Reflection series kicks off alumnae discussions about coeducation

Virtual gatherings part of the Academy's yearlong celebration of 50 years of coeducation.

Sarah Zobel
December 17, 2020
Leigh Bonney and Chloe Gavin

Reflections series hosts Leigh Bonney ’76 (left) and Chloe Gavin ’72; P’01 shown here in their PEAN yearbook photos. 

Forming a virtual Harkness table, Exonians gathered this fall during a series of five online reflection events to help kick off the Academy’s 50th anniversary of coeducation. Participants joined in from around the globe — one even logging on to Zoom from Thailand in the predawn darkness — to reflect on their own experiences, as well as discuss what they felt the school has got right, and wrong, in its pursuit of gender equity and inclusion. More than anything, the series was a chance to celebrate the fact that Exeter made the decision to bring girls onto campus and expand the school’s founding mission to educate “youth from every quarter.”

Hosted by former trustees Chloe Gavin ’72; P’01 and Leigh Bonney ’76, the sessions’ topics ranged from gender dynamics in the classroom to Exeter’s impact on life after graduation. To feed these Harkness discussions, Gavin and Bonney would occasionally propose thought-starters, like “How or where did you find your voice?”

For early alumnae, Bonney says, “they felt like they’d found a school where it was OK to be smart.“

“Within about 15 to 20 years,” she adds, “coeducation was just not an event, not something people thought about. The school had changed for the better — and very profoundly — and I think it’s good for young women now to know that. These things weren’t a given at one time. It wasn’t just going to be handed to us, and I think it’s good for girls [today] to know that.”

Gavin, a Boston-area native, was a one-year senior who came to Exeter almost by accident. She’d tagged along with a friend who was touring campus, and returned home to announce to her parents that she, too, wanted to apply. She took advantage of the year to challenge herself academically, but also by trying new sports, including squash and cycling. She was a dorm proctor and joined student government and the choir. Since graduating, Gavin has stayed engaged with Exeter, serving as reunion chair and class agent, in multiple class officer roles, and as the first alumna trustee — which she did fresh out of law school and while pregnant with her first child. She says her short time at Exeter prepared her for many challenges, including working with mostly male colleagues at Salomon Brothers early in her career.

“I was always pushing the boundaries,” Gavin says. “I think Exeter gave me confidence that I could continue to do that, wherever I was.” She retired as general counsel at investment bank New Harbor Incorporated. 

Like Gavin, Bonney discovered Exeter by tagging along, accompanying a Portland, Maine, neighbor on a campus tour. She knew immediately that she’d found her “people.” An only child who had been enrolled in a school whose population was still predominantly girls, Bonney says her years at Exeter carried her far.

“When I got to business school, where class participation was a big deal and you’re competing with a bunch of fledgling masters of the universe, the Harkness experience served me well,” Bonney says. Starting out in her first job, she realized, “I can speak up at this table, even though I’m the most junior person here, because I’ve got the facts, and I’ve got my opinion, and I’ve just got to make sure people know what I believe. People with more experience may have another point of view or give me an additional perspective, but I was never reluctant to speak, and I attribute that to three years around the Harkness table.”

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