred during the college application process, when she told her college counselor she wanted to apply to MIT. “He said, ‘You don’t have any chance of getting in there,’” she recalls. “‘Why don’t you set your sights a little lower?’” 

Christine Taylor-Butler ’77 in 1976 and today.

Taylor-Butler enjoyed proving him wrong: She ended up getting in early to MIT, thanks in part to a recommendation from her science teacher, Charles Compton, who was far more supportive of her academic ambitions. Like Nagel, Taylor-Butler had accumulated enough credits by the middle of her senior year to graduate early, and she took that opportunity. 

Now an award-winning author of children’s literature with some 65 books to her credit, Taylor-Butler has drawn on her experiences as one of Exeter’s earliest Black female students to push back against cultural unaware-ness in the publishing industry. “Exeter taught me to advocate for myself a little harder,” she says. “If you ask, would I do it again, the answer is yes.” 

Her impact

As Nagel, Lanton, Fleischmann, Marden and Taylor-Butler navigated their way through the early years of coeducation at Exeter, they did so against a backdrop of the feminist movement, and the debate over the Equal Rights Amendment, which passed both houses of Congress by 1972 but would fail to win ratification by the states. Despite this, none of the five women seems to have viewed herself as a feminist trailblazer at the time. “My daughter always says to me, ‘Mom, I’m so proud of you for being one of the first,’” Nagel says. “But for me it was just life. It was just school — just what I did.” 

All five were humble about the role they played in paving the way for later generations of girls at Exeter — including mine. 

By the fall of 1991, when I began my prep year at Exeter, male and female enrollment at the school was approaching a 50/50 split. Kendra Stearns O’Donnell was in the middle of her tenure as the school’s 12th principal, the first woman to hold that post, and Carmen Stewart ’92 had become the first girl elected as president of Student Council the previous spring. 

My graduation year of 1995 marked the 25th anniversary of coeducation, and the following year, the Academy Building’s façade got a long-overdue update. Above the entrance, a second Latin inscription now reads “HIC QUAERITE PUERI PUELLAEQUE VIRTUTEM ET SCIENTIAM,” or “Here, boys and girls, seek goodness and knowledge.”

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

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