First women students entered campus 50 years ago
GAMBIER — Being the first to do anything substantial in the academic world makes one a pioneer of sorts. Such is certainly the case for Belinda Bremner who was the first woman at Kenyon College to cross the graduation stage on Samuel Mather lawn on May 30, 1971. She received her dual degree in English and Drama.
This coming weekend, Bremner, who hails from of Oak Park, Illinois, and other women who were the first to gain admittance to Kenyon for fall classes in September of 1969 will gather — along with many of their fellow male graduates — for an event titled “Women at Kenyon: 50 Years of Coeducation.” There will be dinners, stage productions, welcome events for alumnae, and panels on Saturday with topics including Women as Transformational Leaders” and “Kenyon Generations.”
Bremner was one of just three women, accepted as juniors, who would be part of the Class of 1971. Before attending Kenyon, she had spent a year abroad at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland, where she took part in activities that included helping manage stage productions. Coming home to the United States after spending time in Dublin and London — and adjusting to life as one of the first female students at a bucolic yet somewhat isolated liberal arts college on a hill, as she describes Kenyon — was quite a change, she said. She had graduated from high school at Convent of the Sacred Heart in Chicago in 1966, and then attended Briar Cliff, an all women’s college, for her freshman and sophomore years before her trek to Ireland.
“I had gone to just girls’ schools all of my life, so I hadn’t been in classes with men … I did not know anything about what negative pushback there might be,” she said.
Bremner was one of the first three women who formed part of the Class of ‘71. She first stayed in the Alumni House, now the Kenyon Inn, while Dormitory 1 was being completed, later known as McBride Hall. She became friends with a Class of 1971 peer, Patricia Sellew Cimarosa, and sometimes it seemed like it was just the two of them to make sense of being in such a small first cohort of forthcoming women graduates, she said. They entered as part of a “Coordinate College,” which meant they were not allowed to take part in some ceremonies such as signing The Matriculation Book. Those privileges for women would not start until 1972 following a board of trustees’ vote.
Bremner offered there was the third woman in her Class of 1971 cohort, Judith Goodhand, “but we never saw her,” Bremner said, explaining that Goodhand was married to a faculty member, French professor Robert Goodhand. The women’s cohort from the Class of 1972 came to Kenyon as sophomores and juniors and 18 of them would graduate, while 100 women joined 211 men in graduating from Kenyon in 1973 — the college’s first fully implemented coeducational class.
Bremner said she received a world-class education at Kenyon, which “I wouldn’t have traded for anything.” She took a rigorous set of five or six classes per semester, with one of her favorite classes being on the topic of The Old Testament. It was “team-taught” by Eugen Kullmann, a German who was a Talmudic scholar, and Denis Baly, a British scholar who was an expert on Near East archaeology and geography. She also took part in Kenyon plays such as “The Bells” for her senior project as well as “La Camaraderie,” another senior project.
As much as she enjoyed her two years at Kenyon, Bremner said men were attending, and also past graduates, who were opposed to women being accepted at an elite college that had been all-male since its founding in 1824. So she was not completely surprised with the audience reaction when she became the first Kenyon woman to cross the graduation stage.
“The most memorable thing about it was being booed by some of the alumni,” she said. “There were some who didn’t want women at Kenyon.”
Bremner said being an already well-traveled student by the time she moved to Gambier, she was able to take it all in stride, with many of her fellow classmates at Kenyon being senior males who were encouraging and admired her study habits. She went on to a prolific career in theater and drama production in Chicago, where she worked at one time for the St. Nicholas Theater Company founded by David Mamet, Patricia Cox, William H. Macy and others. She has worked in all aspects of theater production, including acting and directing, and has taught theater history, dialects, playwriting and acting at the Chicago College of the Performing Arts at Roosevelt University.
Julie Miller Vick, who enrolled as a freshman in 1969 and was part of Kenyon’s first fully co-educational Class of 1973, has been involved in the coming weekend’s activities as a member of the Planning Committee celebrating 50 years of women at the college. She has worked on a display of books featuring Kenyon-graduated authors, and is contributing to a Cultural Open House at Colburn Hall — with a crocheted dress she has donated toward the event. She said women’s college fashion in the time, besides bell-bottom blue jeans, were leather “goat coats” lined with goat hair.
“I had one of them,” she said.
Vick, who is from the Philadelphia area, kept a journal while at Kenyon, and with 50 years of women celebrated at her college starting this weekend, part of an overall year-long celebration, “I’ve been doing a lot of looking back at it,” she said.
Vick’s family moved from State College, Pennsylvania to Boston when she was 3 years old and she attended the Belmont Public Schools system next to Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was motivated to attend Kenyon when a college representative visited her school.
“He came during math class, and I really disliked math. I knew Paul Newman went there, and I knew about the Kenyon Review,” she said of the college’s literary magazine. “I read a lot and I liked English and studying literature.”
Vick said she didn’t fully realize the significance at the time of being in a “pioneering class” of Kenyon women, one reason being outside forces going on around her. She was the college’s first female Classics major, taking Latin and Greek five days per week.
“The world was changing rapidly at the time,” Vick said, noting the Vietnam War was still raging when she applied to Kenyon, while Civil Rights and a push for equality for women was happening at college campuses across the nation.
“It was a turbulent time, and the roles for women were changing, too,” she said. The first female tenure-track faculty member at Kenyon, Harlene Marley, was beginning what would become a stellar career teaching drama at Kenyon. A theater is being dedicated in her honor Saturday.
Vick said being part of a “Coordinate College” of women who were admitted to Kenyon, but not allowed to attend certain functions, gave women a sort of “separate but equal” status for a time. Full co-education with women allowed to attend all functions began in 1972: women signed the Matriculation Book later that year, signifying they were full-fledged students.
“Most of us didn’t realize (what Coordinate College meant) until we got there,” she said.
Although most men at Kenyon began to accept women as time went along, there were outliers, she said.
“I remember I had a professor who said, ‘I didn’t think I would have to teach girls,’” she said, adding a male student quipped at her at one point, “We didn’t want you (women) to come here.”
“The college was not ready for us (at first),” she said. “They did not realize that when you admit women, you have to have services for them, like health services.”
But, like Bremner, Vick said she would not have traded her Kenyon experience for any other educational opportunity. She earned a master’s in Library Science and became a librarian, first in Boston and then at the University of Pennsylvania. She also earned a master’s in the study of folklore, and spent a number of years as a career advisor at Penn.
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First Co-ed class shares a legacy of pride
GAMBIER — Kenyon College and many of its proudest alumni, both women and men, will celebrate the 50th anniversary of women entering the college this weekend with numerous events offered across campus with the theme “Women at Kenyon: 50 Years of Coeducation.”
By May of 1973, which celebrated the third class of women to graduate at Kenyon College — also its first fully co-educational class — women had become an accepted part of all Kenyon events and ceremonies, according to Kenyon College Historian Tom Stamp.
But the road to getting there was fraught with challenges for those women, said Stamp, who was part of the Class of 1973, which graduated 100 women and 211 men. All of the first women to attend Kenyon were admitted for classes in September 1969, first a cohort of just three women accepted as juniors who would graduate in 1971. They were followed by 18 sophomores and juniors who would graduate in 1972, and then a full cohort of women admitted as freshmen.
From the male perspective at Kenyon, it was well known that the pioneering women at the college would be treated differently, at least for a time, he offered. They were part of what was known as a “Coordinate College” in which women attended classes but were given — as one female graduate put it — “separate but equal” status until fully implemented co-education began in 1972. It took a board of trustees vote early that year to make it so.
“The women in the first classes were not invited to participate in some Kenyon traditions, such as the Freshman Sing, the Rite of Matriculation, and the signing of the Matriculation Book,” he said, while adding, “The Coordinate College for Women was fully absorbed into Kenyon College and thus ceased to exist in the summer of 1972. From that point forward, women were included in all of Kenyon’s ceremonial events.”
By 1973, Stamp offered, “There were no male students left on campus who had experienced Kenyon as a male-only institution, so coeducation was an accepted fact. There may still have been a few men on campus who would have preferred to attend an all-male college, but I’d venture to say their number was in the single digits. Also, by the time we graduated, there were very few all-male colleges left in the United States, because so many of them — Bowdoin, Brown, Colgate, Davidson, Holy Cross, Princeton, Trinity, Wesleyan, Williams, and Yale, for example — had begun admitting women between 1969 and 1972.”
However, in September 1969 when women first started appearing in classes alongside male students and appeared in the college library, dining halls and their assigned Dormitory 1, some men struggled with the idea of co-education more than others, he reflected.
Stamp was asked what male opposition was based on, and he noted “several arguments” advanced by both male-only and female-only institutions.
“One of those (reasons) cited most often was the “distraction” theory, i.e., that the attractions of the opposite sex would lessen students’ ability to concentrate on their studies,” he said. “Another and related one was that, for pedagogical reasons, single-sex classrooms were best, allowing either men or women — depending on your point of view — to speak more freely.”
Stamp added that “tradition was also cited with some frequency,” especially at institutions with long male-only histories like Kenyon, which was founded by Philander Chase in 1824.
“And then there were the retrograde males who believed females upset the campus social order by making it less casual, or disrupted brotherly camaraderie, or only attended college to ‘find a husband’,” he recalled.
But by 1973, Stamp said women and men were enjoying the opportunity to share their perspectives of being students during an interesting time. The early 1970s involved a winding-down of the Vietnam War, continued efforts to institute the Civil Rights legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and an effort to empower women through passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, which narrowly missed on the number of states needed for ratification.
“I’m very proud, and always have been proud, of being a member of Kenyon’s first fully coeducational class,” Stamp said. “That pride is shared by all of us in the Class of 1973, and it accounts for our class’ strong record of support for the college over the years, both financially and as volunteers in various alumni activities.”
Stamp said numerous members of his class, both women and men, went on to serve on the Alumni Council and the college’s board of trustees. Others have received honorary doctorate degrees and other recognition, including the Alumni Council Humanitarian Service Award.
“And, our loyalty has been demonstrated with the creation of the Class of 1973 Scholarship, which goes to a student who has had to overcome adversity of some kind — economic or physical, for example — in order to attend Kenyon,” he said.
A full list of events for “Women at Kenyon: 50 Years of Coeducation,” scheduled for Friday through Sunday, can be viewed at: http://women.kenyon.edu/celebration-weekend-schedule. This weekend’s events are part of a year-long celebration of coeducation at Kenyon, featuring performances, art exhibits, networking receptions, panel discussions, and the dedication of the Harlene Marley Theater, named for Kenyon’s first woman hired into a tenure-track position in 1969.