Alumnae discuss past and present
Prior to 1971, Bowdoin's student body lacked one of civilization's
major components: women. A far cry from the nearly equal student body
of today, the College's first coed class contained a relatively small
proportion of female students.
Bowdoin's population has come a long way since the 1970's,
as a group of women graduates attested on Oct. 1. Part of the College's
"30 Years of Women at Bowdoin" celebration, a panel-style event
featured Cheryl Ring '76, Linda Tessler '79, Linda Nelson '83, Hillary
Bush '90, Claire Forstie '02, and Professor June Vail.
Tessler, Director of Alumni Career Programs at the College,
served as the panel's mediator and began with some background information
about the coeducation process at Bowdoin.
The concept of integrating women into the College began
with the 1969 publication of the Pierce Report, a document examining fraternities
and campus life. According to Tessler, the report mentioned several "compelling
arguments" for coeducation: that women would be utilized to "make
Bowdoin a more attractive place to teach," would result in "more
humanities and social studies classes" being taken by the student
body, and would employ females' "superior ability to handle social
situations" in increasing professor student interactions.
Finally, the report stated that the addition of women to
Bowdoin would provide a "civilizing influence" for the male
population, a rationale that drew many laughs from the audience.
Tessler acknowledged the dated nature of the College's reasoning,
but pointed out the Pierce Report's significant mention of "[Bowdoin's]
obligations to the other half of the population" as well.
Following Tessler's introduction, the panelists spoke individually
about their Bowdoin experiences, tracing a 30-year evolution of women
Ring was a member of the second co-ed class to graduate
and helped to start the women's swim team. She said that she loved Bowdoin
from the start. "I found it extremely welcoming, even in 1972 when
I first came on campus," she said.
There were about 60 females in her class, and resources
for women were limited. Ring added, "There was nothing in the way
of women's health care at the time, but that soon came."
Nelson, a co-founder of the Women's Resource Center's, studied
at Bowdoin in the politically charged 1970's. With the Iran hostage situation
in the backdrop, Nelson said that the women on campus "...were in
a struggle to be different; to be women with political consciousnesses.
"[We were questioning] what it meant to be here, beyond
being a 'civilizing influence' on the men?" she said. "It wasn't
easy for the women who wanted to make a difference in a period of struggle
According to her, there wasn't much of a discrepancy between
the treatment of men and women on campus. "I didn't see a difference,"
Vail, currently in her thirtieth year of teaching dance
at Bowdoin, came to the College in 1970. The Kent State riots and the
first (and only) student strike at Bowdoin occurred that year. "It
was a time of enormous upheaval," she said.
Despite battles for equal resources, Vail called the 1970's
a "golden age of women at Bowdoin. I look back with great fondness
on it," she said.
The College's addition of buildings specifically geared
toward artistic study "made a very big difference," Vail added.
"They generated attention on campus."
One of the panelists said that her experiences at the College
were less involved in change. Bush called herself a member of Bowdoin's
"lost years," when, according to her, the student body was somewhat
apathetic. "It was a weird time to be here," she said. "I
wouldn't have identified myself as a feminist-not even as a woman. There
was a strong male tradition at the time."
With a broad base of history laid, the discussion turned
to current senior Forstie, who co-chairs the Bowdoin Women's Association.
She offered a view of the contemporary campus and its seeming lack of
feminist dialogue. "Our generation is somewhat complacent in the
way things are and have always been," she said. "Feminism is
not something a lot of women are rushing out to identify with."
According to Forstie and the data she provided, faculty
diversity is an issue at our College today. "The Trustee [male to
female] ratio is about 2 to 1," which raises questions about who
is making decisions about the school, she said. Of 55 full professors
at Bowdoin, only 12 are female. Additionally, sixty male professors are
tenured, comparing to 31 females.
After the panelists spoke, Tessler voiced several questions
to the group. First, she asked if the women thought that attending a formerly
all-male institution prepared them for their career and lives in general.
Ring jokingly stated that it helped her to "be able
to jest with the best of them," while Bush said her job choice was
"My career, in looking at how people learn, was a reaction
to my experience at Bowdoin," she said.
Nelson attested to the development of her social skills
while at the College. "Discourse and argumentative skills, facilitating
a group to consensus, and understanding the roles played in a corporate
context" were some of the things she mentioned.
The older alumnae indicated that they sensed improvement
in women's situations here. Bush mentioned the greater safety in identifying
as a female, and Nelson commented that "...it's a bit easier, culturally,
to be here" than it was in previous years.
Forstie brought up a current issue, saying that there exist
some "...pressures to be a certain person or behave a certain way
that make some women uncomfortable" within today's Bowdoin that need
to be worked through.
The panelists also had a lot of praise for the College.
"Whatever success I've had in my career, I attribute to Bowdoin,"
Ring said. "I got a great education, and I loved it. I hope that
Bowdoin will continue to offer opportunities to really learn and to have
"Bowdoin gave me an understanding of privilege in the
world and how to use it," Nelson said. "The College has a commitment
Tessler agreed. "I credit Bowdoin with giving us a sense of the real world," she said. "The confidence that you gain at a place like this goes a long way."