Beyond Vassar

About Books

Dark Horses and Black Beauties
Animals, Women, a Passion
By Melissa Pierson ’80
W. W. Norton, 2000

Melissa Pierson makes her living as a mental traveler. Her first book of nonfiction was The Perfect Vehicle: What It Is About Motorcycles, and last year she published Dark Horses and Black Beauties: Animals, Women, a Passion—a collection of essays about women and horseback riding. Still, Pierson sees her two books as being linked by more than a fascination with horsepower. "In both, I’m writing about passions," she says. "I’ve always been intrigued by the kinds of things that drive people and give us structure. You identify first as a motorcyclist or a horsewoman, then as a citizen of the United States."

Still, several reviewers have noted that although the ostensible concern of Dark Horses is with the obsession that many adolescent girls, primarily those in North America, have with horses and horseback riding, an overriding theme is the suffering that the horse—domestic and wild—has been forced to endure at the hands of human beings.

Pierson, who identifies herself as "a card-carrying member of PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] for the past 10 or 15 years," deploys this theme with considerable subtlety. As one slips from each small, understated essay to another—on such topics as equestrian novels and the history of the sidesaddle—what seem, at first, to be parenthetical references to brutality become extended meditations on the tragic fate of horses in harness since the Industrial Revolution, or on their brutal decimation in war, or on the callous use of them as medical subjects. Along the way, the author’s empathy for the living animals—who are prey to callousness and cruelty even at the hands of those who profess to value them or in such comparatively privileged conditions as obtain in horseracing —grows increasingly persuasive. Its soft-spoken power takes hold as the author continually reweighs and reevaluates questions of ethics concerning the treatment of the creatures that captivate her against both her personal love of horseback riding from early childhood and the larger feminist freedoms, physical and emotional, that equestriennes of all eras have enjoyed.

The Vassar Quarterly played a part in it, too. Ms. Pierson put a squib in the Quarterly during her research, asking to hear from "women who love horses."

"Many women wrote to me," she says. "I got phone calls, letters, dozens of them. This book wouldn’t have happened as quickly without the Quarterly."

By the end of the collection, Ms. Pierson imagines the possibility that she will never ride a horse again and recounts how she can no longer sit through the film Black Beauty, as, having read Anna Sewell’s Victorian novel, she knows the inevitable dark ending. In the course of her research for Dark Horses, which took her three years, her confrontation with flesh-and-blood realities, what she calls "hard facts," led her to mistrust romance in other stories about horses. Although her findings did help her to renew her own childhood sense of the horse’s mystery, as a reflective adult she channels the intense passion of this renewal into a distancing respect. In conclusion, she champions not horse ownership or horseback riding but self-education regarding the laws that affect horses and a heightened awareness of their mean condition in various circumstances. Her meditations affect her on the fundamental level of how she hears language.

In one of the most polemical chapters in Dark Horses, which considers outright sadism, she dryly advances an argument on behalf of the frequently disparaged word sentimentality:

"Sentimentality, also known as compassion, is the one thing that has allowed human civilization to continue, for without it we would leave our children hungry in the streets and our babies tied to tables to learn (for science is civilization minus compassion) how long it takes them to expire from neglect. As the British critic Brigid Brophy, who has the knack of seeing this clearly, has written: ‘Whenever people say "We mustn’t be sentimental," you can take it they are about to do something cruel. And if they add "We must be realistic," they mean they are going to make money out of it.’ "

Whether or not one agrees with this, it is precisely such statements that keep the act of reading Dark Horses a very lively experience. As Pierson puts it, "the premise of the book is that to talk about animal rights disappearing is to talk about human rights disappearing. We don’t give animals rights: they already have them. Every creature born has the right ‘to pursue happiness.’ "

—Mindy Aloff '69

Mindy Aloff writes on arts and culture for The New Republic and other periodicals.

Full Steam Ahead in Poughkeepsie
The Story of Coeducation at Vassar
By Elizabeth Adams Daniels ’41 and Clyde Griffen
Vassar College, 2000

All proceeds from the sale of the book go to the college.

Thirty years after the first fully coeducational class signed the matriculation book at Vassar, the idea of a Vassar without men seems (at least to this writer) unthinkable. But in the 1960s, the questions of whether Vassar should "marry" Yale (as proposed in 1966) or be one of the first women’s colleges to admit men were almost radical. Elizabeth Adams Daniels ’41 and Clyde Griffen were both Vassar professors/administrators on the front lines of the issue. Their book, "Full Steam Ahead in Poughkeepsie": The Story of Coeducation at Vassar (the quote comes from a statement then-president Alan Simpson made when the trustees rejected relocating to New Haven) is a definitive narrative, full of insider accounts of closed-door meetings and insightful anecdotes from transition-era alumnae/i.

Although both Daniels and Griffen say that the fact that the book has a male and a female author wasn’t intentional, it seems fitting and timely.

"Betty and I are old friends, and we were approaching the 30th anniversary of coeducation," says Griffen. "We wanted to gather as much of the story as we could before memories faded." Griffen, a former history professor and dean of freshmen, writes about the early grumblings of Vassar women who felt geographically isolated from men, an administration under pressure to keep Vassar competitive, and the controversial Vassar/Yale feasibility study. His section ends with the school’s groundbreaking decision to admit men in 1968.

Daniels was an English professor who served as dean of studies from 1966 to 1972, during the transition era. She also chaired the Committee on Alternatives in 1967, assigned to report on alternatives to joining with Yale University. Her narrative picks up the story with the arrival of men on campus amid the backdrop of late-1960s tumult. "There were multiple tensions," says Daniels. "There was a rise of interest in feminism and women’s studies exactly at the same time we decided to have men at Vassar. You did the best you could on both fronts. The students did the best they could, too."

Everyone, it seems, figured out coeducation as they went along, from the abolishment of campus-wide parietals in 1969 to deeper issues of sexual politics. "For a number of male students, straight and gay, one of the things that made Vassar appealing was that it wasn’t so macho," says Griffen. Early fears about men taking over in the classroom, note the authors, turned out to be largely unfounded. As an alumna from the class of ’73 puts it: "If coeducation has succeeded at Vassar, I believe it was because of the evenhanded way the professors dealt with the issue. . . . They were not about to compromise their respect for women."

Both authors remain active Vassar citizens: Daniels, professor emeritus of English, is now the Vassar College historian and has a Website that includes a chronology of the school’s history (you can visit it at Her latest project, a pictorial history of Vassar that she compiled with Associate Director of College Relations Maryann Bruno ’82 (now retired) will be published by Arcadia Press this spring. Griffen, who still lives on campus with his wife, Sally Donoho Griffen ’58, is professor emeritus of history on the Lucy Maynard Salmon Chair and is finishing a study of residential patterns in Caversham, New Zealand.

—Leslie Granston '88

Leslie Granston is a freelance writer and editor who is finishing a book for African-American teenage girls for HarperCollins Children’s Books. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Not One of the Boys

brenda feigen
brenda feigen

Living Life as a Feminist
By Brenda Feigen ’66
Knopf, 2000

Brenda Feigen has long been on the front lines of 20th-century feminism. At Harvard Law School in the 1960s she was one of the 32 women in a class of 565 students. She was appalled by the routine sexism she encountered there, and fought against sexist attitudes and practices, such as Ladies Day and law firm interviewing procedures. Later, she went on to become the national vice president for the National Organization for Women (NOW) and to cofound, along with Gloria Steinem, Ms. magazine. In this straightforward, candid volume, Feigen chronicles her life as a feminist, lawyer, mother, civil rights activist, politician, and movie producer. Looking toward the future, Feigen says, “I hope …there will be enough interest in the issues I raise so that I’ll be able to visit universities and women in other groups to help them break through the discrimination and glass ceilings that still exist. I feel that I’m a feminist first and foremost and, if I can, I want to…help women get to the point where we have as much power as men do in this country and elsewhere.”