On the March
Sarah Lawrence College may not have had a dress code in 1960, but a group of student activists—taking a stand for social justice on the streets of Bronxville—imposed one on themselves.
“It makes me chuckle now,” says Joan Countryman ’62, an organizer of the April 1960 protest against the local F.W. Woolworth’s, “but one of our concerns was that we cared about the College’s reputation in Bronxville, so we made sure to dress properly, to wear nice skirts. We didn’t want anyone to criticize us for our appearance, because our message was controversial enough.”
Their protest in support of student sit-ins at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, began a decade that would come to be known for its activism. But the Sixties had barely begun when Countryman and a dedicated group of her classmates marched for social justice—in Bronxville, New York City and elsewhere—where they fought for civil rights, education, equal access for the poor and an end to nuclear testing.
“In my class, there was a critical mass of students who thought it was important to speak up and be activists,” says Countryman, now a Sarah Lawrence trustee. “We were part of a great wave. And we were certainly a little ahead of other campuses in our willingness to join demonstrations.”
Those were heady days for young activists: a time of foment, optimism, progress and, sometimes, a few gaffes. Countryman recalls heading to a New York City march against nuclear testing, getting on the wrong subway, and never arriving at the protest. There was also the time she and a classmate—as part of a “little test”—attempted to have dinner at a Bronxville restaurant that they’d heard refused to serve blacks. But they were in fact served. “We didn’t know what to do then,” she says with a laugh. “We couldn’t really afford to have dinner there.”
The Woolworth’s protest, however, was planned down to the last detail, with orchestrated protest signs and a designated spokesperson so the picket line would remain orderly. Countryman remembers a mixed reaction from townspeople, some of whom argued that there were no problems at the local Woolworth’s (which was true; the students were protesting the national corporation’s actions in the South), and others who were happy to receive information in support of the North Carolina protests.
Although she had no experience with protest before coming to Sarah Lawrence, Countryman grew up in a progressive household and was the first African-American to graduate from Germantown Friends, a Quaker day school in Philadelphia. When the Supreme Court outlawed public-school segregation in 1954, she recalls “coming home from school and my mother sitting me down and saying, ‘You have to watch this on TV. Something important is happening.’ My family certainly believed in speaking up and acting on your beliefs.”
We were part of a great wave. And we were certainly a little ahead of other campuses in our willingness to join demonstrations.
After graduating from Sarah Lawrence, Countryman followed in her father’s footsteps and headed into the classroom, for many years at Germantown Friends. She has taught mathematics, has written and spoken widely on gender equity in math, and is the author of Black Images in American Literature and Writing to Learn Mathematics.
In 1993, she became head of Lincoln School, an independent girls’ school in Providence, and has seen many changes in attitudes toward protest since she began teaching in 1970.
“Activism waxes and wanes,” she says. “In 1970, there was a lot of anti-war activism. I’ve seen very active high school campuses—and times when there was nothing, when students didn’t seem aware of much going on in the world outside their own private concerns.”
These days, after a long lull—during which, she confesses, she worried that activism was dead forever—she has seen a rekindling of that questioning spirit in a group of Lincoln seniors who are particularly concerned about the situation overseas. “They came to us and wanted to have a teach-in about Iraq. I wondered how they even knew the word ‘teach-in’,” she said, figuring that they’d probably discovered the word in the course of their Internet research.
“They said, ‘We don’t know whether or not we support the President, but we have a lot of questions.’ It made me very proud that 16-year-old girls were willing to speak up, willing to challenge authority.”
What about challenging authority when the authority—i.e., the head of school—is an activist herself? “I’m ‘The Establishment’ all the time,” Countryman confesses, then laughs. But far from quashing renegade instincts, she considers herself in a position to nurture her students. “Part of my responsibility is to help them be thoughtful and sensible about things, even the less earth shattering things,” she says. “Students often demand something, even if it’s ‘We need better food in dining room,’ or ‘We want a different basketball coach.’ I’m very interested in promoting those conversations.”
She recalls telling her students—when they were protesting a decision she had made—that she had been a protester, too, in her time and that she appreciated their speaking up for what they believed in. “They didn’t get their way,” she says, “but they were very happy to hear that.”
As with her students, Countryman also encouraged her two children—Matthew, now 40 and an assistant professor of history and American culture at the University of Michigan, and Rachel, 38, director of studies at Miss Porter’s School—to act on their beliefs. “They were raised to be nonviolent and respectful,” says Countryman, whose family is Quaker, “but they’re certainly willing to speak up. Having been an activist, I’m very fortunate that my children are socially conscious and activists themselves.” She notes that some of her fellow activists have children who rebelled by becoming apathetic or socially conservative.
As another parent might treasure a beaming graduation photo, Countryman eagerly describes a certain picture of her children during their college days. “I have a hilarious photograph of my two children being arrested at Yale,” she says, explaining that the action came during an early-1980s demonstration in support of the University’s newly formed clerical union. “It looks as though the entire Yale police force was there arresting my two children.”
The motherly pride in her voice is unmistakable.