On Saturday, Oct. 12, the University hosted an all-day retrospective to remember the coeducational efforts of five New England schools. Included in the conference were five women: Lilli Hornig, Nancy McIntire, Adele Simmons, Sheila Tobias, and Elga Wasserman, all of whom led initiatives to integrate women onto the campuses of Brown University, Williams College, Tufts University, Wesleyan University, and Yale University, respectively.
Focused on celebrating 40 years of female students at the University, the conference recognized both regional and Wesleyan-specific efforts toward coeducation, providing students, faculty, and alumni with a reminder of the University’s history.
“The event is an attempt to bring memory forward about a most significant set of transformations in the life of Wesleyan,” wrote Professor of Psychology, Emeritus Karl Scheibe in an email to The Argus.
The conference focused on honoring the women who led the charge toward coeducation. During the morning session, the five women presenters sat on a panel, titled “Transforming the Male Ivies and Other Elite Institutions in the 1970s.”
“We weren’t deans of women,” said Tobias, who served as University Associate Provost from 1970-1978. “We were not supposed to be hand-holding the girls. That would imply a different model, that the girls were being made to adjust to the men’s college. The model, as we understood it, was [that] the men’s colleges were going to have to accommodate women and all that entailed.”
The panelists also shared stories of how they dealt with the difficulties inherent in creating cultural change.
One story that Tobias shared featured Kingman Brewster, who served as President of Yale during the coeducation movement. Brewster noted that he wanted to make Yale a coeducational university, but he only allowed the student body to be 25 percent female. Brewster reasoned that Yale had a commitment to producing one thousand leaders of America every year, and giving admissions spots to women would reduce the number of leaders Yale could produce. Tobias used this story as an example of the prevalent attitudes of the time period.
“This was a revolution,” Tobias said. “We hear about the battles, but this was a quiet transformation of places where America’s leaders were cultivated. We had to do a lot at the national level to change the laws, and then we had to do a lot in changing people’s attitudes. That’s harder because you have to listen, you have to be gentle, and I bet there were professors who were not convinced that Wesleyan was a better place.”
Diana Diamond ’71 noted that the movement was not highly visible in relation to its counterparts.
“The movement was a silent revolution because it got obscured by the social and political movements of the time,” she said.
For the first female students at Wesleyan, Diamond said, coeducation was an exciting frontier.
“Particularly for those of us who were there at the beginning, it was a little like the wild west of coeducation,” Diamond said. “It was exhilarating because we knew we were pioneers and making history, and although we were often asked by professors what the female point of view was, we felt very empowered to be speaking up about that point of view.”
At the time, women at various schools joined together to form the Committee for the Concerns of Women in New England Colleges and Universities in order to share ideas, concerns, and contacts.
“We were not alone [in the push for coeducation],” Scheibe wrote. “Most of our peer institutions, along with just about every all-male college or university in the United States became coeducational within just a few years. We were part of a massive, inexorable, and in my view, altogether beneficial cultural change—one that allowed a new equality between men and women and provided women [with] new opportunities for professional inclusion.”
In the afternoon session, the conference shifted to focus more specifically on the push toward coeducation within the University community, with a panel of faculty from that era as well as a panel of male and female alumni who attended the University during the coeducation process.
While other schools attempted to look for ways to coeducate without lowering their numbers of male students, Wesleyan showed more of a commitment to diversify, admitting a freshman class composed of 40 percent female students during the first year of the new policy’s implementation.
This initial commitment, according to Tobias, made the process of coeducation easier. Instead of looking for creative ways to admit only enough female students to be considered coeducational while also keeping its numbers of male students, the University decided to make a commitment to true coeducation.
“I had the easiest job [of the five women present] because Wesleyan met me halfway,” Tobias said. “Going 40 percent [in the first year] and 50 percent [in the second year], Wesleyan clearly turned down hundreds of male students.”
Diamond also noted that changes have not been limited to the composition of students at the University.
“When I got to Wesleyan in 1969, there were four female faculty,” Diamond said. “Now, its about 40 percent. That’s a huge change that I think Wesleyan should be proud of.”
On the flip side, Diamond noted, faculty also had to adjust to having female students in the classroom once coeducation was implemented.
“This was a major change for the faculty as well as the students because they didn’t know how to handle it either,” she said.
Though the conference dealt with looking back at a historical event, Scheibe believes that knowledge of the coeducation movement is still relevant and important for the University community.
“One must make efforts to know institutional history in order to have some informed sense of a proper way of charting a course into the future,” Scheibe wrote. “Memories are highly fallible and selective. An exercise such as the one conducted today cannot succeed in reconstructing the complete truth of what happened. Even so, the collections and reviews of testimony and the witness of those who participated in this transformation are richly informative and of high importance for the conduct of our current institutional life.”
Diamond emphasized that the movement should not yet be perceived as complete.
“It brought to the forefront issues around gender and equality that continue to be relevant today with students and faculty,” she said. “I’ve talked to a lot of students and faculty, and I know there are still issues that need to be addressed.”