The letter

In the fall of 1967, all first-year women received an anonymous letter in their mailboxes during their first weeks on campus. Carolyn Olivier ’71 dug the carefully preserved letter out from storage for her 45th class reunion and set out on a mission to find its author.

By CAROLINE KAPP

The Campus reported on the ‘Unofficial Guide’ sent to female students in the 28 Sept. 1967 issue.

Content warning: This article contains graphic descriptions of assault.

“The following is an undocumented paper which does not necessarily express the views of the College Administration,” the letter began. “The topic is Contraception. Don’t expect to find much practical information on the subject in Egbert Starr Library, because I’ve looked and there isn’t any, aside from the Time Magazine report on pills.” It bore the title “Honi Soyt Qui Mal Pence,” a maxim written in Old French which translates roughly to “shamed be the person who thinks evil of it.”

The letter went on to detail how conception occurs, different methods of birth control, their effectiveness and how to access them — on trying to get a prescription for the pill, it wrote: “go to Burlington or Rutland and borrow a plain gold or silver ring from someone, invent a married name and place of residence (but don’t tell any more of your “story” than they ask for and keep your cool.)” — and what to do if the reader believed she was pregnant. It included a comprehensive illustration of abortion methods as well as ways to attempt to obtain an illegal abortion.

The letter arrived in the first-year women’s campus mailboxes packaged with one male condom. Martha McCravey ’71 was on the other end of the mailbox.

“I remember reading it and going back to the dorm and talking about it with a couple other girls, we were all sort of ‘Wow! Where did this come from? And who wrote this? And what does this mean?’” McCravey said. “My biggest reaction was that my parents must never ever see or hear about this. Because I won’t be coming back to Middlebury.”

She was shocked when Olivier revealed the letter at their 45th reunion. As far as she had known, everyone had “either hid it or burned it or thrown it away because [they] were so freaked out by it.”

McCravey grew up in a family with doctors, so she knew about birth control. But it was still not something she was accustomed to thinking about in the context of her own life.

During her time at Middlebury, McCravey knew female students who tried to obtain birth control prescriptions. They went to the student health center, but Middlebury’s Medical Director at the time, Dr. William Parton, for whom Parton Health Center is named, refused to write them prescriptions. She knew a few students in her sophomore and junior years who got abortions.

“I think the college would have been just as happy for everybody to get an abortion and nobody to be pregnant walking around,” she said. “That was saving face.”

Unlike McCravey, now-Writer-in-Residence Emerita Julia Alvarez ’71 did not receive “the letter.” She was a transfer student who arrived at Middlebury in the fall of 1969.

“This is the first I hear of that letter,” Alvarez wrote in an email to The Campus. “Both hilarious, astonishing, confusing, and painful to read — how little we knew back then and how few were the options! I feel for the pressures on us as young women with ownership of our own bodies still in the future.”

When Alvarez convinced her father to let her transfer from Connecticut College for Women, she conveniently omitted the fact that Middlebury was a co-ed institution. He almost turned the car around when he drove to drop her off and saw men walking around the campus.

“I had a boyfriend — I was terrified that even petting and fooling around could impregnate me,” she wrote. “I recall my boyfriend drawing a diagram of my body and showing me how my reproductive organs worked.”

To this day, most women from the Class of 1971 do not know who sent them “the letter.”

***

When Sharon Smith ’68 mailed her early decision application from California to Middlebury, she had one goal: to get as far away from her dysfunctional family as possible.

Smith lived in Battell her first year and took classes in anything and everything she could. With no idea what she wanted to study, Smith ultimately declared a French major after hearing a rumor that all female French majors got to live in “The Chat.” She later went on to switch her major to American Literature.

The summer after her first year, Smith did not want to return home to the family she had finally escaped. Her deceased grandparents had left her money and she wanted to use it to take classes in New York City for the summer. First, she had to convince her father, who controlled her access to the money.

“I told my father I wanted to go to Barnard and he said, ‘No, you can’t go there. It’s dangerous.’ And he wouldn’t explain why, but I gradually figured out that he assumed that if I went to a girls’ college, I would automatically be recruited into lesbianism,” Smith said. She eventually convinced him to allow her to take courses at Columbia University instead.

Smith entered into an affair with a man during her summer in New York. She visited him again for Thanksgiving break her sophomore fall.

“I was very naive and I didn’t want to do some of the things that I found myself having to do,” Smith said. At the time, Smith said, contraception was not something many women knew about — or knew how to get. She had tried to get a prescription for birth control pills from a doctor while at school, but when the Vermont doctor discovered she was unmarried, he kicked her out of his office.

When Smith returned to campus after the break, she discovered she was pregnant and was forced to return home to California where she had no option but to live with her father.

Smith spent her time at home writing to old classmates from her California boarding school and traveling to San Francisco to try and convince doctors to give her an abortion. Abortion would not be legal for another eight years until 1973, when the Supreme Court passed its landmark Roe v. Wade decision.

One day, while Smith was visiting a doctor, her father went through her mail and opened a letter that revealed her pregnancy. Her father found a doctor who owed him a favor, and Smith received hormonal injections which induced a miscarriage. The process was incredibly painful and Smith bled heavily for several days.

After finding out about her pregnancy — and thus her sexual activity — her father, who Smith described as a pedophile and “genuine psychopath,” acted out abusively and violently toward her. He beat her, punching her and leaving nasty bruises all over her face and body.

Smith returned to Middlebury for her sophomore year. One of the doctors she visited in San Francisco had refused to give her an abortion, but agreed to give her a prescription for birth control. She had the pills shipped to Middlebury and continued to have the prescription sent from California for many years.

“Between junior and senior year,” Smith said, “I decided I wanted to make sure that Middlebury girls had the knowledge that every female should have about how our bodies work, what conception is what contraception is, what sex actually can do besides being fun.”

So, by doing as much research as she could and from her own experiences, Smith wrote what would go on to be known as “the letter” — the same letter that Olivier and her friends re-read with disbelief at their 45th reunion.

Smith asked a couple of close male friends who were members of the Theta Chi fraternity—“a marijuana-smoking, acid-dropping, motorcycle-riding-up-and-down-the-stairs kinda place”— to purchase a large bin of condoms. She enclosed a condom in each envelope with a copy of the letter and sent them through the campus mail system, a couple at a time to avoid suspicion.

“I was so afraid someone would find out because I might be expelled. You know, all this sex stuff is dangerous, at least for girls,” Smith said. “If the girls get the knowledge then the boys can’t do whatever they want.”

In the first edition of The Campus that fall, an article appeared on the front page entitled: “Frosh Women Get ‘Unofficial Guide.’” Dr. Parton commented on the letter and verified many of its facts. “Apparently someone did a great deal of research,” he is quoted saying. He described the letter as “on the whole, very, very correct.”

Parton said that he was willing to speak with small groups of girls and women about contraceptives, but he would not prescribe the birth control pill. There were no legal or medical barriers to him doing so, but he believed “that [was] up to the individual and the individual’s family doctor.”

When McCravey and her classmates matriculated in 1967, women still had to wear skirts to dinner and men wore jackets and ties. Women occupied the Battell side of College Street and dorm hours required them to check in to their dormitories before a set time each night.

Things started to change during McCravey’s sophomore year. Dorm hours ended and “by the time junior year came, it was like all hell broke loose.” Casual sex became more common and drug use was rampant. But women still did not talk openly about sex or contraceptive use. McCravey recalls that one might have inquired to a close friend about access to contraception, but no one sat around in their dorm hallways chatting about it.

That same year, there was a doctor in Middlebury affiliated with Planned Parenthood who was willing to prescribe birth control.

“I just sort of took the bull by the horns,” she said. Rather than making up stories, she told the doctor: “I’m in this relationship and I don’t want to get pregnant. I’ve got a life to live and I’ve got plans. Now’s not a good time.”

Today, McCravey is in awe of the risk taken by the letter’s author — to this day, she doesn’t know who sent it — in delivering that information to first-year women. She sees it as an incredibly brave gift to all of the women who received it.

“She was doing it as a warning and as a help to naive young girls that she thought we were — and that she knew we all probably were. I think it’s astonishing and remarkable that she took the time and the effort and somehow managed to get it into our mailboxes and get it printed off,” McCravey said.

Smith viewed her letter as a way to give back. Today she continues to do that as a neuropsychologist in Maine, where she works primarily with Medicaid clients. She found love in 1970. Smith and her husband celebrated the 50th anniversary of their friendship this past February, and the 47th year of their marriage in April.

***

Over 50 years later, a lot has changed on Middlebury’s campus. Men live in Battell, women no longer have to wear skirts to dinner and no one has to find a fake wedding band to go to a doctor’s appointment.

Izzy Lee ’20 is the leader of the student group Sex Positive Education College Style (SPECS), an organization whose creation was inspired by an idea from a class she took her freshman year. Lee’s first reaction to “the letter” was: “Thank God that birth control has come to where it is.”

“I’m impressed that [the letter] cover[s] rhythm method, male contraceptive diaphragms, foams, jellies, creams and then the pill and stuff,” Lee said. “But the angle of how SPECS and other groups teach about birth control has shifted.

“[The letter is about] how you can safely have sex so that a boy’s happy, and you don’t get pregnant. But if you do get pregnant, here’s what you’re supposed to do,” she said.

SPECS education workshops focus primarily on consent and emphasize that “it’s so normal and so fine to say, ‘we need to use a condom,’” Lee said. The club reviews how condom use can play into consent, pressure and abuse and the difference between pregnancy prevention and STI prevention. Their workshops cover different types of available contraception and how to access those methods, with an effort to be as inclusive as possible, according to Lee.

Today, students can receive contraceptive counseling at Parton Health Center.

They can schedule a visit to undergo a “risk assessment,” in which Parton staff help students determine the safest method of contraceptive for them and educate students on the method they select. Parton’s nurse practitioners can prescribe contraceptives including oral pills, injections, patches and the ring, according to Director of Health Services Dr. Mark Peluso.

A local pharmacy processes prescriptions and delivers them directly to campus. Students who are seeking an implant or an IUD, two more permanent forms of contraception, are directed to local gynecologic practices. The Planned Parenthood of New England (PPNE) health center located in Middlebury offers birth control, pregnancy testing, emergency contraception and abortion referrals, among other health care services for men, women and LGBTQ services.

The PPNE chapter was started in Middlebury in 1969 by David B. Van Vleck, a professor of biology at the college and science educator, according to a memoriam written after his death in 2019. The health center served almost 800 patients in 2019, according to PPNE Vermont Communications Director Eileen Sullivan.

“We remain as committed as ever to delivering compassionate, non-judgmental care to patients of all backgrounds and regardless of their ability to pay,”  Sullivan wrote in an email to The Campus. “We love the Middlebury community and are so proud to have a presence there.”

Lee added that the Health Center can administer pregnancy tests, provide free testing for STIs and dispense Plan B (emergency contraceptive) — though only after the recipient answers a slew of questions regarding why they need it.

Like Smith, SPECS recognizes the importance of providing information about contraception and sexual relationships to students early in their Middlebury careers. SPECS holds workshops in first-year residence halls with the hope of getting resources to students who might be feeling overwhelmed by the amount of responsibility that comes with having a safe sex life.

Lee observed that students enter Middlebury with varying degrees of knowledge and comfort surrounding issues of sex and consent, depending on where they are from and what kind of sex education they received prior to Middlebury.

For Lee, the letter serves as a reminder that a lot has changed, but much still remains the same. Alvarez agreed.

“I’m so relieved things have changed and chagrined that things have not changed enough for young women worldwide,” she wrote.