Students Capture Living Memories of Bowdoin's First Women
Story posted December 07, 2011
“This is the first. Isn’t that something?” Professor Jennifer Scanlon pushes a photocopied letter across her desk. It’s dated Oct. 12, 1970, addressed to Miss Elissa D. Berry of Weston, Mass.
I cannot resist sending you a brief note of appreciation and excitement, since you are the first girl in Bowdoin’s long history to submit a formal application for the freshman class.
Students in Scanlon’s 200-level seminar, Forty Years: The History of Women at Bowdoin, uncovered this hidden gem of Bowdoin history during original research about the co-education of the College in the early ‘70s.
After a semester of intensive research, the students have collected troves of documents and photos, notes and ephemera from the Bowdoin archives, and have conducted dozens of hours of interviews with Bowdoin alums, faculty, staff, trustees and community members.
The fruits of their semester-long research is now accessible on a course web site, which went public at a launch celebration on Dec. 9, 2011, the final day of classes.
The research is organized around themes relating to co-education -- prehistory, the co-education process, curriculum, athletics, extracurriculars, social life and fraternities, and the Women’s Resource Center – and includes 66 student-annotated documents.
Making a Documentary on Women
The process of storytelling is only beginning for Angelica Guerrero '11, who is compiling more than 25 hours of videotaped interviews about the history of women at Bowdoin. She plans to edit the footage down to a one-hour documentary as part of an honors project.
"Everyone has such a rich story to tell," says Guerrero. "What stands out is the way in which these stories are in conversation with each other without even knowing it, in spite of difference in years that they graduated. Listening to people share their story is a learning experience -- technical, intellectual and emotional as well."
A timeline of notable events includes Bowdoin President Joshua Chamberlain’s 1871 inaugural address in which he urges that Bowdoin become coeducational, the 1972 opening of coeducational housing, and the establishment in 1992 of a major in women’s studies.
Photos and documents are supplemented with fascinating oral histories. The students taped more than 25 hours of one-on-one audio interviews and videotaped five focus groups of alums, faculty, trustees and staff, which poignantly and humorously give human shape to this era of profound institutional change at the College.
“I had actually decided when I was about 10 years old that I was coming to Bowdoin and the fact that it wasn’t co-ed didn’t matter,” says Elissa Berry ’75 in an video interview with two students. “… When they announced they were going co-ed, within a week I had an interview and an application submitted. It was just part of my plan.”
Berry’s plucky attitude is echoed among many of the women who preceded and followed her, in spite – or maybe because of – the social and academic hurdles many of them faced as they helped to transform the all-male domain.
From Patricia Pope ’75: “I remember one time I used to braid my hair back and I had someone sitting behind me who was just very upset with me because he thought that I was getting favorable treatment from the professor in that class, which I wasn’t, and to my amazement, I got out of class and he had put chewing gum all up and down my braid…”
Current Women’s Basketball co-captain Jillyan Henrikson ’12 (two-time NESCAC Player of the Week) says she was amazed to learn about the persistence of women athletes in the early years of co-education, when they struggled even to get uniforms and a place to play.
“When they first got here they were constantly fighting for equality,” observes Henrikson, who interviewed early athletes, as well as Bowdoin Senior Leadership Gifts Officer Dick Mersereau ’69, who was a volunteer women’s basketball coach from 1975-1981.
According to Mersereau: “I innocently asked somewhere toward the beginning of the season, ‘How come we’re practicing and playing in Sargent Gym, and the men are in Morrell Gym?’ And the answer came back, ‘Well the girls aren’t as good as the boys.’ In other words, the girls don’t deserve equal treatment because they’re not as accomplished.”
“I think it is empowering that these women decided to go to a school like Bowdoin, all men. It’s definitely a chance I would have been willing to take,” adds Henrikson. “It was cool to compare their experience with my own. They had a really close-knit set of girls, like my team today.”
Student researchers K. Skyler Walley ’12 and Samuel Shapiro ’14 assembled several of Bowdoin’s veteran professors for a focus group on faculty perspectives: Helen Cafferty, Steve Cerf, Chris Potholm and June Vail.
Cafferty was one of a small cadre of women teaching at the College when she arrived in 1972, and became the first female professor to rise through all ranks: assistant, associate, and full professor.
“Bowdoin was an extremely gracious place then as it is now,” observed Cafferty. “I felt very welcomed and supported by a group of faculty families. The male faculty were, at worst, awkward and were either somewhat condescending without meaning to be or cavalier.
“I think the real issue that created some dissatisfaction was …. we knew that higher standards were being applied for women’s admission … Through the years, I think the admissions office itself came to the conclusion that one could not sustain this inequality. When they went to equal percentages of applicant pools, that part of it felt like a relief.”
Pope also spoke to that issue, from a student perspective:
“The professors expected more from women, without question,” says Pope. “We were very often called on first in class; at times were point blank told ‘We expect you to lead the class in grades.’
“I thought that was curious, but I think that was part of the dynamic of motivating women to do well academically, not to feel that we couldn’t do well given our peer group. But also I think there was a genuine desire on the part of the professors for women to succeed at Bowdoin and to succeed happily, and not to be overwhelmed by being the first females in the class.”
Scanlon says she and the class were surprised to discover one perspective shared by virtually all of these pioneering women at Bowdoin:
“One of the things that we’re discovering, from the beginning and all through the interviews, is the degree of affiliation people feel with this place,” Scanlon says. “Whether their experiences here were wholly positive or not, Bowdoin has a lasting grip on people. It’s remarkable.”
A testament to the longer-term effects of co-education at Bowdoin is a visible part of Scanlon’s class: There are ten women and one male student.
Samuel Shapiro, a gender and women’s studies major, says his presence in the otherwise all-female class is no big deal: “I don’t pay much attention to the fact that I’m the only male. In any class some people talk more or less, gender doesn’t impact that.
“I just liked the seminar size and learning more about the history of women at Bowdoin,” he adds. “I thought it would be interesting because it’s something that directly reflects my experience and environment, whereas, a class about women in Asia or Europe wouldn’t have the personal impact this class would.”
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