This post is a digitized version of an exhibit currently on display in Archives and Special Collections’ space on A-Level of Frost Library. Stop by during our open hours (9 am – 4 pm, Monday – Friday) and check it out!
When the Amherst College Board of Trustees voted on November 2, 1974 to admit women to the College as undergraduate degree candidates, it marked the end of a multi-year process in which–while women students became more and more visible in various roles on campus–advocates for coeducation faced pushback from more conservative Trustees and alumni. As they began to be recognized as full members of the campus community, women students and faculty embarked on a mission to reshape the very fabric of the college. However, while Amherst College had taken the significant step of adopting coeducation, the necessary adjustments required to create an environment truly equitable and accommodating for women had been overlooked by the administration. As we approach the 50th anniversary of coeducation at Amherst, this exhibit reflects on the institution’s path to coeducation and highlights the accomplishments of some of the women who served as trailblazers during this transformation.
Curated by Owusua Ennin ’24 and Skyler McDonnell ’26
At Amherst’s 1871 semi-centennial, two alumni spoke in support of two women who’d applied for admission to the College, framing their arguments in religious rhetoric that reflected Amherst’s founding mission to educate young men as Christian missionaries. Other supporters of women’s education at this time wanted to establish separate institutions; L. Clark Seelye, an Amherst professor in favor of establishing women’s colleges, went on to become the first president of Smith.
Student perspectives on the emerging “woman question” were documented in the Amherst Student, in which an 1870 piece framed coeducation largely in the context of the logistical challenges it could present but claimed women students would receive a “courteous reception” at Amherst. In other articles, students argued that women would be best suited to women’s schools.
The Board of Trustees formed a committee to study coeducation over the Summer of 1871. Coeducation was a minority position among both students and the Trustees, and in November 1871, the Trustees voted against admitting women to the College.
Women as Master’s Students
Although women could not be undergraduate students at Amherst, they did not disappear from the academic landscape. The first woman to graduate with an Amherst College degree, Mary E. Berry, did so in 1944, earning a Master of the Arts (MA) degree in Biology. Between 1944 and 1962, Amherst awarded MA degrees to nine women, and while little documentation remains of Amherst’s MA program, we know that—unlike honorary degree recipients—those who received MAs from Amherst attended classes and wrote research-based Master’s theses.
Women Master’s students are commonly forgotten in discussions of “firsts” for women at Amherst, and information about them is sparse and often inaccurate. In one of these alumni address lists, Mary Andrews (née Berry) is listed under the incorrect year (1945), and in the other, her name is replaced entirely with that of her husband, Thomas Andrews. Similarly, President Ward once claimed that the College had conferred MA degrees on 17 women, a miscount likely resulting from confusion over maiden versus married names. It is unclear how much of this poor quality of information is tied to gender and how much is due to Amherst’s Master’s students always having made up a negligible portion of its student body.
Women in Activism
The issue of undergraduate coeducation at Amherst was revived in the late 1960s and early 1970s, coinciding with a range of other movements for social and political reform on and off campus, including the anti-Vietnam War and anti-draft movements; Black, queer, and women’s liberation; and the reform of Amherst’s student government, curriculum, and financial aid policies. At the same time, Smith and Mount Holyoke Colleges, two women’s colleges in the area, also debated becoming coeducational. Women students on Amherst’s campus–both those from other schools in the Five College Consortium and those living at Amherst participating in exchange programs–took part in these discussions.
Selected photos from the campus moratorium on April 29 and 30, 1969 (See more in Amherst College Digital Collections)
In 1969, the coeducation debate was taken up in earnest following a two-day moratorium on classes during which students and other members of the campus community discussed a range of issues of local and national importance. Women students from other colleges in the Five College Consortium made spoken and written contributions.
Selected photos from the Black student takeover on February 18, 1970
In February 1970, a group of Black students from the Five Colleges occupied four Amherst campus buildings for about 14 hours, calling for academic and social self-determination; ten days later, a similar takeover was organized at Mount Holyoke. A contemporary news report indicates that approximately half of the demonstrators at Amherst were women, and protestors issued demands to the presidents of each of the Five Colleges, speaking to the extent of the cross-college organization involved.
This period also saw the beginnings of gay activism on campus, in part following a similar pattern of Five College cooperation. One of Amherst’s few openly gay students at the time, who also wrote a 1971 piece for the Student in favor of coeducation, went on to become the first known trans graduate of Amherst, Tamara Johnson ’73. Read more about her in the Spring 2022 issue of Amherst magazine.
Women as Exchange Students
In the Fall of 1969, Amherst hosted women as residential undergraduate students for the first time through the Ten-College Interchange (now the 12-College Exchange). Unlike women taking Amherst classes through the Five College course exchange, these students, often called “coeds,” lived at the College for the semester or year of their exchange.
These two images were used throughout the early 1970s to illustrate the concept of coeducation (and, more broadly, gendered dynamics on-campus) in articles in the Student. The two roles women are seen playing in these photos echo frustrations voiced over the same timespan by women exchange students at the College, who often felt pigeonholed as either sex objects or “one of the guys.” Read more in another post on our blog.
Amherst was not the only single-sex college in the Pioneer Valley to debate going coeducational at this time. While anti-coeducation advocates at Smith, Mount Holyoke, and Amherst all argued that coeducation could harm the Five College Consortium (focusing on the relationship between its three single-sex member colleges), some arguments seemed more unique to Smith and MHC, including the concern that high-quality male applicants would not be interested in formerly women’s colleges and the desire for women to have a place where they would not be spoken over.
Despite some proposals for the three colleges to go coeducational cooperatively, Amherst was ultimately the only one to embrace coeducation.
After the decision was made for Amherst College to go coed in 1974, the institution underwent major changes, not only within the student body, but the campus community as a whole. In anticipation of the incoming female students, women faculty members were hired from 1972-1979 to aid in the college’s transition. These first few women were instrumental in transforming the male-centric academic culture that prevailed at Amherst at the time, and laid the groundwork for the women that followed. They served as a beacon of inspiration and support for the first few women that were admitted to the college as students, enabling them to become pioneers in coeducation. Collectively, these women completely reshaped the college by highlighting its faults and calling out the administration when changes were necessary.
This collection of photographs is of some of the women professors that were hired from 1972 to 1979 as part of the college’s effort to diversify the faculty. Prior to this, Rose Richardson Olver had been the only female professor at Amherst College for ten years. These women were confronted with all sorts of challenges from the administration, their male colleagues, and the still largely male student body as the college struggled to adjust.
Rose Olver joined the psychology department at Amherst in 1962 as the first female professor at Amherst College. She was a major force in coeducation, and served as a mentor for many of the women faculty that followed after. She was also the first woman to be commemorated and have her portrait hung in Johnson Chapel.
Sonia Sanchez is an internationally renowned poet, writer, and a leading activist in the Black Arts Movement . She was the first black, female professor at Amherst College where she taught from 1972-1975, and was a pioneer of the Black Studies department curriculum. She also served as the second chair of the Black Studies Department at Amherst.
Mary Bateson was hired as Amherst College’s first female Dean of Faculty in 1980, and served until 1983. She was then a professor of anthropology at Amherst until 1987. Bateson taught at Harvard and Northeastern, as well as in the Philippines and Iran, before coming to Amherst as dean.
Elizabeth Bruss came to Amherst College from her teaching position at the University of Michigan in 1972. At Amherst, she taught courses in English literature, linguistics, and literary theory. She was the first woman to assume the chairmanship position of the English Department in 1979. The Bruss Reading Room in Johnson Chapel was named for her, as was the Bruss Readership.
Author(s): Kristen Cronin and Betsy McKay
This is an excerpt from a four-page spread in the May 5th, 1980 issue of The Student titled “Women Professors at Amherst: A survey of the professional difficulties and perceptions of women on the college faculty”. 17 women professors at Amherst College were interviewed and asked to share how they arrived at the College, what their experience was like, and what changes they felt the College should make.
Sofield report (1984)
The Sofield report was prepared in 1984 by the Ad Hoc Committee to study the conditions of work for faculty women at Amherst college. The report was named after English professor David Sofield who chaired the project, and was supported by Amherst faculty members Amrita Basu, Frederick Griffiths, Stephanie Sandler, and Marguerite Waller. This report was instrumental in the development of the Women and Gender Studies department and the on-campus daycare.
“Half a Century of Women Teaching at Amherst: Gender Matters Symposium” (2011)
Held in October of 2011, this symposium was a celebration of the first female faculty members to enter the college around the time of coeducation. The symposium was planned and executed by Elizabeth “Buffy” AIres, Patricia O’Hara, Rose Olver and Jane Taubman with the assistance of Patricia Allen as event coordinator.
The Amherst Student “Inauguration of President Biddy Martin” (2011)
On October 18th, 2011, Carolyn A. “Biddy” Martin was elected as the 19th president of Amherst College, becoming the first woman to do so. One of the most significant accomplishments of Martin’s presidency was the establishment of the Title IX office in 2013 in response to overwhelming student dissatisfaction with existing protocols regarding sexual assault. Biddy Martin served as president for 11 years and resigned from office in 2022.
When the first fully coed class arrived at Amherst in 1976, there was still a lot of work to be done to make the College a welcoming place for women. This section of the exhibit provides a glimpse of what life was like for these women who were thrust into a male-dominated campus with little-to-no administrative support. Most of them took matters into their own hands and worked collaboratively amongst themselves to make Amherst College an inclusive institution socially, physically, and intellectually. Decades of female student life at the College have been documented, and those on display here help to articulate the transformative contributions these women have made over the years. These materials encapsulate their resilience and determination throughout their struggle for women’s integration at Amherst.
The Amherst Student “Reflections of Amherst’s Female Pioneers” (October 29th, 1984)
Author(s): Vicki Nagle
This special supplement to The Student was written nine years post co-education and recounts the experiences of some of the women that attended Amherst College either through the Five College Consortium, or as fully enrolled students. It also addresses the college administration’s struggle with recruiting female applicants at the time due to its late entry into coeducation.
“First Women Graduates” Plaque (1976)
This is one of the plaques awarded to the nine women who were the first to graduate from Amherst College as class of ‘76. These women were transfers from the Five College Consortium and attended Amherst as part of the twelve-college exchange program that was offered before the school became coed.
The Amherst Student “The ‘Her’ in Amherst” (May 24th, 1980)
Author(s): Cara Schoen and Suzette Brooks
This newspaper spread is a compilation of college reflections from eight senior Amherst women who were members of the first fully coed class. The eight women interviewed were Carey Caccavo, Anne-Melissa Dowling, Nancy Johnson, Charlotte Kent, Ruth Kim, Norma Moruzzi, Arlene Stein, and Lynn White. These women addressed what their reactions and attitudes were towards Amherst College initially, and how they changed over the four years.
The Amherst Student “Women Demand Harassment Policy, Stage Sit-in in President’s Office” (May 14th, 1985)
Author(s): Ann-Marie McGowan
On May 12th, 1985, 200 women students and faculty, along with a few members of the LGBTQ+ community at Amherst College, participated in a peaceful sit-in at President Pouncey’s office in Converse Hall to protest the administration’s procedures for handling sexual assault and heterosexist harassment.
The Amherst Student “An Account of Sexual Assault at Amherst College” (October 17th, 2012)
Author(s): Angie Epifano
Angie Epifano was a former student of the class of 2014 at Amherst College, and this article in which she recounts the trauma she endured on campus was instrumental in the development of the Title IX office. Her story, along with many others, highlighted the college’s inability to properly handle issues of sexual assault.
Campus and Community
Physical changes to the Amherst College campus were an inevitable part of coeducation. Millions were allocated to reshape the campus infrastructure ensuring that the buildings and grounds of the college would be able to effectively accommodate the growing number of women. A couple of years later, after feedback from female students, the administration came to realize that the social systems within the college would need to be reconstructed as well to truly align with the new coeducational reality. Coeducation’s impact resonated both inwardly and outwardly, and this last section of the exhibit emphasizes its transformative power not only on the campus landscape but also within the hearts and minds of its community members and leaders.
Women’s and Gender Center (1975)
On September 10th, 1975, a group of women students met to discuss their experiences at the college and collectively realized that a women’s center was necessary. Shortly after, the Amherst Women’s Group was created as a safe space for women amidst the male-dominated student body. This newspaper clipping talks about the initial meeting, and we have a copy of a newsletter for the Amherst College Women’s Group. Also included in this section is a collage that may have hung in the Women’s and Gender Center at some point.
Women’s and Gender Studies (1986)
The Amherst College catalog for the academic year 1976-77 was the first time Women’s Studies appeared in the catalogs. At the time, there were no majors being offered in women’s studies, and students typically attended classes at Smith or Holyoke to supplement the sparse curriculum at Amherst. In 1986 the Women and Gender Studies Department was fully established, and the catalog for the 1987-88 academic year displayed a more complete Women’s and Gender Studies section with detailed course listings.
Prior to coeducation, fraternities were a pivotal part of Amherst College culture, and were also the main form of housing for students. In 1980, women were granted equal access to fraternity membership, both in terms of social participation and housing. Not surprisingly, many women were not fond of living in such close proximity to frat men, and their sexist practices proved non conducive to building an inclusive campus community. Ultimately, all fraternities were dissolved in 1984.
Keefe Campus Center (1987)
After fraternities were closed, the College offered to build a new campus center to help maintain a sense of community among students. Named after Harry V. Keefe Jr. ‘43, the Keefe Campus Center since its completion in 1987 has played a central role in student life. It is home to many student organizations and resource centers, and a new campus center is currently on the way to help provide more housing for other clubs at the College.