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March 4, 1968: The LeClair Affair

Image: Walking Geek / Flickr

Sometimes you have to take a step back and really take notice of all of the ways things have changed since 1968. Sure, we have smartphones and electric cars now, but some of the biggest changes aren’t tangible at all, like the attitude of the general public toward things that were once considered unconscionable. One of these things is the idea of moving in with a significant other.

These days, whether it be the crippling student loan debt that makes it fiscally responsible to shack up with your significant other before marriage, or the crippling student loan debt that’s getting young people to push off marriage until later in their lives, it’s all but assumed that once you’ve been in a relationship a while you’ll condense your two living spaces into one. After all, it’s a whole lot cheaper splitting the rent and utilities of a one-bedroom apartment with another person than a two-bedroom apartment with a roommate. While the occasional Boomer parent may gawk at their child for "living in sin," the public’s attitude toward cohabitation is to hardy blink an eye.

On March 4, 1968, Barnard College sophomore Linda LeClair rocked the boat by shunning her campus’ housing laws by deciding not to return to campus housing after taking a leave of absence after an illness, to live with her boyfriend, Columbia College junior Peter Behr, saying that she took a job as a live-in caretaker. The New York City women’s liberal arts school required all students to live on campus unless they stayed with their parents or had a live-in job.

In addition to this rule, the women at Barnard had a whole list of etiquette rules they had to follow — most of which weren’t present at the all-male counterpart, Columbia. They had to sign out of the dormitories at night, while still returning before curfew, and men were only allowed in the dorms at certain hours. When a man was in a student’s dorm, the door had to stay open the width of a book, as if these young women were still living at home with their parents.

When LeClair was quoted in a New York Times article about premarital cohabitation, Barnard put two and two together when her anonymous quotes were attributed to a Barnard sophomore from New Hampshire. According to The Columbia Spectator, LeClair was originally given a warning from the student-faculty judicial council and was banned from campus dining, however, Barnard’s president, Martha Peterson thought the punishment didn’t fit the crime and wanted to expel her, pending her grades. LeClair left Barnard on her own after the fiasco.

"I decided not to go back, not because I'm a horrible rule-breaker, but because what I had thought Barnard was—namely a place to support feminism, to support the empowerment of women—at that point wasn't so true," LeClair told The Spectator.

The Spectator pointed out that it wasn’t just the school that was outraged at LeClair’s housing arrangements, but the public as well. This happened in a time when abortion and birth control for unmarried women were illegal. The LeClair affair was early on in the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s and was many people’s first realization of the double standards that existed when it came to men and women and their respective places in society. It started a domino effect that had campuses around the country re-examining their policies.

“People remember the protests and the hippies and this and that,” said Behr. “I don’t think they remember what a conservative time it was. The idea that someone was having sex out of marriage was still pretty titillating.”

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