Flip through the 1970 edition of The Gulielmensian, the Williams College yearbook, and you will come across a blurry photograph of a male student, sitting on the ledge of a Greylock dormitory, with a sign taped to his window that reads, “Keep Williams Pure COEDS GO HOME. Keep Girls Out.” Directly below this photograph is an interview with undergraduate student Hedy Houlihan, a young woman who had just transferred to Williams from a women’s college, and described as “real swell” by her male peers and male professors. It left me wondering what it was about Houlihan and her female peers that made the male student in the photograph so upset.
In 1969, Williams College admitted its first class of female undergraduate students as transfer students from numerous women’s colleges throughout the country. Women like Houlihan came to Williams to take advantage of the academic prestige and small community; however, their enrollment came not long after the decision was made by President Jack Sawyer and the Trustees to disband the College’s fraternity system, which was considered the glue of community life prior to 1970. The women also came at the height of the women’s liberation movement, which led to cultural and political changes with which the patriarchal structure of American society was forced to reckon. With changing gender roles occurring both in the purple bubble and across the country, it is not shocking that some of the College’s men responded to coeducation with hostility.
Reflecting back on these events led me to ask the question: how far has the Williams community come in gender relations since 1970?
On the one hand, there are aspects of the College community that remain ignorant toward women and women’s issues. Some students perceive places like the Women’s Center as “man-hating” without having ever attended a collective meeting or having ever gone to a Women’s Center-sponsored event. I have had teammates call my women’s and gender studies classes “lesbian classes.” A female friend of mine even had her academic advisor tell her to major in history instead of math because it was a more “feminine” major.
On the other hand, there are ways in which women have made a significant impact on Williams. For example, in the Class of 2012, there are 33 more women than men seeking undergraduate degrees from Williams. Similarly, nine out of the 12 assistant professors granted tenure this year were women. Half of the College’s deans are women. We have female biology majors, English majors and economics majors. Our women’s athletics continue to dominate the NESCAC as teams like women’s swimming and diving win conference championships year after year. We have women as leaders of many major student organizations, such as Lizzy Brickley ’10, College Council co-president this spring.
So where does this leave the College in terms of gender relations? On the one side of the coin, sexist incidents still occur on campus. The past 40 years have brought major changes to the College, but this does not mean that universal gender equity has been achieved.
On the other side, women are claiming a space for themselves within the Williams community. They are defying gender stereotypes and are not allowing sexism to disempower them. It is important, however, that as women on campus stake a claim for themselves they do not forget that they are part of a short, yet strong, legacy of women at Williams. Everyday when a woman steps into a classroom, onto an athletic field, or off the stage at graduation wielding her Williams diploma, she is a testament to the women like Hedy Houlihan who came to Williams at a time when many at the College said, “Keep Girls Out.”
So during the month of March, which is also Women’s History Month, try to remember the women like Hedy Houlihan who have made Williams the place it is today. Without them, or the professor who inspired you to become a biology major or the female Junior Advisor who encouraged you to try out for your club sports team, your Williams experience might have turned out much differently.
Tracey Vitchers ’10 is an English and women’s and gender studies major from Milford, Pa.