When I look at the Class of 1977’s official commencement photograph, I can see a much younger and thinner version of myself in the front row. In addition to a full head of hair, I am wearing the confident smile of a callow youth, blithely unaware of what lie ahead and without any appreciation of how much of a nurturing sanctuary the Hilltop had been.

In the four decades that have elapsed since that black and white image was taken, I have been blessed with the opportunity to live and work around the globe and to experience firsthand many of the triumphs and tragedies that have marked recent history. Much has transpired and changed since that optimistic graduate had his image captured, most notably great strides toward gender equity.

Yet, as I sat in a movie theatre this past weekend watching Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Katherine Graham in “The Post,” I was struck by how similar that era was to now. Her depiction of a woman struggling to find a voice in a corporate and political world controlled by old, white men was striking. The unspoken and unquestioned assumption of the total dominance of the men made her climactic decision — no spoilers — all the more powerful.

To quote the Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie, “All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again.”  

One of my most vivid memories of the autumn of 1973 was the struggle for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in the United States Constitution. The amendment, which ultimately faltered, was the signature legislative effort of the women’s movement, which sought to codify the equal status of women in American society.

At Georgetown, meanwhile, the admission of women into the once all-male institution was having a profound impact. By 1973, their admission was no longer an “experiment” and the sense of culture shock was palpable. The teaching faculty, the managers of the physical plant and the university leadership were grappling with circumstances for which they were profoundly and woefully ill-prepared.

At the time, there was a popular, and hopefully apocryphal, story of a tenured professor who would make deliberately offensive and crude sexual remarks on the first day of class to compel his female students to drop the course. There were no consequences for the professor. That this anecdote was oft-repeated speaks to how the atmosphere at the school gave it some credence.

The administration had previously introduced such coping mechanisms as “parietals” to deal with men and women matriculating together. Dorms were single-gender only. Members of the opposite sex were banned from their counterpart freshmen dorms after certain hours. Strict Resident Assistants would conduct “sweeps” to ensure compliance. Sneaking dates into your room after hours was a popular sport.

This genuine — though misguided and paternalistic — desire to preserve a woman’s virtue, and not lead young men into temptation, revealed the preconceptions of females as “others” to be treated as intrusions into the world of men, not to be trusted with making decisions about their lives or bodies and requiring strict oversight.

There is much about my four years at Georgetown that will seem quaint or incomprehensible. In many ways, student life in the 1970s was as different from now as that time was from the 1930s.

However, what would be recognizable today as fumbling attempts by a male-centric culture to adapt to the mere presence of females in campus dormitories was the nascent struggle for women’s equality in society. Today, this movement is expressed by #MeToo, the fight for pay parity and access to unfettered health care. That these continue to be at the forefront of political discussions after many decades is confounding.

I do remain optimistic, however.

When I attended my 40th class reunion last summer, there were as many alumnae present as alumni. They had joined their male counterparts in society and the workforce and rose through the ranks to be successful attorneys, physicians, diplomats, scientists, journalists and businesswomen. What were once considered “nontraditional” roles for women are now generally accepted as mainstream. Moreover, I perceive that each woman no longer carries the burden of representing her entire gender. What I did not appreciate as an undergraduate was the pressure women felt to succeed and not have a perceived failure reflect on them all. They now have both a voice and a better chance to sit at the table.

What I was privileged to witness on Healy Lawn in the summers of ’77 and ’07 were respectively the promise and the triumph of their struggle. “Nevertheless, they persisted.”

Raymond Dillon graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences in 1977. A Hoya Looks Back runs online every other Thursday.

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