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The View from White Oaks

Lauren R. Stevens: How Williams helped lead the way for gender equality in higher education

Being asked to serve on a panel at a twice-delayed (you know why) 50th reunion to talk about the first group of women at Williams College made me consider what was going on at Williams and the rest of the world in the 1960s. Members of the class of 1970 must have great stories of their college days to share with children and grandchildren and, guess what, those on the staff of colleges at that time have stories, too.

The Vietnam War shaped almost everything in this country and the world during the years 1966-1970. The pill was only six years approved. The Six Day War, the founding of PBS and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club.” Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. Black athletes raised their fists at the Olympics. “One step for mankind” on the moon and a Kennedy drove off a bridge in Chappaquiddick. Students were gunned down at Kent State. The first Earth Day. No doubt commencement speakers this spring pointed out that the Class of 2022 went through a similar multi-crisis time.

Williams’ progress toward coeducation was not the only way the college was changing. Fraternities were being phased out. Students were invited to join faculty committees. The college calendar became a fall semester, January term, spring semester. In April 1969, Black students took over the administration building, issuing 15 nonnegotiable demands. Sen. Edmund Muskie highlighted a Give-a-Damn program. In May 1970, in response to President Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia, students voted to strike; the faculty canceled classes.

I taught at Williams from 1963-66, was away 66-67, then returned as teacher and administrator, primarily involved at first with lining up speakers then more generally in coeducation. I was appointed Dean of Freshmen as of the first fully coeducational class.

Williams President John E. Sawyer intended the departure of the fraternities to increase the diversity of the school, but he did not at first envision gender diversity. Having just alienated some of the alumni, he wasn’t necessarily interested in alienating more. Yet he always looked for the “opportunity” in a potentially negative situation. Maybe all the alumni who would be annoyed by change already were.

Some form of coeducation was popular on campus and at peer institutions, so Sawyer got the trustees to appoint a faculty/trustee “Committee on Coordinate Education and Related Questions” in April 1967, the title leaving some wiggle room. College archivist Sylvia Kennick Brown notes that the code name for a coordinate college would be “Mary,” as Williams was sometimes confused with the College of William and Mary, anyway.

“Coordinate” — women nearby but not exactly in the same institution — could be the pragmatic solution for a college perceived as isolated as Williams. Sawyer, like the Yale president, wooed Vassar to move from Poughkeepsie — in the Williams’ invitation, to Mount Hope Farm, a Rockefeller property in town acquired by the college. Provost Steve Lewis, others and I visited Hamilton College, then affiliated with nearby Kirkland, and Harvard-Radcliff. The message there was the same as at other such pairs: junk coordinate, go all the way with coeducation.

Furthermore, in 1968, Princeton University issued a report that women would enliven the university’s intellectual life and that male students from prep schools were becoming less enthusiastic about single-sex education. In other words, the monastic tradition that colleges were originally founded to prepare young men for the ministry might finally have expired. Williams, like Princeton, could miss out on top male students, as well as female. The faculty voted to recommend including women in the educational program.

Although Vassar declined to move en masse, she parted with 30 exchange students in the spring of 1969, that is, students who would return home. That June, however, the Williams trustees voted to admit women as regular students, on the condition that the number of male students not be reduced below the current 1,200 — an attempt to head off alumni concerns. It turned out alumni have daughters as well as sons. Unlike at some other schools, there was little backlash.

Sawyer inaugurated the 10-college (later 12-college) exchange program that brought 62 women to town the following fall. They stayed mostly in small houses the college owned, while Williams began the process of increasing housing space by taking over the former Williams Inn and planning future dormitories. Of the 62, plus the Vassar women, 45 applied to transfer to the newly coeducational Williams; five were selected. They became the first group of women to graduate from Williams — and one of them was valedictorian of the Class of 1971 to boot. Williams learned from the forerunners before the freshmen women arrived.

Maybe administrators should let students tell the story of how the transition to coeducation went. Anne Forrestal, who exchanged from Smith as a sophomore and transferred to the Class of ’72, became Williams’ first female intercollegiate athlete as the coxswain of the men’s crew, there being nothing in the rule book about gender of the cox. At some schools, fraternities and men’s teams were bastions of intransigence. The student newspaper interviewed Anne this spring: While there were “growing pains” along the way to coeducation, “I always felt like the [oarsmen] had my back. It was really collegial — and it was really fun.” Women coxswain for male crews are common now, including Williams’ national champion crew this spring.

At least, that’s how it looks from the White Oaks.

Writer and environmentalist Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.

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