Whispering Pines: ‘The Nurturer of Men, and Now of Women’

In this month’s column, John Cross ’76 muses on the 40th anniversary of co-education at Bowdoin.

I wrote last October about how the late Susan Jacobson ’71, a senior in her third semester at the College on the 12-College Exchange program in the fall of 1970, petitioned the Bowdoin administration to be admitted as a regular student after the Governing Boards vote in favor of coeducation in September of that year. At the 1971 Commencement, Sue became the first woman to earn an undergraduate degree from Bowdoin, and also the first woman to deliver a Commencement speaking part (“Bowdoin, from Birth, the Nurturer of Men, and Now of Women”).

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the historic event, and also the admission of Bowdoin’s first four-year coeducational class, the Class of 1975.  In 2011-12 the College is celebrating these milestones through lectures, special events, and classes. Professor Jennifer Scanlon (Gender and Women’s Studies) is offering a course on 40 years of women at Bowdoin. Using archival resources and interviews, her students are gaining fresh perspectives on how the Bowdoin community arrived at the decision and what coeducation meant for both male and female students, for faculty, staff, and administrators, and for alumni.

It is tempting to consider Bowdoin’s experiment with coeducation in isolation, but in fact a number of liberal arts colleges in the northeast were considering the issue at about the same point in time. What began in 1968 as study-away program among single-sex colleges – Bowdoin, Amherst, Connecticut College, Dartmouth, Mount Holyoke, Smith, Vassar, Wesleyan, Wheaton, and Williams – became the 12 College Exchange with the inclusion of Trinity and Wellesley a year later. Bowdoin officially became coeducational with the Governing Board vote and the admission of Sue Jacobson as a member of the Class of 1971. Wesleyan University was coeducational until 1909, when it excluded women (leading to the establishment of Connecticut College); it opened its doors to women again in 1969. Vassar amended its constitution to admit men in March of 1969, while Connecticut College followed suit later in that same year. Trinity College admitted women in the fall of 1969, Williams in the fall of 1970, Dartmouth in 1972, and Amherst in 1974. Wheaton’s first coeducational class arrived in the fall of 1988.

After signing the matriculation book are (left to right) Sharon Connor, Toby Levine, Marjory Rinaldo, Carolyn Boardman, and President Roger Howell ’58. (Photo courtesy of the George J. Mitchell Dept. of Special Collections & Archives.)

In the fall of 1969 eight women arrived on the Bowdoin campus and began their studies. Five had elected to spend the entire year at Bowdoin, while three who spent the fall at Bowdoin were replaced by four women in the spring semester. Three of the 12 pioneers were daughters of alumni. They lived in Haskell House (72 Federal Street), almost as far from campus as the Harriet Beecher Stowe House. The women were the subjects of curiosity and interest for many of the 950 male students on campus, a situation which could be, at turns, welcome, annoying, or exhausting. As one of the women remarked, “The best place to study at Bowdoin is in the ladies’ room in Sills Hall. No one bothers you there!” While the motivations for participating in the exchange program may have varied from individual to individual, the common thread seems to have been the quality of academic instruction and discourse. The Dean’s List for the 1970 fall semester included the names of six of the eight women.

The 12-College Exchange was a two-way street; 18 Bowdoin men signed up to study at women’s colleges for 1969-70, and 20 participated the following year. The insights and experiences of those students no doubt informed subsequent discussions about coeducation at Bowdoin.

Bowdoin officially became coeducational with the Governing Board vote and the admission of Sue Jacobson as a member of the Class of 1971.

A number of exchange students would later transfer to Bowdoin, along with women and men from other colleges and universities. The Class of 1972 counted nine women among its ranks, while the Class of 1973 and the Class of 1974 each had 28. The first four-year cohort of women, in the Class of 1975, numbered 64 at the outset, and grew to 89 over the course of four years through the addition of transfer students. In the fall of 1971, the women of the classes of 1972 to 1975 began to navigate an academic and social world not fully prepared for their arrival. In reviewing applications for admission and transfer, Admissions Director Richard Moll showed an uncanny ability to identify resilience and courage, traits that served the women in the early coeducational classes well as they encountered attitudes that ranged from skepticism to hostility. As was true for Wesleyan, Vassar, Trinity, Connecticut College, Dartmouth, Williams, and Amherst, it took some time for Bowdoin to arrange health care, residential and athletic facilities for women, and put in place appropriate safety and security procedures. The 1970-71 college catalogue listed three women on the faculty: Katherine Sherman Snider (Assistant Professor of Philosophy); Elizabeth Grobe (Lecturer in Mathematics); and Kristina Minister (Instructor in Speech).

To gain a sense of the social and political climate of the times and the pressures within higher education, one need look no further than the May 1970 issue of the Bowdoin Alumnus. The cover story was about the student strike to protest U.S. military actions in Southeast Asia. In addition to a story about the first women to enroll at Bowdoin, other articles discussed the elimination of physical education and foreign language requirements, comprehensive exams, and curriculum distribution requirements. In the five years prior to the enrollment of female exchange students there had been dramatic changes at Bowdoin – the advent of the Senior Center program, the end of regular Chapel services, no more Saturday classes, no coat-and-tie requirement for classes, pressure for greater diversity in the student body and the faculty, and the introduction of a grading system of High Honors, Honors, Pass, and Fail. Add to the mix a fraternity system that had evolved a uniquely Bowdoin character of local houses and chapters of national fraternities – each of which would respond to coeducation in its own way (exclusion from membership, or social, local, or full membership), and the ingredients were in place for undergraduate experiences that defied simple characterization.

It is especially important for the voices of the women and men who participated in the transition to coeducation to be heard, unfiltered by narratives that smooth rough edges or broad generalizations that sacrifice the detail and richness of individual circumstances. As we seek to understand the significance of coeducation within the context of Bowdoin’s history and within our own lives, it is important that we share our memories, and that we value the experiences and perspectives of others. Throughout this celebration of 40 years of coeducation at Bowdoin I look forward to being an attentive listener, and to re-visiting my own incomplete knowledge of an extraordinary time through the eyes and voices of others.


With Best Wishes,

John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations


  1. Al DeMoya '72 says:

    I’m sorry if anyone takes offense at the following: Despite the passage of 40 years and the fact that I like Callie Boardman Curtis (in the photo) and her husband Randy, I still lament the adoption of coeducation at Bowdoin. I fell in love with the place and everything about it when I visited on a subfreshman weekend in the winter of 1968, my senior year in high school, including the fact that it was an all-male institution. I was heartbroken when all that changed, and to this day I still sing “Rise Sons of Bowdoin” at reunions, not that contrivance that now passes for the Alma Mater. As far as I was concerned this was a completely unnecessary bit of “progress”.

  2. Steve Cavanagh '83 says:

    By the time I matriculated 10 years later, the transition to a fully coeducational institutional was nearly completed. Wendy Fairey was Dean of Students. The Women’s Resource Center had come into existence. The Fraternities, however, were a mixed bag. Alpha Rho Upsilon had a woman president (Jennifer Lyons, ’80) and full membership for all. Yet this was the same fall that Zeta Psi reverted to an all-male institution from one that had included women.

    It was also a time where what had been the primary social institions of the College, the Fraternities, suffered from an administrative attitude that ranged between benign neglect and necessary evil, for housing and Dining Service reasons. The status of women was very different at different places, and the College did not force any house down a certain path at that time.

    The forced demise of the fraternity system was an unfortunate outcome of the resolution of issues associated with coeducation, and to be fair, alcohol. The lessons learned from a self-governing organization are not replicated in a system of College-owned houses where membership is automatic and responsibility is limited.

  3. John (Jack) J, Woodward says:

    Hi John : Very enlightening article. Had no idea of the careful and thoughtful step-by-step adoption of co-ed at Bowdoin,including the cross-breeding of Bowdoin men attending womens’ colleges. Very nicely written with your last paragraph having particularly beautiful language.

    Thanks for sharing. Jack ’57

  4. John Isaacs '68 says:

    Many of us still sing “Rise Sons of Bowdoin” (and a few of us still have “Bowdoin Beata” and “Phi Chi” rattling around in our brains). Most of the members of my class with whom I have spoken, myself included, greatly lament the end of the fraternity system, which was so unique and beneficial to Bowdoin in many ways. Yet I am proud that women as well as men are now nurtured by our wonderful Mother. Late in my senior year soon-to-be President Howell called a few of us into his office to ask informally what we thought of admitting women to Bowdoin. My answer: “Why didn’t you ask me this four years ago?”

  5. Patricia "Barney" Geller '75 says:

    Nice article John. As the first woman to be President of a fraternity at Bowdoin, I was also sad to see them go. While I fully understand that the college needed to deal with the alcohol problem, having students eat together in small “families” was one of the most important parts of my Bowdoin experience. My son is at Bowdoin now and I can see first hand that the life-long bonding and sense of belonging to a subset of students is missing from his life. He has great friends but doesn’t have the place to gather to get to know students from every class of both older and younger students. Closing the frats hasn’t ended the alcohol problem, which Bowdoin shares with every college. Fraternities provided a unique living experience and a sense of belonging to a community within a community. I don’t believe the house system has worked. I liked that you included how unprepared Bowdoin was for woman students. I could go on, as many of us could with stories that would shock today’s students. Instead I will behave myself:) P.S. Liza Graves and I also founded the Women’s Association so clearly women in the early years of coeducation needed to be supported and promoted to help Bowdoin enter a new chapter. Thanks John for a great over-view.

  6. I remember a lot of supper time conversation about this as a child. My father, a Bowdoin professor who favored Smith for his own daughters, had concerns about the advent of women at Bowdoin. The most worrisome was how he would deal with all the crying if they didn’t do well. It proved to be no issue at all. They didn’t cry and they did well.

    As a nine year old boy, I was most concerned that women would dilute the pool of talented hockey players. This also proved to be no concern: Bowdoin hockey powered through the 70’s and women’s sports flourish.

  7. I disagree with the anti-coed and pro-fraternity comments above. Mr. DeMoya provides no evidence that admitting women to Bowdoin was “a completely unnecessary bit of ‘progress’,” apart from his personal nostalgia for the old-boy network he “pines” for, so to speak. I witnessed many women nurturing their careers at Bowdoin as Phi Beta Kappa students. Marijane Benner Browne ’83 (my Bowdoin “Big Sister”) became Editor-in-Chief of the Bowdoin Orient, went on to edit the Harvard Law Review while at the Law School, was elected to Bowdoin’s Board of Trustees, is now Director of Lateral Partner Recruiting for Ropes & Gray, Boston’s biggest law firm, and has endowed a scholarship fund at Bowdoin. Kaoru Umino ’84 founded Bowdoin’s Amnesty International chapter, won both of Bowdoin’s English composition prizes as well as the Philosophy Prize and a major scholarship/leadership/extracurricular award, went to Columbia Law School, and is now a partner at Jones Day, one of the world’s biggest law firms. Many other alumnae have Bowdoin to thank for their career success. So get over your male chauvinism, Mr. DeMoya.

    Nor do Mr. Cavanagh or Ms. Geller provide test-and-control evidence that fraternities were better than the college-owned houses they became. My membership in Mr. Cavanagh’s fraternity was a big mistake, distracting me from my studies, tempting me into immature behavior, and restricting the scope of my Bowdoin experience. It also added a financial, political, social and extracurricular burden that could be draining and distracting and wasn’t necessary. Drugs, alcohol, loud parties, and gender discrimination (three of the frats were all male) were additional good reasons to replace fraternities with college-owned houses (and the admissions office in the old ∆KE house) which provide students with a broader experience of the campus as a whole and offer house-like communities to nurture relationships in. If I went to Bowdoin today, I would love it a whole lot more, for now it is better than ever, thanks to coeducation and cohousing.

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