Something’s Happening Here

Some Remember 1968 as Part of a Golden Era, When They Lived More Intensely. What I Remember Most is Confusion

Forty years have passed since 1968; but memories of certain times, of people and events and moods, cling, for better or for worse, with a tenacity that ends up defining everything that comes after. This was a year that began a blaze of optimism and ended in disenchantment, and for many in despair.

Still some remember this era as a golden age of sorts, a time when they felt most intensely alive. And perhaps for them it was.

What I remember most is confusion.

I had arrived at Bryn Mawr College in the fall of 1966 in a university world more of less like the one my parents had known, a world of men’s colleges and women’s colleges, dances, night clubs and suitcase weekends, of serious intellectual talk and dreams of Bloomsbury or Greenwich Village. My freshman year we had gone to the Princeton-Yale football game in raccoon coats (Ok, purchased at the Salvation Army, but still…) and carrying an elaborate picnic in a basket topped with champagne, playing at Scott and Zelda.

A year later, this seemed unimaginable. Almost overnight, people stopped dressing up; Slovenly was in and hair – on faces, legs and arm pits – was suddenly a political statement. My brothers’ unkempt hair hit my Ivy League father like a personal affront, and he took to calling us “The Great Unwashed.”

He couldn’t see what a huge relief this was – particularly for a girl (we still hadn’t learned to call ourselves “women”) to be able to disappear behind the androgyny of turtle necks and jeans, to have clothes that were comfortable, to be freed from the torture of girdles, pointed toes and sleeping on rollers. Nobody wanted shop themselves out anymore – we wanted to get to know each other, and to do it where we were, not on some far off campus, to be matched off at mixers.

Besides, marijuana had changed everyone. I had never heard of Marijuana in 1966, or any of the rest of the psychedelic pharmacopia. But I learned fast. It was impossible not to – unless you were a Mormon with a heart condition – which is why no one of our vintage ever believed Bill Clinton’s “I never inhaled” line. We just thought he was absurd for claiming it and wrote it off to politics.

So as the year 1968 dawned, the college world we had expected to be part of had all but disappeared. This was liberating, but it was also disorienting. And as the year unfolded, events only got more so. Having begun studying political science, I felt free enough to add the serious study of music. Increasingly free of social codes, we found ourselves in a tribal world of mutual acceptance and dissolving boundaries. But also, in a way that took much longer to understand, it was a world of blurred identities – where you weren’t supposed to notice where anyone had come from, and you could find yourself spending enormous energy trying to be friends with people with whom you had nothing in common.

Our world became defined by telling catch phrases: “The personal is political,” was one; “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” was another. Both were true, but the dilemmas they posed were wrenching. Particularly if you were trying to get an education.


In 1968, politics became accessible in the United States to a degree it has rarely been before or since, at least not in the 20th century. The real successes of the Black Civil Rights Movement had made people believe change was possible. And the draft had made Vietnam everybody’s war. My eldest brother had been drafted out of graduate school in England in the spring of 1967, when graduate deferments were repealed. At the induction center in Albany, New York, he had lined up with all the draftees, as someone counted out the number needed to fill their quota. “A” to “L” went to Vietnam. My brother, beginning the “M”s, was sent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where he spent the war teaching French and Russian.

Anti-war sentiment grew with the size of the troop commitments, and some leading Democrats wanted Bobby Kennedy to challenge Lyndon Johnson for the nomination for president. Bobby vacillated and finally made it clear he would not run.

So on Nov. 30, 1967, Minnesota senator Eugene J. McCarthy declared his candidacy, almost reluctantly. McCarthy was not a normal politician; he was a poet and a philosopher who had studied at a theological seminary. People admired that; he was doing it for the right reasons: There were already 15,000 American dead and ten times as many Vietnamese. We were spending $2 to $3 Billion a month. He pointed to a “deepening moral crisis.” My whole political family volunteered to work on the campaign.

Over the Christmas holiday, we went skiing at Gore Mountain in the Adirondacks, and found ourselves sharing the mountain with Bobby Kennedy, who was Senator from New York, and his wife Ethel and their army of children and cousins. They were impossible to avoid; Bobby would sometimes stop mid slope, looking around to count heads. My mother thought he was posing. After lunch, I found myself standing next to Jackie Kennedy washing her hands at the next sink in the ladies room. I smiled awkwardly, and she smiled back and asked me if I was having a good day on the slopes. I have no idea what I said after that, except that I suddenly felt completely at ease. A few minutes later Caroline, who was 10, emerged from the stall, washed her hands, and they left.

More than anyone, it was students who responded to the candidacy of Gene McCarthy, and they did so by the thousands, including another of my brothers. They descended en masse – scrubbed and trimmed so they were “Clean for Gene” – onto the state of New Hampshire, where the first primary would take place on Feb. 28. They sent out mailings, made phone calls, held rallies, and rang the door bells of every single registered voter in the state. It was an astonishing effort, that journalist Mary McGrory called a “Children’s Crusade” and indeed the result was something close to miraculous. A relatively unknown junior senator from Minnesota challenged a sitting president and closed in a dead heat, trailing by just 230 votes. And of the delegates, McCarthy converted a full 20 out of the state’s total of 24.

It was a massive upset; and for a brief interlude, we felt that politics might actually be made to work again in America.

After that, things began to unravel very quickly.

On March 16, Bobby Kennedy announced his candidacy, embittering McCarthy’s supporters. Now that they had done the hard part, Kennedy’s move seemed arrogant and opportunistic. So when Kennedy was assassinated two and a half months later after a resounding victory in the California Primary on June 4, no one knew what to do with the jumble of confused feelings. Still, most believed his candidacy was a major factor in Johnson’s withdrawal from the race on March 31. Along with the deteriorating situation in Viet Nam.

Then there was the chaos at Columbia University in New York also in March where students had occupied a couple of administration buildings. What started as a protest over the university’s insensitivity to its Harlem neighbors, in the end just seemed cheeky and defiant.

But who knew what to feel?

Two weeks later,on April 4, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis Tennessee – possibly with the collusion of the CIA – killing with it the possibility for meaningful black-white cooperation for decades.

There was just too much of all of it. In August, my brother and his friends attended the Chicago Democratic Convention and were beaten up by the police for standing along the sidewalk. In a vacuum of leadership, the hero Gene McCarthy refused to lead, and vice president Hubert Humphrey, compromised by his loyalty to Johnson, was nominated. Richard Nixon carried the election by less than 500,000 votes out of 73 million cast.

And we turned away from politics, for the revolution within.

One last footnote. In 1968, parietal hours were still the norm at most American colleges, as was strict separation of men’s and women’s housing, although with reliable birth control, people were treating them more and more casually. That spring, I had been called up before the Student Honor Board at Bryn Mawr for having repeatedly stayed away overnight at nearby Haverford College without signing out. This was not a joke; the Honor Board had real power and the college took self government seriously. But the chairman, Drewdie Gilpin, was someone I knew from high school, and I had a sort of a case. I had not signed out because we weren’t allowed to sign out for nearby colleges. Had it been far away, like Princeton or Columbia, it would have been fine; the rules were designed for a world gone by when one stayed demurely at the college inn or with family friends. But for Haverford (where I had a boy friend), there could be only one possible explanation.

The whole scene was close to farce: partly because we knew each other, but also because outside the closed doors my boyfriend was left pacing up and down like an expectant father, while Drew was struggling behind the bench to sort out how to enforce rules nobody, including she, thought made sense any more. In the end, she did something remarkable: she used the case to demonstrate to the college the hypocrisy of the rule. When we returned in the fall, the parietals had been abolished altogether.

On Feb. 9, 2007, Drew Gilpin Faust was named the first woman president of Harvard University. Faust had graduated from Bryn Mawr in June of 1968. That fall, women undergraduates entered Harvard for the first time.

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