Forty years ago, Nixon walked the halls of the White House, American soldiers were fighting in Vietnam, Simon & Garfunkel’s “A Bridge Over Troubled Water” topped the Billboard charts, and the students who would become members of the Wesleyan class of 1974 were anxiously awaiting word of their acceptance or rejection. In the fall of 1970, the University welcomed the first women who would complete four-year Bachelor of Arts degrees since the original experiment with coeducation ended in 1912.
“There were very few of us,” said Dr. Judy Jay ’74. “We were frequently asked what was the female point of view and that was sort of obnoxious, but it was very cordial. We were accepted although we were oddities. It was an interesting time because there were so few of us, 100 of us and 1,500 of them, and there were women who would come in from women’s schools on weekends. They [male students] thought we were a distraction [during the work week].”
The first female students entered Wesleyan in 1872, but a male backlash prompted the University to stop the admission of women in 1909—the last female students graduated in 1912. Women were not absent from the campus, however, as the Graduate Summer School for Teachers, which eventually became the Graduate Liberal Studies Program (GLSP), had accepted female students since its founding in 1953. Many women graduated with a Masters of Art in Teaching, a degree that no longer exists.
In the late ’60s, female transfer and visiting students slowly began to tip the all-male scale. In 1966 an Educational Policy Committee (EPC) study showed that coeducation was once again necessary and a 1968 vote confirmed the study’s findings. The year 1968 marked the return of coeducation with transfer students; the fall of 1970 saw the official return of women as freshmen, when approximately 100 women enrolled.
Jay’s brother graduated from the University in 1957. Although she was among the first women admitted to Princeton for Chemical Engineering, she chose Wesleyan.
“I was very interested in going to a school that was going co-ed…I thought it would be an interesting place to be with the first class of women,” Jay said.
Jay has fond memories of her friends, her freshman humanities seminar with Professor Jeremy Zwelling, and Friday night dinners at the University rabbi’s house. Jay credits her experience at the University with preparing her for the difficult journey of medical school and her role as the first female ear, nose, and throat resident at Mount Sinai Hospital.
“Being a woman in the first class of women there prepared me for what was ahead,” Jay said. “And in that sense I mean isolation. We were isolated. I learned how to deal with isolation…You had to learn how to be your own best friend. For better or for worse there were very few of us.”
Jean Barish ’74 recalls the turbulent times of the late ’60s and early ’70s. There was a student strike the spring before the class of ’74 arrived when students requested that classes be cancelled in recognition of a memorial service in honor of Malcolm X.
“The administration tried to do a good job of integrating women into campus life, but they were distracted by a lot of other issues, and since the advent of co-education on campus was at that point unchartered territory, they were learning as they went,” Barish wrote in an e-mail to The Argus. “Some things they did well; others they could have done much better.”
Professor of Letters Howard Needler joined the University faculty in 1969. He taught a College of Letters Junior Colloquium in 1969-70 and he remembers three female students in his course. The women were, however, only visitors. There were few women in the first classes Needler taught after the return of co-education and it was not until the late 1970s that he began seeing more women in his classes.
“I think there was generally a great deal of goodwill towards the young women,” Needler said. “At least I did not generally discern ill will. But I think it was very difficult for them. Obviously they were a minority and they must have felt quite considerable pressure.”
Rhonda Bloom ’74 was among the first women to graduate from the Film Studies Department at the University. She recalls an accepting community.
“It was fine because the student population tends to be pretty tolerant,” Bloom said. “I never really felt like an odd man out. Because there were so few of us, most of knew each other or knew of each other. We were minorities in the classroom. But I never felt like we stuck out as sore thumbs. That sort of fraternity, we are at a boys school…was somewhat there… But our class knew that they were going to a school that was going to go co-ed. I never felt like an other.”
Bloom says that female students studying math and science may have felt some isolation but she never felt that way. Bloom attributes this to the close relationships developed among film students.
“I have fond memories of being at Jeanine’s [Basinger, Chair of the Film Studies Department],” Bloom said. “She would cook dinner. It was very familial-like. And writing my senior thesis was fun, I wrote about Bette Davis.”
Bloom was awarded honors for her thesis and through connections in the film world, Basinger passed Bloom’s thesis along to Davis. To this day Bloom has a signed letter from Davis hanging in her office.
The Argus reported on the historic commencement in its May 31, 1974 edition, noting that the class of ’74 was the largest to graduate from the University to date.
Today the statistics have flipped. Senior Associate Dean of Admission Gregory Pyke reports that of the applicants in the class of 2014, the pool was 59 percent female and 41 percent male.
Looking back 40 years since awaiting word of her acceptance, Bloom appreciates the quality of the liberal arts education she received and the reputation of the University.
“I’m always happy to tell people that’s where I went to school,” she said.