Pioneer Eph women revisit memories

It was the fall of 1970, and Wendy Hopkins ’72 wanted to stay. Drawn to the College by its art history program, Hopkins had come to the College from Conn. College, an all-women’s institution at the time, for one of her junior semesters as part of a 12-College exchange program.

“I liked Connecticut,” she said. “But I loved Williams.” Even now, more than four decades later, she can still remember standing at the top of Spring Street and feeling like this was “home,” even in a time when there were virtually no women on campus, before the College granted degrees to women or the initiative to become coeducational was legitimized.

There was a little precedent for Hopkins to remain, however – in more ways than one. The first women had come to study at the College from Vassar as part of the exchange program in the spring of 1969. Even earlier, the wives of several students took classes here without receiving credit from the registrar. Five of these female students were later given retrospective College degrees. In the fall of ’69, the College began accepting women as transfer and exchange students. Even though many women, like Hopkins, wanted to continue their educations at the College, they were initially not permitted to do so.

She did not give up, however. “I camped out on [Dean of the College] Nancy McIntire’s doorstep,” she said. McIntire, in fact, had just come to the College herself as the first female dean, a post she held until 1983, when she went to work in the president’s office as the Assistant Secretary for Affirmative Action and Government Relations, until her retirement in 2006. She wasn’t able to allow Hopkins to transfer, though, so the junior went to see one of the other deans, who told her that if her grades at the end of the semester were good enough, she could transfer. This motivated her to get the best grades of her college career. “I stayed,” she said, smiling. “It was fantastic.”

McIntire hasn’t forgotten this encounter with Hopkins, whom she called “very enterprising.” In this regard, Hopkins is quite characteristic of the group of women who were some of the first females to attend the College.

Philip Smith, who worked in the Admissions Office from 1959-99, and  for many of those years as its director, describes the women from the Class of 1975 – the first co-ed class to enter the College together as freshmen in 1971 – as “a pioneer kind of class.” Smith said that the applications that year were “just really sharp. The choices were very, very hard to make.” E.J. Johnson, who has taught art history at the College since 1965, corroborated this. “[The women] raised the intellectual level of the college,” he said. “They made the men wake up.”

Going co-ed was only one part of a string of changes that took place at the College over the course of the ’60s and ’70s during the presidency of Jack Sawyer, which included phasing out the fraternities, increasing the number of African-American students and changing the yearly calendar to a 4-1-4 course load. The entire college social scene changed, according to Philip McKnight ’65, who is currently a guest lecturer and Winter Study professor at the College and was a member of a fraternity as an undergraduate. “It was a much different atmosphere,” he said, “Diversity meant two from Chicago, three from Detroit.”

Everything revolved around fraternity life. On the weekends, the men would drive up to the women’s colleges nearby, especially Smith and often Mount Holyoke, and if there was a home game, they would bring back their dates, who would then stay in the faculty houses overnight. “You lived for the weekends. After your sporting event, you would hop in the car with your friends and head to Smith or Bennington or Green Mountain. Vassar was a bit of a hike … If it was a home game or homecoming, then you would invite a date and the date would stay in a faculty family’s home,” said McKnight.

Under Sawyer, the College did away with all that very quickly. McIntire describes Sawyer’s tenure at the College as “remarkable” and said that she believes women here had a “smoother” transition than at other similar institutions, such as Yale and Dartmouth. The women at the College, however, faced real challenges in the early years after their arrival.

Hopkins had a very positive experience at the College, calling the professors “supportive” and the male students very accepting. “I felt valued here,” she said. Nonetheless, she also added that her time here, especially during her junior year when there were so few other women, “was the only time I felt like I knew what being a minority was like.” And there were other women who, in McIntire’s words, “did not have a good time here.” Eva Grudin, who came to the College as a professor of art history in 1971 and was one of only a handful of woman faculty members on campus, said, “It is not a school that is open to difference traditionally.” The women faculty, she went on, “had to raise the consciousness” of the College with regard to the needs of the new female students.

By and large, McIntire said, the women were greeted warmly by their professors, despite the rare instances in which a faculty member made comments about the “ineptitude” of women in the sciences or a professor turned to a female student in a discussion to ask, “What’s the women’s point of view?” Women also faced problems with the residential housing system, as they were split up into small pockets of leftover housing and were often powerless in deciding how to allocate funds and organize events.

Johnson, however, said that the College might have had the most trouble with hiring women faculty and administrative staff. McIntire said the institution didn’t immediately take the “intellectual step” in allowing women to pursue all the opportunities men had open to them after graduation, including entering academia or pursuing higher degrees.

For her part, McIntire felt welcomed by the College community. “Because I was such an anomaly, people went out of their way to greet me,” she said. At the same time, it was a distinct change from Radcliffe, the all-women’s college she had worked at before coming to Williamstown. “Williams men were not as used to listening to women,” she said. “You weren’t quite sure they were paying attention to what you had to say.”

Despite the struggles and setbacks, the College did successfully transition into an institution that valued the education and contributions of both men and women. McIntire and McKnight both remember discussions with alumni who were deeply resentful about the changes, hemming and hawing about the introduction of women to the place they wished to preserve as an ensconced intellectual alcove for young men.

“And then,” McIntire said, “it was though a light bulb would go off in their [alumni’s] heads and they would say, ‘But that means Emily can go to Williams!’” McKnight, whose own daughter graduated in the Class of 1993, said. That is why those who had graduated after World War II generally supported the move to go co-ed, while those who had graduated before opposed it.  The former, he explained, had both male and female children who were not yet at college-age, and they naturally “wanted their daughters to have the same opportunities as their sons.”