In this month’s column, John Cross ’76 muses on the 40th anniversary of co-education at Bowdoin.
I wrote last October about how the late Susan Jacobson ’71, a senior in her third semester at the College on the 12-College Exchange program in the fall of 1970, petitioned the Bowdoin administration to be admitted as a regular student after the Governing Boards vote in favor of coeducation in September of that year. At the 1971 Commencement, Sue became the first woman to earn an undergraduate degree from Bowdoin, and also the first woman to deliver a Commencement speaking part (“Bowdoin, from Birth, the Nurturer of Men, and Now of Women”).
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the historic event, and also the admission of Bowdoin’s first four-year coeducational class, the Class of 1975. In 2011-12 the College is celebrating these milestones through lectures, special events, and classes. Professor Jennifer Scanlon (Gender and Women’s Studies) is offering a course on 40 years of women at Bowdoin. Using archival resources and interviews, her students are gaining fresh perspectives on how the Bowdoin community arrived at the decision and what coeducation meant for both male and female students, for faculty, staff, and administrators, and for alumni.
It is tempting to consider Bowdoin’s experiment with coeducation in isolation, but in fact a number of liberal arts colleges in the northeast were considering the issue at about the same point in time. What began in 1968 as study-away program among single-sex colleges ““ Bowdoin, Amherst, Connecticut College, Dartmouth, Mount Holyoke, Smith, Vassar, Wesleyan, Wheaton, and Williams ““ became the 12 College Exchange with the inclusion of Trinity and Wellesley a year later. Bowdoin officially became coeducational with the Governing Board vote and the admission of Sue Jacobson as a member of the Class of 1971. Wesleyan University was coeducational until 1909, when it excluded women (leading to the establishment of Connecticut College); it opened its doors to women again in 1969. Vassar amended its constitution to admit men in March of 1969, while Connecticut College followed suit later in that same year. Trinity College admitted women in the fall of 1969, Williams in the fall of 1970, Dartmouth in 1972, and Amherst in 1974. Wheaton’s first coeducational class arrived in the fall of 1988.
In the fall of 1969 eight women arrived on the Bowdoin campus and began their studies. Five had elected to spend the entire year at Bowdoin, while three who spent the fall at Bowdoin were replaced by four women in the spring semester. Three of the 12 pioneers were daughters of alumni. They lived in Haskell House (72 Federal Street), almost as far from campus as the Harriet Beecher Stowe House. The women were the subjects of curiosity and interest for many of the 950 male students on campus, a situation which could be, at turns, welcome, annoying, or exhausting. As one of the women remarked, “The best place to study at Bowdoin is in the ladies’ room in Sills Hall. No one bothers you there!” While the motivations for participating in the exchange program may have varied from individual to individual, the common thread seems to have been the quality of academic instruction and discourse. The Dean’s List for the 1970 fall semester included the names of six of the eight women.
The 12-College Exchange was a two-way street; 18 Bowdoin men signed up to study at women’s colleges for 1969-70, and 20 participated the following year. The insights and experiences of those students no doubt informed subsequent discussions about coeducation at Bowdoin.
Bowdoin officially became coeducational with the Governing Board vote and the admission of Sue Jacobson as a member of the Class of 1971.
A number of exchange students would later transfer to Bowdoin, along with women and men from other colleges and universities. The Class of 1972 counted nine women among its ranks, while the Class of 1973 and the Class of 1974 each had 28. The first four-year cohort of women, in the Class of 1975, numbered 64 at the outset, and grew to 89 over the course of four years through the addition of transfer students. In the fall of 1971, the women of the classes of 1972 to 1975 began to navigate an academic and social world not fully prepared for their arrival. In reviewing applications for admission and transfer, Admissions Director Richard Moll showed an uncanny ability to identify resilience and courage, traits that served the women in the early coeducational classes well as they encountered attitudes that ranged from skepticism to hostility. As was true for Wesleyan, Vassar, Trinity, Connecticut College, Dartmouth, Williams, and Amherst, it took some time for Bowdoin to arrange health care, residential and athletic facilities for women, and put in place appropriate safety and security procedures. The 1970-71 college catalogue listed three women on the faculty: Katherine Sherman Snider (Assistant Professor of Philosophy); Elizabeth Grobe (Lecturer in Mathematics); and Kristina Minister (Instructor in Speech).
To gain a sense of the social and political climate of the times and the pressures within higher education, one need look no further than the May 1970 issue of the Bowdoin Alumnus. The cover story was about the student strike to protest U.S. military actions in Southeast Asia. In addition to a story about the first women to enroll at Bowdoin, other articles discussed the elimination of physical education and foreign language requirements, comprehensive exams, and curriculum distribution requirements. In the five years prior to the enrollment of female exchange students there had been dramatic changes at Bowdoin ““ the advent of the Senior Center program, the end of regular Chapel services, no more Saturday classes, no coat-and-tie requirement for classes, pressure for greater diversity in the student body and the faculty, and the introduction of a grading system of High Honors, Honors, Pass, and Fail. Add to the mix a fraternity system that had evolved a uniquely Bowdoin character of local houses and chapters of national fraternities ““ each of which would respond to coeducation in its own way (exclusion from membership, or social, local, or full membership), and the ingredients were in place for undergraduate experiences that defied simple characterization.
It is especially important for the voices of the women and men who participated in the transition to coeducation to be heard, unfiltered by narratives that smooth rough edges or broad generalizations that sacrifice the detail and richness of individual circumstances. As we seek to understand the significance of coeducation within the context of Bowdoin’s history and within our own lives, it is important that we share our memories, and that we value the experiences and perspectives of others. Throughout this celebration of 40 years of coeducation at Bowdoin I look forward to being an attentive listener, and to re-visiting my own incomplete knowledge of an extraordinary time through the eyes and voices of others.
With Best Wishes,
John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations