New dorm houses women

For today’s average GW student, the mention of Thurston Hall brings to mind just a couple of thoughts: “sex and booze.” Now envision an entirely different experience – an all-female “Superdorm,” the New Women’s Residence Hall. Costing about $5 million, the nearly 1,000-bed hall on the corner of 19 and F streets came complete with a resident director, nurse, housekeeper, dress code and curfew.

The Superdorm’s biggest technological advancement? For the first time, women could call outside GW directly, although the switchboard continued to handle incoming calls. Welcome to Superdorm, year 1964.

The first resident director, Ruth MacMahon, handled a variety of tasks. The Hatchet wrote, “These include everything from directing painters, plasters and electricians to unsnarling congested traffic.” Two assistant resident directors and the assistant dean of women help MacMahon. From its earliest stages, the hall impressed all with its size. MacMahon felt compelled to tell The Hatchet, “Since each floor has its own facilities and government, it is much like having eight separate halls, yet the feeling of unity is retained.”

The Superdorm meant the University was compelled to address female students directly, implementing a variety of changes. For the first time, women were able to attend a “Freshmen Assembly” tailored specially for them. The Hatchet reported, “Dean Virginia Kirkbride keynoted the speaking by stressing the current trend of married women taking up careers after their children have begun school. The new programs are designed to enable University women to help themselves toward this goal.”

In true GW tradition, however, residents were soon lodging complaints about the opposite sex. One resident wrote a letter to The Hatchet stating, “As a freshman living in the New Women’s Residence Hall, I was told that it was improper to wear such sports clothes as Bermudas or slacks in the hall or on the campus, since the University is only a few blocks from the White House in the heart of the city. In my room, social dress regulations were posted, and I was required to read and observe them. Thus, I fail to understand why these rules should only apply to the female students of the Unversity.” The letter writers went on to describe GW males as “permitted to walk about looking as though they did not have time to wash their faces, shave or comb their hair.”

As the year progressed, the residence hall became a lighting rod for senior women, who began to demand a loosening of the rules, particularly in regard to curfew and dress code. By January, the women of Strong Hall and the New Women’s Residence Hall were allowed to wear slacks in certain rooms, and the senior women in Strong were allowed to sign out after 11 p.m.

In 1967, the residence hall was renamed after Mabel Nelson Thurston, the first female undergraduate to graduate from GW. Thurston’s single-sex experiment came to an end in 1972, when the building became coed.

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