The women coming into Bowdoin in the Class of 1975, the first coeducational four-year graduating class, were met with sparse representation in the classroom with respect to their peers, faculty and studies.

“In my Biology 101 class, there were only two women [out of] 50 or 60 kids,” said Amy Pearlmutter ’75 in a phone interview with the Orient. 

“The first few years, it felt like both the five or six women faculty members and the women students were extremely visible—a sort of fishbowl effect,” said Helen Cafferty, a German professor who arrived at Bowdoin in 1972. 

By the time the first coeducational class graduated, there were nine female faculty members at the College.

“All of my professors [except one] were male,” said Patricia Pope ’75, who transferred to Bowdoin from Smith College. “But at Smith College, all of my professors were male too. I thought that was ironic.”

Though the Twelve College Exchange brought women into Bowdoin’s classrooms in previous years, the male-dominated faculty reacted in a variety of ways to the influx of a class that contained 65 women.

“A few of the professors were a bit leary,” said Debrah Burk ’75 in a phone interview with the Orient.

“I had a professor where all of the examples were always ‘he’ and ‘him’” said Christa Cornell ’75. 

However, Cornell said that she also had positive experiences with professors. 

“Professor [John] Rensenbrink was one of my favorite professors, in government, and I think he really opened my eyes in a lot of ways to how the system was sexist,” she said. “He was very, very open to changing the system and how to get rights for all.”

Several women of the Class of 1975 interviewed for this series said that the classics department was less welcoming to women than it was to men.

A March 9, 1972 letter to the editor in the Orient from football player Jed Lyons ’74 expressed his perspective: “First they demand their own field hockey team, then they insist upon private locker rooms, equal representation on the Student Council and admission to Classics 12 [...] Where will it end?”

The ways that Bowdoin institutionally prepared for women in the classroom  focused on making few changes until the administration could see what students needed, like other aspects of the coeducation process.

An August 1970 Memorandum from the Ad Hoc Committee on Coeducation to President Roger Howell wrote “the goal should be no net increase in faculty,” and recommended that “some departments will have to shrink in order that others (presumably those whose course offerings are most relevant to women undergraduates) are permitted to expand.” It also recommended that the faculty’s Committee on Curriculum and Educational Policy (CEP) closely monitor the curriculum.

In August of 1976, a Special Committee on Coeducation released a report that there were no large shifts in specific department enrollment due to the addition of women.

“You know, it was an interesting time in terms of integrating into the academic side of it,” said Helen MacNeil ’75 in a phone interview with the Orient. “We had a lot of professors who were really bending over backward to make sure we got whatever support we needed, and there were some feminist female professors who were adamant that we all excel far beyond the guys ... in some cases I thought, like ‘Really? Can’t we just do our best?’”  

Ultimately, the largest change that would occur to the curriculum directly related to coeducation was the creation of a women’s studies program, and later, major. This was also reflected in a national trend of the recognizing of the new field of women’s studies. 

The first women’s studies program that received official approval was at San Diego State University in 1970. The field rapidly expanded in the 70s and 80s. By 1987, Amherst, Hamilton, Trinity, Wesleyan and Williams—colleges that, like Bowdoin, were historically all-male and became coeducational in the 60s or 70s—all had either a major, interdisciplinary major or minor in women’s studies. 

Since 1974, Bowdoin had offered women’s studies courses on an “ad hoc” basis, according to a Women’s Studies Program Committee report published in 1987. These were classes offered in other departments that explored themes of gender and feminist theory.

“On campus there was this feeling that we needed to have some women’s studies courses and women’s focused courses in the curriculum even though we didn’t have a program yet,” said Cafferty, who was one of the first professors to teach an official women’s studies class at Bowdoin—a class on German literature with a focus on women.

In 1980, the Women’s Resource Center (WRC) was proposed by the Bowdoin Women’s Association and Women’s Resource Center Committee. Its creation was tied to a desire for an academic study of women.

The WRC proposal in the December 22 Orient said: “We feel it is essential for all members of the Bowdoin Community—students, staff and faculty—to have access to the existing and growing body of diverse and exciting scholarly and creative work by and about women ... We feel that the proposed Resource Center will be a place for the Bowdoin community to develop a critical approach and explore meta-traditional ways of learning, thinking and knowing.”

A women’s studies program was not formally created until 1988 despite a demonstrated institutional desire for a program as expressed in the 1981 Report of President Willard Enteman’s Commission on the Status of Women.

This use of the Women’s Resource Center as a place of scholarly learning and seminars carried on through the creation of a women’s studies major in 1993.

The 1987 proposal to the CEP by the Women’s Studies Program Committee, chaired by Cafferty, asked for a formal women’s studies program and a minor in the department, and urged the WRC to “institute faculty seminars and workshops to aid faculty in developing women’s studies courses and in redesigning their courses to include a gender component.”

Part of the 1990 proposal for a major in women’s studies stated “a Women’s Studies major will confirm Bowdoin’s commitment to coeducation.”

Over time, the name of the major has changed. In 2005, the department became the Department of Gender and Women’s studies, and last year it became Gender Sexuality and Women’s studies, to encompass the former Department of Gay and Lesbian Studies.

Overall, the academic study of women and gender has become more centralized into the department and less focused in the WRC. In 2009, the women’s studies faculty members moved their offices from the WRC to the Boody-Johnson house.

Cafferty said in the early years of coeducation at Bowdoin, “women faculty [were] peeking out in the wilderness.” 

“There’s a sense of normality now, at least from my ancient perspective, compared to the beginning,” she said. 

Editor's Note, December 11, 3:29 p.m.: The original version of this article incorrectly identified the professor in the photographs. This article has been updated to reflect that the professor is Matilda Riley, not Melinda Riley.