Dr. Patricia “Barney” Geller ’75, one of 65 women who matriculated at Bowdoin as part of the first four-year coeducational class in the fall of 1971, said she was a “hippie” who went to Bowdoin because she heard it was “really liberal back then.” Geller recalls that Bowdoin felt like a “golf club for boys” when she first set foot on campus.
“I was so not a fraternity kind of girl,” she said in a phone interview with the Orient. However, by the spring of her first year, Geller would end up becoming one of the first women in the U.S. to become chapter president of a nationally affiliated fraternity.
According to Geller, many of the nine fraternities at Bowdoin offered women the status of “eating members,” which meant that they could eat in the fraternity, but could not attend meetings or vote. Geller moved her dining plan over to Psi Upsilon (now Quinby House), a fraternity that she found to be especially welcoming to women.
Psi Upsilon was unique at Bowdoin in its treatment of women—it was the only national fraternity that allowed women to pledge and be initiated. In the 70s, women’s status at fraternities was ambiguous, and the Bowdoin Women’s Association, which Geller co-founded, published yearly guides for women explaining in detail what type of membership was possible at each fraternity.
According to a 1996 report by David Simmons ’96 on the history of fraternities at Bowdoin, fraternities could be divided into three categories by the late 70s: local fraternities that granted women full membership (housing, voting, office), national fraternities that gave women these rights in the local chapters but not in the national organizations and national fraternities where women were only social members.
Geller began working in the fraternity’s kitchen washing dishes as a campus job. From there, she became a social member and then a full voting member. She moved into the house and was the only woman living there at the time.
Professor of Government Allen Springer wrote in his September 1984 report on the status of women in Bowdoin fraternities that the decisions to allow women as members of some of the fraternities during the initial years of coeducation were met with some alumni resistance.
However, others were more supportive—often for reasons other than social inclusivity.
“Some [houses], already facing financial pressures caused by declining fraternity populations and escalating costs, saw women as a needed source of new members,” wrote Springer.
While election proceedings were happening during the spring of her first year, Geller was working downstairs in the kitchen.
“Someone came down and said ‘forget the dishes, we just elected you president,’” said Geller.
“I think they kind of wanted to make a statement: we want a full-time woman, we want to show the school that we welcome women and support women’s leadership,” she said. “So I went upstairs and led the meeting.”
“The next day two men were coming from the national chapter. I think they were freaked out, but they went with it,” she said. “I’m sure there were phone calls to their attorneys, but they went with it.”
Geller ended up serving two terms as president of Psi Upsilon, where she made lifelong friends.
“I felt that I had a home away from home within a larger school,” she said. “There used to be houses full of people and dogs, you had dinner with 60 to 90 people who all knew you ... and there was a sense of coming home.”
She said that other fraternity members referred to her as “Mama Psi U,” due to her tendency to call the men out for making messes and being crude.
“They could be piggish, but I could call them on it,” said Geller.
As president, Geller spearheaded some changes in the fraternity, including making rush more inclusive for women and changing the fraternity’s hazing rituals.
“I’d like to say we changed the world, but we didn’t,” said Geller, who had a passion for social justice before college and while at Bowdoin. “We were a fraternity.”
Geller stressed the heavy drinking and party culture of Bowdoin during this era.
“It was the Wild West," she said.
Geller said sexism existed within the fraternity and in Bowdoin as a whole and manifested in a variety of ways.
In August of 1984, 48 percent of fraternity members and 37 percent of independent students said they felt there are fraternities “where women students are unwelcome, and where women students feel uncomfortable,” according to a report on the status of women in fraternities submitted to the Student Life Committee by Dean of Students Roberta Tansman Jacobs and Associate Professor of Sociology Liliane Floge.
“In terms of harassment, the piece you don’t get there is that there was no language for that then,” said Geller. “There was tons of date rape but they didn’t even call it date rape.”
More than ten years after Geller graduated, the 1986 New England Association of Schools and Colleges’ Accreditation Report for Bowdoin wrote that “the widespread feeling among women students [is] that much of the problem of reported student-student sexual harassment is attributable to activities which take place in some of the fraternities.”
The report continued: “Even—if possible—more worrisome, is the suggestion that much of what happens—including allegations of general harassment, victimization and acquaintance rape—is not reported, since it involves as victims women who are members of the fraternities and whose sense of loyalty to the group makes it difficult for them to reveal to outsiders problems they consider internal.”
“Even when you’re with the people you love, they’re also capable of ... being disrespectful,” said Geller.
In 1987, President Leroy Greason gave a talk to members of fraternities in the Chapel in which he said that the fraternity system “is a system that guarantees women second class citizenship in those fraternities whose national organizations do not recognize women.”
Then, in an April 1988 report (known as the Henry Report) by the Committee to Review Fraternities, Bowdoin recommended that fraternities should be coeducational by 1991.
“Almost all reported cases of alcohol abuse and sexual harassment occur in fraternity houses,” reported the 150 page document, which had 53 recommendations on improving fraternities.
However, the Henry Report did not specify any action to be taken against houses that failed to admit both men and women by 1991.
Finally, in February of 1992, President Robert Edwards proposed measures to expel any student who refused to comply with the coeducation policy in all fraternities, aiming to close the “loophole” of the Henry Report.
Although many students protested these measures, citing a violation of their freedom of assembly and an overly “politically correct” campus atmosphere, the Orient’s Editorial Board endorsed the abolition of single-sex Greek houses in a February 14 editorial, writing that “single-sex fraternities nonetheless represent an institutionalization of discrimination on the basis of sex. This is one of their defining characteristics.”
It was only May 27 of that year, after an initial rejection of Edwards’ full proposal in March, when the Governing boards finalized a permanent ban on single-sex fraternities—they would have to halt further initiations by July 1, 1992 and disband by July 1, 1993.
“The final decision was in no way easily reached or broadly supported,” wrote Michael Golden ’94 in a September 11, 1992 Orient article.
In fact, President Edwards’ administration received many passionate letters from former students and parents in response to this ban on single-sex fraternities. Four wrote in favor of the policy, 78 wrote against it and six wrote asking for more information.
Six months after being established through a report issued by Bowdoin’s Reaccreditation Committee on Residential Life, the Commission on Residential Life released a report in March 1997 that the Board of Trustees approved unanimously. In this report, the Commission recommended phasing out all fraternities during the next four years, and also envisioned the creation of a house system and some construction projects and renovations.
“People had tears in their eyes when we voted on this Saturday morning, not because they didn’t think it was the right thing, but because of the recognition that Bowdoin had outgrown these institutions was a substantially sad one,” said George Calvin Mackenzie ’67 as reported in a March 7, 1997 Orient article by Zak Burke ’98.
“I had so much more fun there ... something really got lost when they got rid of fraternities,” said Geller, whose son Sam Packard graduated in 2012. “What I don’t think my son got that I had was that sense of community.”
“I’m a feminist,” said Geller. “I don’t like ... the overdrinking or the abuse of women—but that stuff still goes on.”
“When they went in there and cleaned up all the houses, they made it like it’s another dormitory,” said Geller. “Bowdoin has yet to figure out a way to recreate that sense of community.”
This is the second article in a series about the experiences of women from the first four-year coed graduating class at the College. The next article will be about the Bowdoin infirmary and healthcare for women.
Editor's note, October 29, 4:15 p.m.: This article has been updated to remove an unconfirmed statement about a former College President.