Dr. Hannah Croasdale, Dartmouth’s First Tenured Woman Faculty Member: ‘Tell Them to Be Quiet and Wait’

Dr. Hannah Croasdale in her office. (Courtesy of the Hannah Croasdale manuscript collection)

In 1935, Dr. Hannah Croasdale started a new job at Dartmouth College—before the college accepted women. Despite possessing a Ph.D., Croasdale started as a lab technician. To women of that generation, the whole world was a boys’ club. And in that world, Croasdale made relatively few waves, a painfully tolerant and whip-smart scientist studying algae.

She finally received tenure—the first woman to do so at Dartmouth—almost three decades later. At times, she received just 60 percent of her male peers’ salaries. She also was the first female volunteer firefighter in the small town of Hanover, N.H., the author of countless publications and a mentor to generations of future scientists.

I came to know Croasdale’s story my first summer at Dartmouth, through a fellowship in the college archives. I sat in the library, rifling through a box of Christmas cards, receipts, memos, photos—a whole life left behind on paper—trying to figure out what students making sense of the college’s past should think and feel.

I was haunted by her story, and I saw signs of her everywhere. Croasdale’s office—the one she was finally granted after years shared desks and working out of closets—was in the basement of a building I was familiar with. The dim office was directly across from the lecture hall where I attended my first-ever Dartmouth class. I had walked that hallway every day and had no idea.

And that’s what struck me most: As 21st century students, we have not had to consider those who came before us if we did not want to. I was never asked to be grateful for admission to a school like Dartmouth, even though I was in the first 50 classes of women.

I never met Dr. Hannah Croasdale; she died a week before I was born. I knew her through her former students, her family and the stories I heard of what the college must have been like then. My senior year, I turned these stories into the beginnings of a novel. Creating something new from this complicated past allowed me to meditate on the people who came before me: to show my gratitude, and my anger; to contemplate myself as an inheritor of this history.

The title of the book, Tell Them to Be Quiet and Wait, is also Dr. Croasdale’s. In the only recording I’ve ever seen of her, an interview, she was asked what it meant to her that she paved the way for all of the women who came after her. She looked confused, and then with a laugh said, “I never did anything for those women except tell them to be quiet and wait.”

The following is an excerpt from Tell Them to Be Quiet and Wait, a novel inspired by the true story of Dr. Hannah Croasdale.

The year is 1935. Dr. Beverly Conner is overqualified for her job—and the only woman in sight.

“I’m Rachel Poole.”

“Beverly Conner.”

“It’s a pleasure, Bev. Can I call you Bev? You don’t seem like a particularly formal girl.”

Beverly blushed. “Not formal, no. I used to think that they beat all formality out of anyone wanting to be a scientist,” she rambled, “y’know, because you have to get your hands dirty. But here it seems they’re the most formal of all them. The scientists, I mean, they’re the most buttoned-up of everyone here.” She glanced up from her feet and saw that this woman was still laughing. She was embarrassed, but even if it was because she was stumbling over her own words, Beverly wanted to keep Rachel laughing. She decided she’d like it very much if Rachel never stopped laughing.

“So, to answer your question. Not formal.”

“You did just chase me across the quad.” Her voice was flat, teasing.

“Oh, er, I got a little excited. I don’t see many women around here.”

“I don’t suppose you do.” Rachel looked around. Men in sweaters roved in bands, like hyenas or lions or something else with sharp canines. “How have you been finding it? Marsden, I mean. Are they too much for you?” She lowered her voice. “I couldn’t believe it when I moved in and someone asked me to join the Faculty Wives Women’s Club for dinner. They say they look out for the librarians and all. I mean, Faculty Wives Club? I had never heard of such a thing.”

The Faculty Wives had never extended such an offer to Beverly.

“It’s been… an adjustment. I came from Woods Hole Marine Lab, where there were as many women as there were men, and everybody’d get in the water just the same.” For a moment, she could almost taste the salt in the air. “So I’m still getting used to only seeing boys in the hallway.”

“Do you miss it?”

“Every day,” Beverly said without hesitation. “But it was time to move on, I think.” She felt like she was trying to convince herself more than Rachel, who didn’t seem convinced.

A pack of seniors was chasing a freshman across the quad. After such a short time, Beverly already recognized the infraction. The freshman was not wearing his beanie, the knit cap that identified him as a member of the freshman class. The women’s gaze followed the boys in their gleeful, terrifying brawl.

“It’s been a bit of a shock for me, too. And I’m still staying with the woman who hired me, my sister-in-law’s cousin. I’m sure flying the next will be a real treat.”

“Throwing you into the deep end, are we?”

Rachel laughed and something in Beverly’s chest began to glow. “Well, I’d be happy to hear any more advice you have, if anything comes to you.”

“Gladly. I suppose I’ll have to figure some things out for myself, then, first.”

“You could start by telling me where to look for an apartment. Not sure what parts of town are affordable, or willing to rent to a single girl.”

The seniors caught the freshman and tackled him to the ground. The young one yelped as his shoulders were pinned back in the grass. Even from this far away, the hollow thump in the grass made them both wince. Freshmen scurried by, straightening their own beanies and avoiding eye contact with the red-cheeked seniors. His head his the grass repeatedly, his protests echoing across the field and growing quieter. It was worse, somehow, when he stopped screaming. This wasn’t like anything Beverly had seen between brothers. It was something else entirely.

She glanced for a moment at Rachel. Her glassy eyes, wide with some triggered maternal rage, were fixed on the boys. “Christ Almighty,” Rachel whispered to herself.

Beverly turned back around in time to see the seniors wander off, the only memory of the incident the verdant stains on their knees. The freshman in the grass still hadn’t moved, and the others were already striding away from him.

She smoothed her cardigan as they ripped their eyes from the carnage. “As it so happens,” Beverly said, “I need a roommate.”

Excerpt edited for length and clarity.

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Caroline Cook is a communications strategist based in San Francisco. Tell Them to Be Quiet and Wait is her first novel. Her work has also appeared in McSweeney's and Lady Science Magazine. Connect with her on Twitter or Instagram at @caroline_e_cook.