(Barnard in a time) Of Love and War

7:30am. A solitary ray of red sunlight found its way through the dirty brown curtains of their W106th St. apartment window. The soft sky began to part into a pinkish-blue morning and the clouds stretched up and out, as if to say hello. Birds began to sing their daily alarm. Without warning, the light disturbed the dust in the air and shone upon the clutter of things that was their bedroom. Their messy mattress, their lonely mirror, their leftover food containers, an open closet spitting out blue dresses and worn loafers, a pile of philosophy books, two old lamps, angry letters torn into shreds, and a few pill boxes that looked as though they hadn’t been touched in months. Peter was still asleep, but he would awake now. They would soon eat their breakfast and drink their coffee and put on their individual identities, she knew.

There was a time long ago when women were forced to keep to themselves as mere housewives and live according to boring social laws, thought Linda LeClair. But not today. And certainly not for the past two years of her vibrant life. Today she was ready to fight whatever indictment came in her way. It was as though the mighty officials of her college acted like mortal gods, they deemed her living arrangements offensive and unacceptable. This was not true, and Linda was sure of it. She turned over on the mattress and softly kissed Peter on the nose.

The day was April 16th, 1968 and Barnard College sophomore Linda LeClair was about to present her case to a joint student-administrator judicial committee concerning the implications of her social freedom. Linda had set the stage for a national outburst due to her audacious living arrangements with her then boyfriend, Peter Behr, a Columbia College junior. Barnard’s housing regulations at the time mandated all undergraduate students who lived more than 50 miles away from the college to dorm on campus. However Linda LeClair, the 20 year old brunette originating from a small town in New Hampshire, clearly found a loop around that strict rule.

Linda knew the only way she can get around Barnard’s housing rule was to apply and work as a live-in domestic aid. With the help of an older married friend who posted a fake employment advertisement, Linda was able to fool not only Barnard career development officials but the administrators as well. She soon had an excuse to move off campus and into the (spacious four-room) $100-a-month W106th St. apartment with her boyfriend. Given the intimacy of their relationship, Linda and Peter were able to live off-campus away from the watchful eyes of rigid college officials. However, word of their taboo lifestyle leaked the morning of March 14th ,1968 when the New York Times ran an article about college couples living off campus because of “convenience, security, and sex.”

The New York Times referred to Linda as “Susan” but given the details of the article, Barnard officials were able to piece two and two together to figure out the identity of the missing housing culprit. What emerged was an uproar of dissent coming from parents, administrators, and national newspapers. She became Barnard’s “Kiss-and-Tell Girl” and was the face of numerous broadcasted interviews and hateful opinionated letters. Barnard students however, supported Linda and her decision to get away from an oppressive dorm life (some of whom themselves admitted to living off campus as well after this incident). Linda herself described what it was like to live in the freshman dorms and at first lamented the fact that her boyfriend Peter could go “out into the night to do whatever the hell he wanted to do” while she remained “locked in the tower like Rapunzel.” Students who lived on campus were not given permission to leave past 9:30pm on weeknights (4:30pm on weekends) and could only have male guests visit on Sundays between daylight hours. If a Barnard student had a male guest in her room, she was required to leave her door ajar during the duration of his visit. You can only imagine Linda’s frustration at the time!

Barnard’s prominent in loco parentis policies served as the basis for the structural argument against Linda’s living arrangements. While her own parents vehemently disapproved and cut off her monetary allowances, Barnard administrators decided to take the matter in their own hands and determine the consequences of Linda’s lie. Linda faced a judicial committee and argued that her life was “none of their business” and that “Barnard has no right to control personal behavior.” A month after the LeClair affair sprang up the judicial committee sympathized with Linda and did not decide to expel her, only to ban her from campus social events and from the student cafeteria. But the community outside Barnard felt that the verdict was not enough. Barnard president Martha Peterson faced austere disapproval from alumnae and was provoked to expel Linda LeClair. Although she faced minimal punishment, Linda felt as though her time at Barnard was enough and Linda made the decision easy on everyone by deciding to drop out of college along with Peter (who then faced near imprisonment because he denied his draft card). Linda’s decision to stand up for herself and her civil rights showed how the mores of an era were being challenged. It’s often difficult to recall that Linda grew up in a very cultured and traditionalist world, one where it was deemed provocative for young couples to live together unmarried. Her determination to protect her private life against the face of harsh public scrutiny proves how strong she remained under a critical attack. 

The “Linda LeClair affair” set aside for new future housing rules, as to assure no scandal of this nature would ever occur again. To denounce her freedom would be to allow Barnard College officials to dictate how her life would be come, and that was not an option. In the face of a social war between the youth and the aged, Linda came out triumphant. As the 45th anniversary of the long forgotten controversy, think about where Barnard College (and in fact, all college) students would be had Linda not made a stand about oppressive norms. Are we not to progress with the age of modern technology and growing populations or are we meant to uphold the status of our grandparent’s Victorian mores? It is because of phenomenal figures like Linda LeClair that society has accepted the standards of privacy, modern love, and social justice. Linda would agree that today we are all moving up for the better.

(Happy Valentine’s Day!)   

Written by Nazia Jannat, BC’14


3 thoughts on “(Barnard in a time) Of Love and War

  1. I was a classmate of Grace (Linda) LeClair and remember all this well. What was little noted at the time or since is that Barnard College did not unilaterally require all students to live on campus. If you think about it, that would not even have been possible as there were more students than dorm rooms. The key to the cage was, logically enough, parental consent. Like most of my friends at the time, I lived off campus because my parents permitted it and the College had that permission in writing in my file. The way I saw it, LeClair’s fight was not with Barnard but with her own reluctance to have a candid conversation with her parents. That said, when the controversy broke, the tempest-in-a-teapot boiled over. The level of prurient interest in what should have been a young woman’s private business on the part of media and random pundits was perfectly astonishing. The truly vile things that were said about LeClair, who was a warm, forthright, intelligent and very decent human being signaled to many of us that it was time to circle the wagons. We have seen quite a bit of this sort of vicious name-calling and antediluvian anti-feminism lately with the current war on women’s reproductive rights. The reality, vis-a-vis the larger society, is we have made almost no progress at all in more than forty years.
    Sally Reno, class of 1970

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