The issue of inadequate health services at a college that had served exclusively male students for 165 years became apparent when women began matriculating in fully coeducational classes starting in 1971. The women found that the infirmary was not ready for them and its shortcomings were only addressed after years of student discontent.
“They had no concept of female care,” said Christa Cornell ’75, a member of the first four-year coeducational class, in a phone interview with the Orient.
Patricia “Barney” Geller ’75 was also frustrated with the level of care provided.
“I ended up flying home...for [what I found out was] a yeast infection,” said Geller in a phone interview with the Orient. “It was absurd.”
Administrators of the College had been aware that Health Services needed to accommodate women at the advent of coeducation but did not anticipate the specific needs of women.
A 1970 plan presented to the Governing Boards entitled “Coeducation: A Proposal for Implementation” was a follow-up to the Pierce Report of 1969, the document that marked a serious shift in the College’s attitudes toward education. The plan, written by Chairman of the Committee on Coeducation Edward J. Geary, suggested few structural changes for health care for the first two years of coeducational classes.
“It is expected that there would not be more than one or two female in-patients at any one time and that it would be far less expensive to put them into one of the local hospitals than to use the third floor of the infirmary, with a full complement of nurses,” wrote Geary.
A November 9, 1970 report to the staff from Dean of Students Paul Nyhus emphasized a need for Counseling Services to address “the problems they encounter in relation to dating, contraceptives, abortions, etc.” Nyhus continued, “It would appear that there is more traffic in this area than can be handled by one woman faculty member as an addition to a full-time teaching load.”
However, it would be several years until Bowdoin addressed these problems.
Women on campus were confused about the availability of birth control through the infirmary, according to a December 3, 1971 Orient story reported by Jo Dondis, an exchange student from Wellesley College.
“There isn’t a College policy on birth control,” said Associate College Physician John Anderson—one of two physicians at the time, both of whom had attended Bowdoin as students—to the Orient, adding that although it was not illegal for the infirmary to give prescriptions, he had some reservations about prescribing it. He said the infirmary referred most women seeking birth control to local gynecologists.
“[They] really weren’t terribly comfortable with that female stuff,” said Celeste Johnson ’75 in a phone interview with the Orient. “So the school made the decision to send us to the gynecologist in town.”
Later that academic year, in February, female students had a meeting about coeducation organized by Assistant Director of Admissions Dick Mersereau and Miranda Spivack, an exchange student from Sarah Lawrence College. Women voiced complaints about the infirmary and the relegation of women to the third floor. Nyhus responded to the complaints at the meeting.
“Concerning the use of the infirmary, it is run by the doctors,” said Nyhus. “In this case the coeds should talk directly to the doctors.”
The Ad Hoc Committee on Coeducation in 1972 reported that the infirmary and Counseling Services were: “inadequate and not what the women ... expected to be provided this year.”
“The infirmary problem seems most critical. Apparently women students are not able to obtain even routine examinations of a gynecological sort,” continued the Ad Hoc Committee’s report.
For the short-term, the College had decided to pay for women’s referrals instead of making changes at the infirmary.
On May 15, 1992, the end of the first year with a full coeducational class, Spivack wrote a letter on May 15, 1972 to Dean of the College LeRoy Greason lamenting the situation of women at the College, mentioning the fact that the infirmary was not friendly to women and that there was only one counselor on staff.
“Your concern about Counseling and Health Services are also shared by others,” wrote Greason in a May 19 response letter. “Next year the policy of the infirmary will be modified, and a part-time woman counselor will be added to the counseling staff.”
Then, that fall, Jane Boyden, a part-time counselor, was added to staff, as reported in an October 9, 1972 Orient article.
The 1972-73 academic year also saw the creation of an educational series on sex, an apparent continuation of lectures from the previous year that had been received poorly by students. An editorial cartoon in the Orient (from September 4, 1971) mocked the previous year’s lecturer on family planning, depicting him as a sly rabbit smoking a cigarette and surrounded by baby rabbits.
The first lecture in the series (given by the same physician mocked in the Orient the past year) was about contraception. Other lectures included a lesson about pregnancy, an open question and answer session and a panel with religious leaders and one feminist professor discussing morality and birth control.
Orient reporter Evelyn Miller ’73 described the pregnancy film shown during one lecture as “a piece of propaganda concerned with convincing womankind of the joys of pregnancy and childbirth” in an October 9, 1972 article.
Over time, the infirmary became more clear about the services it provided.
An October 12, 1973 Orient article by Ellyn Bloomfield ’76 titled “Infirmary Adjusts to Coeds; Ups Gynecological Services” said that women could receive routine gynecological examinations at the infirmary, as well as venereal disease examinations and birth control prescriptions. The infirmary could also be used to give referrals to local gynecologists.
In May 1974, a group of women wrote a proposal on gynecological services asking for a part-time gynecologist.
“The infirmary is used to handling male-oriented medical problems ... There have been cases of misdiagnosis of vaginal infection and other related complications ... Many students sense that the infirmary is reluctant deal particularly with birth control and related concerns because of their own traditional or moral values,” they wrote.
“Most coeducational colleges recognize the need for such care not only for birth control but also for matters of general health. Due to the lack of this service the Bowdoin Women have created an unnecessary burden on the Brunswick Family Planning Center.
This should not be regarded as an extra service, but rather as a normal health facility provided by a coeducational college,” continued the proposal.
A letter from “Concerned Black Women” supported the proposal.
“If Bowdoin is to continue admitting women to this institution the necessary changes in the medical facilities must be provided to meet the growing demands,” they wrote.
As the Bowdoin Women’s Association (BWA)—started by Geller and Liza Graves ’76 in 1972 to build community and draw attention to women’s issues—gained a larger presence on campus, it created programming to fill in the gaps of what the College provided.
BWA organized a birth control panel, a breast cancer self-examination lesson, a talk about birth control as a shared responsibility, a speaker about sexual assault and a women’s career day in the 1975-76 school year.
Finally, for the 1977-78 school year, six years after the first coed class matriculated, Bowdoin hired a part-time nurse practitioner, Mary Lape, to give gynecological exams and advice on birth control. This was more than two years after the Bowdoin women’s group initially sent a formal request for a gynecologist.
Now, the health center is staffed by mostly women and offers routine gynecological exams, STI screening, vaginitis diagnosis and treatment, counseling and prescriptions for birth control, emergency contraception, pregnancy counseling and evaluation of other gynecological problems. The counseling staff now includes both men and women, several of whom draw from feminist psychology in their practice.
“It took some time for the College to get those things in order,” said Interim Dean for Academic Affairs Jen Scanlon, whose 2011 gender and women’s studies class created a website to commemorate 40 years of coeducation.
“We had to fight for practically everything,” said Geller.
Isabelle Hallé ’20 contributed to this report.