The WOMEN OF ’75: Studying and being studied
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.
The WOMEN OF ’75: Competing against tradition
The Orient article announcing Bowdoin’s first-ever women’s sports team is a tiny blurb titled “Hockey Jockettes” tucked away on the third page of the October 15, 1971 issue. It announces the creation of the field hockey team, which was coached by Sally LaPointe—the wife of Bowdoin’s Lacrosse Coach Mortimer LaPointe—on a voluntary basis.
Celeste Johnson ’75 and Stephanie Monaghan ’75, members of Bowdoin’s first coeducational class, both played on this first field hockey team, which was as "ad hoc" as Bowdoin’s first coeducation committees.
“I think they kind of never thought about the idea that girls need uniforms, so we ended up being given the boys’ soccer uniforms,” said Johnson in a phone interview with the Orient.
Women in their class also had options for getting involved in Bowdoin’s “physical education” and “free play” programs. According to Edward Coombs, the acting director of athletics, Modern dance, tennis and swimming, were popular with women during the fall of 1971. In terms of participation in Intramural and Intercollegiate programs, he chose to “adopt a ‘wait and see’ policy,” he wrote in his annual report to Shirley Gray, Chairman of the Committee on Physical Education-Athletics.
Women were also welcome to play in the interfraternity “White Key” teams. A November 1, 1974 Orient article called “Out of the Kitchen: Females Possess the Key” reports on women participating in the interfraternity sports.
“I can’t think of anything where we got told that we were asking for too much,” said Johnson. “It would probably be Sally [LaPointe] pushing the envelope for trying to get us more.”
Bowdoin’s Athletic Department was more prepared for the arrival of women than some other areas of the college, such as health services.
The 1971 annual report of the Committee on Athletics budgeted $9,000 to providing private showers and facilities for a women’s locker room. These changes would be made in time for the incoming Class of 1975. A later request would add hairdryers to the locker room, but the College purchased salon-style over-the-head hair dryers that the women found completely inconvenient.
“There was one time when I was changing in the locker room and a male coach walked straight through the women’s locker room,” said Christa Cornell ’75, who ran recreationally at Bowdoin, in a phone interview with the Orient. “So I went to protest—I had to protest a lot of things.”
Cornell said she spoke to the head of the Athletic Department and his reply was that the coaches are used to the old locker room layout and that she should be careful in case he does it again.
Although the 1971 Report saw no need for an increase in the size of the Athletics staff, the June 1972 report of President Howell’s special Commission on Athletics did see a need.
The President’s Commission wrote that “it is evident that the present staff will not be able to meet the needs of a steadily increasing number of women students.” At the time, the Athletic Department’s female staff consisted of Sally LaPointe in a voluntary coaching position and June Vail, an instructor of modern dance and the wife of an economics professor.
The Commission also designated a $5,000 fund for women’s sports for the 1972-73 year.“The women students have been most reasonable in their requests. It is imperative that maximum flexibility be built into any programs so that the interests of the women students can guide the scope and direction of those programs as they evolve,” stated the Commission’s report.
A March 13, 1973 memo to President Howell from Coombs and Dean of the College LeRoy Greason claims that the Commission’s recommendation to add a woman to the Athletics’ staff full-time “has not yet been implemented,” citing “budgetary considerations” and “a desire to wait for a clearer sense of direction in programs of particular interest to women.”
A September 21, 1973 Orient article counts LaPointe as a new member of Bowdoin’s staff, as Coach of the Women’s Athletic Program, shifting her coaching from volunteer to a formalized position.
Later that semester, an Orient article reported on the seven Bowdoin women’s sports teams, most of which were organized informally and faced challenges such as having only a few opponents—the team would play against the Brunswick Women’s Recreational Center and Brunswick High School. Director of Admissions Dick Merserau was voluntarily coaching the women’s basketball team at the time.
In 1976, the College hired Lynn Ruddy as an Assistant Coach. During that school year, a September 17 Orient article reported that 42 percent of women were involved in athletics. In this article LaPointe cited Title IX as a reason for the growing number of female athletes at Bowdoin, since they arrived at the College with athletic training from secondary school.
It is important to note that although Title IX, part of the U.S. Education Amendments, was passed in 1972, LaPointe and Ruddy claimed it did not greatly affect the operation of the Athletics Department at Bowdoin. In an Orient article on October 8, 1976, Ruddy said this was because much of Title IX deals with athletic scholarships, which aren’t awarded at Bowdoin.
“Here, Title IX is irrelevant,” said Ruddy.
However, Monaghan saw things differently.
“Title IX had gone through, so the College was scared to death about doing something wrong,” she said, referring to the College’s eagerness to accommodate women in athletics.
At the end of that academic year, LaPointe wrote to President Howell in a 1976-77 report that “the female population has risen to over 500, we are trying to handle twelve intercollegiate programs with two full time people while there are twenty-one intercollegiate programs for men with nine full time coaches and a few part timers. I have never felt the need for increasing the help for the women as I have this year.”
In 1979, the women’s indoor track team echoed this need. Team members wrote to the Athletic Director and Deans of the College asking for a separate coach for the women’s track team who can “devote his or her time to their needs.” Today, there is still one head coach for the men’s and women’s teams. However, the team has three other assistant coaches—including Ruddy, hired in 1976, who now coaches high jump and sprint—as well as volunteer coaches.
But in the years between 1971 and today, women have helped to shape a strong athletics department. LaPointe went on to coach for 20 years at the College and died in 2007.
Now, women play 16 varsity sports and three club sports at the College. However, the legacy of an all-male institution lives on. A November 11 Orient article reports that the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) found a decreasing gap in the salaries of male and female head coaches throughout the league, although that gap still exists.
Sports for women at Bowdoin today take on a different role, in a balanced gender ratio college setting, than the early teams. For the first coeducational classes, women’s teams were an important refuge from the overwhelmingly male environment of the College.
“When we were out there playing field hockey, we were just elated to be able to have this opportunity to come together around a goal … it was just all us [women],” said Johnson. “As soon as the game was over, we were back in the world where it was the 10-1 ratio again … There was a lot of happiness and camaraderie … I think that was something that we really all cherished.”
Julia O’Rourke ’19 contributed to this report.
The WOMEN OF ’75: Health care and carelessness
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.
The WOMEN OF ’75: In and out of Greek life
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.
The WOMEN OF ’75: 'And we'll send our daughters to Bowdoin in the fall'
This is the first article in a series about the experiences of women from the first four-year coed graduating class at the College. This series will explore various aspects of coeducation, take a look at what some of the pioneering women of Bowdoin have done since graduation and see what’s next for women at Bowdoin today.
Click here to meet the women of '75.
On September 28, 1970, a notice from the Dean of Students was posted on bulletin boards around campus. It announced a resolution that the Governing Boards—Boards of Trustees and Overseers—of Bowdoin College approved just three days earlier:
“[...] that Bowdoin College undertake a program for the admission of circa 300 women to courses of study leading to the baccalaureate degree [over a period of four years], substantially as set forth in a report of September 1970 prepared by President Howell.”
“This was kind of a closed world and I could now go in and see what a New England men's school was like,” said Joyce Ward ’75, who was one of the nine female applicants accepted early decision for the first four-year coeducational class at Bowdoin, in a phone interview with the Orient. “It was like having a door open to see something that a woman my age would never have been ever able to see before.”
In that fall of 1971, 65 women would enter into Bowdoin as first years. Fourteen of them were legacies, all but two of them were from the Northeast, 26 of them had gone to private school and nine were women of color.
They would join 254 first-year men, making about a one to four ratio of women to men in their class, and about a one to 10 ratio for the College as a whole. The ratio of women to men would increase gradually over the next 20 years.
“There were so few of us [women] that it was almost like we didn’t have time to make friends with each other,” said Celeste Johnson ’75 in a phone interview with the Orient. “We had to go out and be ambassadors on behalf of all the other women.”
The notice on the bulletin boards came after the 1969 Report of the Study Committee on Underclass Campus Environment, also known as the Pierce Report. The Pierce Report cited a 1968 survey that showed 81 percent students in favor of some coeducation, and outlined the main arguments for (and one against) coeducation.
The report’s reasons for supporting coeducation mostly focused on the benefits for male students at the College. The benefits of coeducation included an increase in diversity of thought, an increase in student involvement in the humanities and in extracurricular activities and an improvement in men’s social abilities—having a “civilizing” effect on fraternities and helping them not view women as “sex objects.”
This report cited a desire to increase the size of the College from 900 men to 1200 or 1500 students so that it could compete with other liberal arts schools and offer a wider variety of courses.
According to an October 2, 1970 Orient article about the Board of Overseers’ approval of coeducation, the discussion about coeducation happened at the same time as a more urgent conversation about the “financial plight” of the College. President Roger Howell stressed that it was “economically imperative” that Bowdoin grow its student body to at least 1200 students.
“Coeducation was viewed not as an end in itself, but rather as a means of achieving economic stability,” wrote Michael Cary ’71 in the Orient.
The Pierce Report heavily cites the March 1969 Princeton Report “The Education of Undergraduate Women at Princeton,” and this document along with other records in the office correspondence of Howell show that the administration was keeping a careful watch on the progress of similar schools. By the time the report was published, it had been no more than a year since Yale and Princeton released plans to go coed and several other men’s schools—Hamilton and Williams in particular—had announced a coordinate college program with a women’s school.
“It was in the air,” 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. “It was in the air in the late 1960s and early 1970s that women’s worlds were exploding. And the academy was one of those places, so there were many, many schools that started to go coed at around the same time.”
Bowdoin educated female students in years prior to 1971, but they were there as part of the Twelve College Exchange program, or were transfer students. In fact, months before the first four-year female students arrived on campus, the first woman, Sue Jacobson ’71, graduated from Bowdoin after transferring from Connecticut College.
As Bowdoin began matriculating women, it formed the Ad Hoc Committee on Coeducation, as well as many committees and subcommittees for three phases of coeducation.
“I don't know that they were prepared for girls, so that made it a little challenging,” said Tawana Cook Purnell, who matriculated with the class of ’75 and transferred to Spelman College after her sophomore year at Bowdoin, in a phone interview with the Orient. “And they looked at us as though we were sort of seductive aliens.”
A February 1972 Orient poll prompted students to indicate if they preferred for Bowdoin to be an exclusively men’s college; be a men’s college accepting women as transfers; continue with the present schedule for coeducation; or progress to fully coeducational (50 percent women).
The poll revealed dissatisfaction with coeducation: “The largest body of student opinion wants faster progress toward full coeducation; the next largest group wants no coeducation at all,” wrote Richard Patard ’74 in an Orient article published on February 4, 1972.
Satisfaction with coeducation also fell along fraternity lines. According to the poll, two-thirds of independent men (that is, not a member of a fraternity), favored full coeducation, while only around 42 percent of fraternity men did.
One male respondent wrote: "They're dumb, but they are good tools. The girls have preserved my sanity, bless their dumb little hearts."
"I don't really feel that this place is co-ed; it is still a men's college with some women around,” wrote an anonymous first-year man in the 1972 Orient poll.
The history of women at Bowdoin is only a small piece of the timeline of Bowdoin, which was chartered in 1794.
“We have a long past—hundreds of years—and women have been present only for  years,” said Scanlon. “You wouldn’t expect a lot of the people we talk about to be women, because it’s recent. But even so, I think that we don’t say enough about our alums who are female. I think most people probably couldn’t name any.”
In upcoming issues of the Orient, we examine how the women of the class of ’75 navigated fraternities and social life, health services, athletics, safety and the classroom.
Julia O’Rourke ’19 and Katie Miklus ’16 contributed to this report.