8/03/2009 Libby Sternberg

Four Decades and Counting

The College Celebrates 40 Years of Coeducation

In this day of female presidential candidates, secretaries of state, Supreme Court justices and CEOs, it is sometimes hard to remember it was a little less than two generations ago that women stepped on to previously all-male college campuses for the first time as full-time, degree-earning students.

Franklin & Marshall College celebrates the 40th anniversary of that event this fall, joining an illustrious list of northeastern colleges that made the transition around the same time.

Prior to the late 1960s, female college students were most likely to be found at single-sex institutions of their own, sister colleges to all-male northeastern bastions of higher learning. For Ivy League universities such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Dartmouth, there were the elite "Seven Sisters" women's  colleges such as Bryn Mawr, Smith, Radcliffe, Wellesley and Mt. Holyoke.

Eastern colleges made the shift to coed more slowly than their Midwest and western counterparts. Ohio's Oberlin College, for example, admitted women as early as 1833. And, with the passage of the Morrill Act in the mid-1800s, new land-grant colleges dedicated to combining the theoretical with the practical sprang up, admitting women in to prepare them for teaching.

Financial need kept college doors open to women in the West and Midwest, while southern tradition and northeastern imperviousness to economic pressure kept them closed to women at the older institutions in the East. Some institutions, like Wesleyan University and the University of Rochester, dipped their toes into the coed pool, only to revert to all-male in the early 1900s.

The Move toward Coeducation

Coeducation rushed in by the middle of the century. By 1945, according to Leslie Miller-Bernal in Going Coed: Women's Experiences in Formerly Men's Colleges and Universities, more than 70 percent of all colleges and universities were coed, with the percentage climbing to around 75 percent in 1955. Progress? Yes. But the all-male institutions were usually well-known with a good group of respected but lesser-known campuses as well---Franklin & Marshall, Johns Hopkins, Loyola in Maryland---among them.

Historical purists might protest F&M's inclusion in this all-male group of holdouts. After all, women made up about a third of Franklin College's first class in the late 1700s. But those were in the days when Franklin was more high school (or secondary school) than college. When it merged with Marshall College in 1852, the die was cast and F&M was officially all-male.

Still, female students found their way onto campus by taking evening and summer classes, while female employees and wives of faculty members were allowed to take day classes during the academic year. Two wives of students were admitted in 1967 to study but not to earn degrees.

The sea change occurred two years later, in 1969, when F&M admitted its first full-time, degree-earning female students, after a task force studying the issue recommended the move.

F&M wasn't alone. Princeton went coed the same year. Johns Hopkins followed in 1970 and Loyola in Maryland in 1971. In 1977, the biggest holdout, Harvard, integrated women with its merger with Radcliffe.

Going coed was a practical as well as philosophical move for F&M. By excluding women, the College was losing its ability to recruit good students. Just as important was a growing concern that absent women's viewpoints, an education was not complete.

According to a student newspaper article on F&M's Task Force on Co-education, Paul Newland, the task force chairman and secretary of the College, summed up his own attitude toward coeducation by quoting Colgate University's similar committee: "...…a liberal education which excludes the ideas and attitudes of half the population cannot be thought of as truly a 'liberal' education." Without women, the statement went on to say, "the total intellectual environment suffers."

Leading the Way

Judith White, Ph.D., '73, was among the first women to be admitted. She was a first-year student during the tumultuous end of the 1960s, when anti-war stories dominated the student newspaper.

"It was a little awkward," she says, remembering the feeling of being outnumbered by the men on campus. "I became very close friends with a lot of women in my dorm. You really bonded with your women friends. I had a couple of close male friends. I would say they were forward-looking people. It still wasn't common for a guy to be just friends with a girl."

But White hadn't selected F&M for the social scene. She had chosen it for its renowned science programs. Originally from Philadelphia, she wanted a smaller school not far from home.

As a woman in the sciences, she was used to being in the minority, attuned to the unease of some of her male teachers. "I think a lot of the professors might have been uncomfortable with women in their classes," she recalls. "You could tell they were watching their language."

The perceived sensitivities and needs of female students had spilled over into the College's planning for the coed shift. Newland worried that certain curricular areas, such as fine arts, would have to be strengthened with women coming on campus. One can only guess this was because of the assumption that women studied arts while men studied science.

Nothing could have been farther from the truth for White, who earned her bachelor's in chemistry and her Ph.D. from Harvard in biophysics and biochemistry. She is now a professor of cell biology at the University of Virginia's medical school, researching virus entry into cells and virus-cell fusion.

Her scientific bent didn't mean she ignored the calling of the arts. She was active in the Green Room Theatre, working on props, makeup and costumes, and stage managing. She also played tennis and swam, but not as a member of a team.

Organized women's groups weren't a part of White's F&M experience, which she attributes to the larger societal issues looming. "It was such an exciting time to be in college," she remembers. "There were war protests, the first Earth Day, racial issues being discussed. I think these bigger issues lessened the impact of being in that first coed class."

White's academic work earned her the Williamson Medal, the F&M award presented to a graduating senior for outstanding academic achievement. She was the first woman to earn this distinction. She remembers feeling elated, with just a fleeting moment of wondering if she was chosen because she was a woman. Her record clearly indicates otherwise.

Making Headway

Since White's groundbreaking days on campus, other women have gone on to claim the Williamson, Sara Adams Aierstuck '82 and Vanessa Christman '83 among them.

Both women arrived on campus a mere 10 years after the shift to coeducation, but that decade was an eon to a 20-something. "It seemed like ancient history," Aierstuck says.

Women still were struggling to be recognized as equals, but making strides. By the time Aierstuck and Christman graduated, NASA had chosen its first female astronaut, Sally Ride. A year later, in 1984, the first major political party would nominate a woman, Geraldine Ferraro, for vice president.

Nonetheless, the lack of a long history of women at F&M meant no "old girls' network" to help young women. Aierstuck and other female students joined together in Women Aware, a campus group organized to address issues of importance to women and to advocate for a women's center at F&M.

A Lancaster native, Aierstuck had started her college life at Duke University, not wanting to go to college in her hometown. But she transferred to F&M because she was "attracted to the smaller class size and the chance to work directly with professors."

She studied psychology and Spanish as a double major. She then earned a master's degree in nursing at Yale, becoming a family nurse practitioner.

Today she believes her F&M experiences with Women Aware and a senior-year internship at the United Nations office of Church Women United have informed her life's work. Currently director of health services at Hampshire College, she has done international nursing in Sri Lanka and Kenya and has served on the board of her local Planned Parenthood.

Like Aierstuck, Vanessa Christman '83 was familiar with F&M because of proximity. She was a resident of Reading, Pa., and the daughter of a former F&M student. Even though her father didn't graduate, she proudly wore an F&M T-shirt in middle school.

Christman was vaguely aware of F&M's all-male history, but it didn't matter one way or the other to her. When she arrived on campus, theater became her area of concentration. Here she did see evidence of a male culture, but one that dominated drama in general, not just at F&M.

"Throughout history, there have been so many more roles that showcase men than women," she says. And, because women at F&M did not have a long history, the success stories of the Drama Department---Roy Scheider '55, Treat Williams '73---were men. Christman is quick to temper her remarks by pointing out that professors worked hard while she was there to choose plays that featured strong female roles.

During her time at F&M, women were finding a more cohesive voice in the Women Aware group, devoted to consciousness raising and advocacy.

"I jumped into that immediately," she says. "We were trying to figure out what the first post-feminist wave was going to mean to us." The group, which met in apartments off campus, hosted open houses and sponsored safety/rape awareness workshops.

There were no women's or gender studies programs yet, but female faculty members, staff and wives of male faculty members served as mentors and guides.

Christman is now a guide to other students, following a path that has led her to single-sex education after all. After earning her M.F.A. in theater, she worked in her field in New York City and taught as an adjunct faculty member at Brooklyn College. She is now the coordinator of the Office of Intercultural Affairs at Bryn Mawr College, one of the remaining five elite women's colleges.

Achieving Equality

Fast forward 10 years from when Aierstuck and Christman entered campus and Tricia Vos '94, another Williamson Medal winner, is arriving at F&M from her hometown of Laurel, Md., where her high school was larger than her new college. That did not matter to Vos. F&M's small size was one of the things that attracted her. She wanted more personal attention, a liberal arts setting and a broader academic education.

While she was aware of F&M's all-male history, it didn't make a big impression on her. "Walking on campus, I wouldn't have known," she says. "The only time it was apparent was if you were looking at old College photos and films. You noticed the all-male faces. It's a credit to the College that they made the change and embraced it so fully."

Fully enough that students like Vos weren't expected to live up to female stereotypes, filling their extra hours with social or arts activities alone. Vos was a fine athlete in high school and continued to play varsity volleyball at F&M.

Like White, Vos became a chemistry major. "I'm a scientist, and I'm used to being in classes where I'm in a minority as a woman," she says, echoing White's words.

She might have been in the minority in class, but she was in a coed dorm that felt very comfortable. She went on to get a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota and now works for a pharmaceuticals company in Massachusetts.

By the time Vos graduated, Ruth Bader Ginsburg took the bench at the Supreme Court, the second woman to do so, and Madeleine Albright became the first female secretary of state in 1996.

More than a decade later, Hillary Clinton broke through the glass ceiling of presidential politics as the first major-party female candidate for president.

By this time, F&M student Aditi Malik '09, another Williamson Medalist, was on campus and involved in the Alice Drum Women's Center, which opened two years before Vos graduated. Malik served on its board for three years, finding it not only a place to discuss women's issues, but human rights in general.

Malik, a resident of New Delhi, India, chose F&M because it was on the East Coast, near family in New York, and it offered a broad liberal arts education along with a generous financial aid package. She knew when she arrived that she wanted to be a government major, and she will continue those studies in graduate school at Northwestern University in the fall.

At F&M she jumped into working at the Women's Center, helping to organize films and discussions centering on international women's issues. She is proudest of the center's Take Back the Night event, now in its 12th year, an activity designed to draw attention to unsafe streets, sexual abuse and degradation of women.

Her Women's Center work has combined with her human rights interest to lead her to explore complex cultural issues such as female genital mutilation, but she also focused a lot of her attention on genocide, particularly in Cambodia, through an F&M research project.

Malik felt "extremely humbled" to be chosen for the Williamson honor, and answers with an enthusiastic "absolutely" when asked if F&M is a welcoming place for women.

"F&M is a great place for women," Malik says, a fitting tribute on the 40th anniversary of coeducation at Franklin & Marshall.
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