Challenging an institution
The women who broke down ThurtenE’s gender barrier
It’s the middle of the night. Bonnie Adrian walks into a dark, candlelit room.
In the dim light, she can make out 13 men lined up on one side of a long table. On the other end sits a single chair, positioned with its back to the table. One of the 13 men instructs Adrian to sit down, and she does, her back turned to them.
“I think it was a little bit of a test, to see how you would handle that, and I’m sure I failed that test because I went ahead and sat down in the chair with my back to them,” she recalls. “They laughed, said, ‘You can turn around.’ At that point, I went ahead and turned the chair around; I imagine you were supposed to sit with your front to the back of the chair.”
It’s January 1991, and those 13 men are the members of ThurtenE—the then-male only honorary that Adrian, along with her friend Heather Calvin, had applied for in the fall of 1990, during the first semester of their junior year.
Applying for the honorary was Calvin’s idea, inspired in part by her positive experience as president of sophomore honor society Lock & Chain (Adrian was also a member) and in part by a Student Life opinion piece penned by then-editor-in-chief Laura Meckler.
“[Meckler] basically spoke directly to younger women in younger classes and said, ‘Hey, did you like ThurtenE? You should consider challenging this’,” Calvin says. “I don’t remember reading it at the time, but I still have the clipping, so it must have meant something to me and stuck with me somehow.”
Title IX had passed nearly 20 years earlier in 1972, but the 80-plus-year-old honorary had yet to open its doors to women. In addition to being male exclusive, ThurtenE honorary was then widely considered to be the most prestigious and recognizable group on campus. As is still true today, the group was responsible for planning the annual ThurtenE carnival, a massive April event involving both members of the Washington University and greater St. Louis communities.
While not explicitly tied to the Greek community, the ThurtenE honorary was widely thought to take the 13 top men from Greek life. Sororities and fraternities partnered up, in a tradition that continues today, to create elaborate wooden facades at which plays would be performed.
Bringing applicants to a dark candlelit room was part of ThurtenE’s admissions process, but Calvin and Adrian would get there the second time they would apply to be a part of the honorary. The first time they would be flat out rejected, beginning the fight that would include a lawsuit and backlash from their peers.
Earlier in her junior year, Calvin decided it was time to take action, and she reached out to friends from Lock & Chain, as well as to those in her courses, hoping to get others involved in her quest to break down ThurtenE Honorary’s gender barriers.
That time, the pair—along with Shanna Shulman, another woman—were immediately rejected from ThurtenE. Due to student complaint, the honorary announced that it would form a committee with the then-all women’s junior honor society Chimes to consider going co-ed.
But for Adrian and Calvin, a committee wasn’t enough.
The two obtained pro-bono legal counsel from Washington University alumna Lynette Petruska, who threatened ThurtenE with a restraining order that would have prevented the group from carrying on further carnival proceedings. It was due to this threat that ThurtenE agreed to reconsider women in its admissions process. Still, in January of 1991, the women filed civil lawsuits against the University and each individual member of ThurtenE, citing Title IX.
The University, however, remained silent—abdicating itself of responsibility for insuring ThurtenE complied with law, while continuing to provide the organization with significant funding.
“I can’t say [the official administrative stance] was supportive of us by a long shot,” Calvin says. “In fact, the initial response was basically to raise their hands and say, ‘Yeah, not our responsibility.’”
It was not only the University who reacted negatively to the women’s actions. Adrian recalls blowback from some friends, especially those in her sorority.
She had joined a sorority, Alpha Phi, as a first semester freshman and had contributed to the sorority’s facade. Chatter surrounding the group’s facade went on throughout the year, and Alpha Phi had won Greek life’s biggest prize in both 1989 and 1990—the Stanley Cup-esque Burmeister cup, a towering trophy awarded for the best overall carnival participation at each ThurtenE Carnival.
“[The cup] was a really big thing, so [there was] the sense that I was not only putting the carnival in jeopardy by slowing down the process by which they recruited people to the carnival but that the people involved in ThurtenE—from the [cup namesake James] Burmeister gentleman himself to the men of ThurtenE—having animosity toward me and hypothetically toward my sorority and that we might not win as a result of that,” she remembers. “And I was really turned off by that.”
The women received support, too, in the form of encouraging words from friends and pieces published in Student Life. Student Union also passed a resolution encouraging all student groups to go co-ed.
But the opposition—from past and present members of the honorary to those worried about the potential delay of preparations for a Wash. U. institution—was strong. So strong, in fact, that Calvin was the victim of a graffiti chalk attack.
On the walls outside of the Women’s Building, someone had written a series of messages, including “12 + 1 = No Calvin,” “Give it up, B—-” and Calvin’s initials with a ‘X’ dashed through them.
“We had people who didn’t know us judging us, judging our actions. The people who wrote the graffiti on the Women’s Building about me calling me a b—-—they didn’t know me,” she says. “I think a life lesson for me that came out of the experience is you have to be pretty thick skinned to do something like this.”
While sentiment toward the pair’s lawsuit was mixed, in the expedited application process by ThurtenE, the first woman had finally been admitted to the honor society.
Rather than admit Calvin or Adrian, however, ThurtenE selected Suzane Kotler, another woman in the class of 1992 who had friends in the honorary, as its lone woman, and the two halted their lawsuit, though not fully satisfied with a sole woman among 12 men. While the pair had not been admitted to ThurtenE, they had accomplished no small feat.
They had ended gender segregation within an 84-year-old campus institution. They had sparked campus-wide debate about that institution in the process. They had forced the other junior honorary, Chimes, to also go co-ed. And, as an unintended byproduct of their actions, they had become best friends.
“We knew each other before this, and we were friends,” Adrian explains. “But one of the big things that came out of it is we just became very close friends, and we’re still very close friends to this day. I rely on Heather for lots of different kinds of things in life.”
“That’s mutual,” Calvin agrees. “We spent so much time together—and doing something we were the only two people doing.”
The entire process was over within a few months, but those few months had significantly shaped the women’s junior year. They had spent hours and hours working with their lawyer, conducting interviews for various newspapers and radio shows, knocking on doors to serve each of the 13 men with papers—all while leading the regular lives of college juniors.
“At the time there were these maroon Washington University planners—academic calendars, they were called,” Calvin recollects. “Throughout that I can see these dates and times of things Bonnie and I were doing—meeting with the attorney and whatever. And peppered around that frame are things like job interviews, trying to figure out what I was doing for the summer, final exams.”
The two women were also admitted to the senior honorary Mortar Board, co-ed since the 1970s—and Adrian would serve as president.
In their minds, however, Mortar Board and Lock & Chain weren’t equivalent to ThurtenE. Neither was Chimes, whose main function at the time was putting out a phonebook.
“Those three honor societies were just normal honor societies. They did a little something. They made a shirt; they sold a shirt. They did their various activities; they brought together leaders from a lot of different parts of campus and created important and lasting relationships, but they weren’t ThurtenE. There was nothing like ThurtenE,” Adrian says.
Even though the pair hadn’t gotten to run the carnival, they’d gained valuable life experience: They’d learned how to interact with the media, how to be plaintiffs in a lawsuit and how to organize a complex project.
“I suppose along the way of the process of what we were doing, we got to experience some of the same project management challenges and learning opportunities that we would have had we been developing the carnival,” Adrian admits. “We just did it on our own, in a very compressed period of time.”
Now, the two will return to Washington University for their 25th college reunion, which aligns with the carnival they challenged all those years ago.
“I think another indicator of how significant and embedded ThurtenE is in the fabric of the University is the very fact that reunions are held in conjunction with ThurtenE Carnival,” Calvin says. “It was very much an institution, and institutionally supported, and clearly, it still is if they’re linking reunions to it.”
While Adrian faced opposition from members of her sorority back in the day, she says hostilities haven’t lasted, and she now plans to meet up with some of them at her class’ reunion.
Both Adrian and Calvin proudly note that ThurtenE honorary today is about half women and agree that strides have been taken toward increased gender equality, both at Wash. U. and on other campuses. Still, they say there is work to be done, especially regarding sexual assault on campuses.
Today, Adrian works at the University of Colorado Hospital in Denver, while Calvin works at the Museum of Science in Boston.
Calvin jokes that her job is a bit like running a carnival—“We have 1.4 million visitors, we do ticketing, we have corporate sponsorship, we have rides”—and wonders whether acceptance to ThurtenE would have helped prepare her for her job.
Looking back 25 years later, Adrian and Calvin both say nostalgia is starting to sink in. Calvin says that she regrets not documenting the experience better and that she didn’t take more time to reflect on the enormity of what they’d done.
Challenging a then-80-plus year old campus institution still sticks out as one of the most impactful things either women has done.
“In terms of things I’ve done in life, it’s one of the things I feel really proud of having done. It was hard, but it was the right thing to do,” Calvin says.
Click here for a timeline of events relating to the integration of ThurtenE Honorary.