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November 18, 2013

Local college students pushed for equality in the late 1960s

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The Daily Star

---- — A modern day college student at any of our region’s institutions of higher learning might either get a chuckle or cast a jeer at some of the customs and rules of campus life in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. For instance, only female students had curfews until 1968 and college dormitories were strictly male or female until 1970. These customs began to change during those years at the State University College at Oneonta. 

“Curfew becomes a thing of the past for many SUCO co-eds tonight,” it was reported in The Oneonta Star of Tuesday, March 5, 1968.

“Under a plan devised by the Women’s Student Government Association, all women students either married or older than 21 will gain possession of a key to their dormitory, allowing them to come and go throughout the night.”

“Sophomores and juniors receive keys on a nightly basis. Once the co-ed decides to stay out past lock-up time — midnight Sunday through Thursday and 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights — she gives the resident assistant dean of her dormitory a sealed envelope containing her destination for contact in case of an emergency.”

“Frosh co-eds still must abide by stricter rules. They must be in dorms by 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, midnight on Sunday, and 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. They get a single 2 a.m. night per month, choosing whatever night they wish as long as it is a Friday or Saturday.”

The State Times referred to this easing of restrictions as SUNY Oneonta’s “Great Experiment,” as the changes made could possibly revert to the old standards in the fall 1968 semester. There were rules to follow and penalties to pay if the rules were broken. Most of the rules were an honor system, but if one was unfortunate enough to lose a key, or had a key illegally duplicated, that meant the student was assessed $10 to have a door lock changed and replacement keys (75-150 per residence hall) at 50 cents each.

The March 15 State Times edition had reactions from female co-eds about the curfew changes. A sophomore, Di, said, “I think every girl should have their own key. Signing out is a pain!” Helen, a freshman, said, “I wish I had it.”

Helen wasn’t alone in her sentiments about freshmen women having stricter rules. At midnight on Tuesday, April 2, 1968, 19 freshmen women defied the curfew restriction by sitting down on the steps of Morris Hall and remaining for about 90 minutes. It was to protest a recent rejection of a referendum calling for the abolition of curfews.

Despite warnings from SUNY Oneonta administration, some of the same women and many others joined in a protest on Wednesday night, totaling 75. The women also obtained the services of Mrs. Faith Seidenberg, a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, as their attorney to fight the curfew as well as the punishments handed out for their violating the rules.

The case wasn’t resolved that semester and it was eventually taken to Federal Court, but by November 1968, restrictions were easing up, as all second-semester freshmen women would be granted a key privilege, effective Jan. 26, 1969. All curfews were in their dying days.

Co-ed dormitories were also being discussed around this time at SUNY Oneonta. In the early months of 1970, according to The State Times, 2,500 questionnaires were distributed among students concerning co-ed dormitory demands. There were 1,257 returned, and of those, 1,089 were in favor of a co-ed dorm being set up on campus.

On Monday, Feb. 23, the proposal received unanimous approval from the College’s Student Affairs Committee, and later approved by the Faculty Administrative Council. The most preferred plan at the time was the suites in the “newest residence halls (Curtis, Blodgett, MacDuff, and Matteson).”

Both Hartwick College and SUNY Oneonta began co-ed dormitories in the fall of 1970. Hartwick had three, Oneonta two, and according to the May 24, 1971 edition of The Oneonta Star, both colleges were planning to add more in the fall. Students could still choose to live in same-sex dormitories. A student needed parental approval before being allowed to live in a co-ed dormitory, but freshmen students were excluded at the time.

“We’ve been very pleased with the results,” said Howard Maxwell, Dean of Student Affairs at Hartwick College. Joseph Pascale, SUNY Oneonta Dean of Student Affairs, said their program was a success, “because the students wanted it to succeed.”

This weekend: A world-famous hobo visited Oneonta in 1933 during the Great Depression.

Oneonta City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.