One afternoon in Sills Hall in the early 1980s, a female administrator walked into the office of communications professor Barbara Kaster, one the first women to be appointed to a full professorship at the College. The administrator asked if Kaster had noticed that the Kotex machine in the women's restroom was empty, and said that she had called Facilities Management to refill the machine two weeks earlier. She asked if Kaster would call facilities to ask them again to refill the machine. Kaster called, and the next day the Kotex machine was found ripped from the wall in the women's bathroom.
Furious, Kaster called then-President A. LeRoy Greason to address the situation. Greason arrived at Kaster's office in minutes, and two facilities staff members lost their jobs as a result of the incident.
Kaster's story is an example of just one of many battles that female students and faculty alike had to fight as the College made the transition to become a fully coeducational institution. Today marks the launch of a website dedicated to telling these stories, the product of William R. Kenan Professor of Gender and Women's Studies Jen Scanlon's class Forty Years: The History of Women at Bowdoin.
The site includes audio of 12 one-on-one interviews with current and former Bowdoin students, faculty, and staff about their experiences with coeducation, as well as five focus group interviews, and 66 sets of documents covering a wide range of topics. The project takes an in-depth look at specific areas of the College's history pertaining to coeducation, ranging from women's participation in extracurriculars and athletics to the development of the Women's Resource Center.
The project is the result of a collaborative effort on the part of Scanlon and her students, who learned about the methodology of collecting oral history as they set about chronicling an as-yet largely undocumented area of the College's past.
"We're essentially writing [the history]" said Stephanie Bond '13, a student in the class.
The students' research has captured personal narratives that might otherwise have been lost to future generations of students. Despite the progress the class has made, they recognize that many elements of the history of women at the College still remain to be chronicled, such as the history of the College's only sorority Alpha Beta Phi, or the experiences of the two women professors hired to teach the all-male student body during World War II.
"The history of women at Bowdoin is not just 40 years long, it's much longer than that," said Skyler Walley '12, another student in the class. "From the get go, Professor Scanlon was very clear about the fact that there was no way that we can tackle this history" in its entirety. "We are definitely leaving a lot of stories unheard."
The College admitted its first class of women in 1971, when 66 women matriculated as first years in addition to 29 junior transfer students and 39 women from the Twelve-College Exchange Program. The full admission of women came after a report by the Study Committee on Underclass Campus Environment was presented to the president and trustees of the College in May 1969, recommending that Bowdoin become a coeducational institution.
The report, known as the Pierce Report—the full text of which is available on the website—states, "we have concluded that Bowdoin should abandon its long tradition as an all-male college...Bowdoin can no longer ignore the positive advantages to be derived from including women in the academic community. Nor can we afford to be complacent about our ability to continue to attract male students of high quality when in five years almost all of our principal competitors will have admitted women."
One of the primary reasons the College decided to become coeducational was its pressing need to augment the size of the student body in order to remain a competitive academic institution with a wide range of course offerings. Admitting women brought a new source of revenue to the College, and spurred the development of the arts and humanities.
"All members of the Committee recognize the practical economics which will shape the decision," states the Pierce Report. The committee also hoped "the addition of women would undoubtedly have a 'civilizing' effect" on the male students and fraternity system.
In many ways, the final years of the all-male college continued the conservative legacy of the '50s and '60s. For example, in a March 2, 1965 interview with President Coles on WBOR titled "Should Bowdoin Go Co-Ed?" the interviewer asks Coles to comment on the fact that "Bowdoin is often called a monastery, because we supposedly have a lack of girls and an oversupply of chapel."
"I don't think Bowdoin is a monastery by any means," Coles replied. "As I walk about the College, particularly on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday, it has many appearances which are far from monastic."
It is also notable that, 31 years before the College finally disbanded the last of its fraternities, the Pierce Report recognizes that "there is an increasing disaffection from fraternities among Bowdoin undergraduates."
The arrival of women threw the existence of single-sex institutions at the College into question, and marked its departure from the male-oriented legacy of the preceding decades.
Al Fuchs, professor emeritus of psychology and former dean of the faculty, said that coeducation "was controversial, but once alumni began to realize they could send their daughters as well as their sons, some of the controversy receded."
Nevertheless, the first women to integrate into the Bowdoin community—students and faculty alike—were confronted with obstacles unthinkable to today's students.
THE EARLY DAYS:
"We stood out like sore thumbs," said Kathleen Waldron, former assistant professor of Latin American studies and current president of William Patterson University. Waldron taught at the College from 1977 to 1981, and recalled that during her time here, women were vastly outnumbered by men in the faculty. "There were 100 full-time faculty at Bowdoin when I started. And I think there were six or seven women faculty."
When women first arrived at the College, much of the infrastructure needed to accommodate them simply wasn't in place, and the burden of ensuring that female students were having their needs met often fell to female faculty members.
In an interview with Walley that is available on the site, Professor Emeritus Helen Cafferty—who first arrived at Bowdoin as an assistant professor of German in 1971—said, "we were put on a committee, but rather than talking about fairness to women, behaviors in the classroom, making women feel comfortable on campus, we were asked to think about what kind of hair dryers should be in the locker rooms and things like that."
Kaster, who arrived as a professor in 1973, said she took it as her job "to make sure that women students were treated fairly."
One area in which Kaster said discrimination was evident was the athletic department. Another professor recalled that women were at one point given discarded men's uniforms to wear. "They didn't want to discriminate, it just didn't occur to them that they were doing it," said Kaster.
Saddie Smith '75, a member of the first class of women and the first African American female student to matriculate, said in an interview on the site that whenever she would go to the health center with any sort of ailment, "the first question was 'are you pregnant?'"
"But it was the time," said Smith.
In these ways and many others, the Bowdoin of 1971 is a world away from the Bowdoin of today. Now, the gender balance of the faculty is about 50-50 across most departments, according to Dean of Academic Affairs Cristle Collins Judd. During her term as dean, Judd has made an effort to make Bowdoin more hospitable for junior women faculty with a revised parental leave policy that makes it possible for male and female faculty alike to "stop the tenure clock" without being penalized.
"Even in the 10 years that I've been here, there has been a lot of positive movement," said Associate Professor of Art History Pamela Fletcher '89.
"Changes never occur as rapidly as people want them to occur," said Fuchs in regard to the imbalanced male-female ratio of the faculty in the '70s and '80s. "The limitations were that during that period there was not a lot of faculty turnover."
In her interview on the site, Cafferty said that one of the most daunting things about being a new, female professor at Bowdoin "was the visibility...suddenly, I was a young instructor and so I had some of the professors assume that I was a student many times, because I was in my late 20s and I looked pretty young," she said. "It wasn't mean spirited...Bowdoin was an extremely gracious place then as it is now. People were trying to welcome us as best they could."
Even years later, however, female professors still did not seem to be on universally even footing with their male colleagues.
"The women seemed to be working hard to publish articles, to make a name for themselves," said Danielle Palmer Savoie '91. "It always seemed to me that the female professors were trying to make their way into the fabric of the College, while the men were the fabric."
The work of Scanlon and her students captures the pulse of the College at critical junctures of its evolution into the school we know today. A launch party for the site will be held this evening in Lancaster Lounge at 7 p.m.
"These women were super, super strong," said Bond. "They were going to make it through Bowdoin no matter what. And they did, and they did so well here."
This is the first of two articles on the history of women at Bowdoin. The second installation, dealing with the history of fraternities and sororities at the College, will be published online next week on the Orient Express.