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 [45] 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.