First female grads reflect on introduction of coeducation

The College prides itself on being a diverse institution, but this was certainly not always so. For most of the College’s history, the student body, faculty and staff were composed mostly of wealthy, white men.

Scholarships were occasionally given to select lower class students and the first black student graduated in 1889, but coeducation was only adopted in 1970. In honor of women’s history month, I spoke with five women from the Classes of 1973-75 about their experience as some of the first women admitted to the College.

With the current male to female ratio of 48:52, it seems strange to think that women were once considered to be an example of the College’s diversity, but in the early ’70s the student body was composed of roughly three times as many men as women. “It was a transitional time,” Andrea Diehl ’75 said. “But I chose it on purpose because I liked the idea of being a pioneer.”

Many women came to the College in the first three years of coeducation as transfer students. The College participated in a system known as the 12 College Exchange with other liberal arts colleges in the area. Students were able to enroll in courses in other colleges in the exchange, as well as to leave their own campus for a year in order to study at a different college. Coincidentally, three of the five women with whom I spoke transferred to Williams after a year at Smith, arriving on campus in either 1971 or 1972.

Academically, the women I talked to said they felt appreciated and challenged in their classes. “I never felt as if I wasn’t welcome in a class,” Sally Shipton ’73 said. “I never felt that my opinions didn’t measure up or didn’t matter, and I certainly felt that I was an equal member.”

Most women who entered the College went into traditionally “liberal-artsy” fields: English, psychology, history, religion and art history were all fairly common majors. Marjorie French ’74 (nee Kessler) and Lucy Beck ’75 (nee Singer), however, went into  less traditional fields. French was the only female economics major in her class. “My first econ class was a roundtable seminar,” French recalled. “It was the first week of school, and I was the only woman around the table. That felt intimidating. I blurted this out to Bob Gross ’73, an already frequent visitor to our suite at Gladden, and he smiled at me and said, ‘You know what they are going to say when you say something stupid? Dumb broad. You know what they are going to say when you say something smart? Dumb broad.’” Despite this, French was accepted by her classmates within a month or so with no special treatment, good or bad.

Beck found that the College offered her new opportunities academically: She was one of only three or four women on the pre-med track in her year. “In 1971, very few women went to medical school,” she said. “It was an amazing four years in terms of changing our perception of what we could do. I realized that going to medical school was something that was possible for women … I was never discouraged in anything I wanted to do.”

Because of the 12 College Exchange, students often traveled to and were familiar with other college campuses. The transition to coeducation was much more difficult on other campuses than it was at Williams. Shipton recounted her experiences visiting her boyfriend at Dartmouth: “Unlike some of the really awful things that happened at Dartmouth – the taunts, the threats and the very unwelcoming atmosphere that many women felt – Williams did not have that component, and that was to its credit,” she said.  “The Board of Trustees had been quite thoughtful with the way they proceeded in going co-ed,” Bobette Kahn ’73 (nee Reed) explained. “They recognized that the unpleasant thing they had to do was to abolish fraternities on campus, because they really felt that that would make the transition a lot easier.” Diehl also spoke about the lack of fraternities. “Because of [the abolition of fraternities], there was no place for that kind of anti-coeducation sentiment to roost,”she said. “It got pushed into the corners; there was no organized place where that could all be concentrated.”

Although women were mostly welcomed onto campus by their male peers, there were a few nasty instances of chauvinism. “Some guys wore shirts saying, ‘Co-eds, Go Home!’” Diehl said. She mentioned a prank in which some men “roped themselves together and took their shirts off, weaving in and out of the dorms.” Shipton remembered an incident in Greylock quad where ketchup was thrown on the wall of a female dorm. But as Beck explained, “If someone did something that was jerky, then they were a jerk. It wasn’t an institutional thing.”

The Junior Advisor (JA) system also experienced change. Diehl spoke of her first-year experience with her JAs as “a big miss.” Because of the lack of female upperclassmen in the earlier years, female JAs were basically any women that could be scrounged up, and they weren’t particularly engaged in their entries. Kahn, however, worked to change that during her time as a JA. “Being a black woman afforded me many opportunities that I wouldn’t have otherwise had,” she said. “Many of the incoming African American female freshmen were in my entry in Williams F. My co-JA Carol Hall ’73 and I worked to provide support for the women coming in.”

What struck me about my conversations with Shipton, Beck, French, Diehl and Kahn was how unexpectedly similar their experiences were to mine. They also struggled with academics, social life and dating, and although the College is now firmly co-ed, issues of gender have not gone away. But what was common among all five women were accounts of how wonderful their experiences at the College were. “I had the responsibility for making it a positive experience for myself and for the campus,” Shipton said. She certainly accomplished that goal, and in doing so, laid the groundwork for the positive experiences of future generations of students – both male and female – at the College.