Carving an Uncertain Path: The Experiences and Legacies of Trinity and Amherst’s First Women

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“All the world over, so easy to see, people everywhere just want to be free.”  The 1968 school year began with The Rascal’s topping the Billboard Charts,[i] and students everywhere were taking their lyrics to heart.  Be it Vietnam, Nixon, Civil Rights or Women’s Rights, campuses across the country overflowed with activism and controversy.  Among elite colleges in the Northeast—traditionally all-male institutions—a tidal wave of progressive change was taking place, the highlight of which was the admission of women at many of these schools.  With widespread student support, and administrative consent (albeit for reasons other than equality), Trinity accepted their first women for the 1969-1970 school year. At the same time, when the subject of co-education was raised at Amherst College, the student body’s ambivalence and the administration’s opposition culminated into a failure to integrate fully for another five years, later than almost all of their peers.  While the administrations and trustees of both Trinity and Amherst showed profit-driven motives for co-education—which resulted in their unwillingness to adequately support their first women—the prevalence of opposition among Amherst students and officials resulted in Amherst’s first women having a more difficult experience than the first women to attend Trinity.

While the Trinity administration’s motives for implementing co-education placed economics and academic competitiveness above equality, the student body’s support for co-education evidenced a progressive campus community.  Evidence of the administration’s reasons for admitting women can be found in a private memorandum written by Robert Fuller, the Dean of Students at the time of the first admission of women, to Theodore Lockwood, who served as president of the College from 1968-1981.  In the report, Fuller explained how co-education would allow Trinity to increase their academic competetiveness, writing, “we could replace the less qualified among the men we are now admitting with women who were the academic equals of the upper half of our entering men.”[ii]  According to Fuller, this would prevent Trinity from falling behind their peer institutions, including Swarthmore College, Wesleyan University, and Williams College.  He also claimed that accepting women will decrease the economic burden the College faced, writing, “The admission of women would reduced this demand [for scholarships], because a family seldom considers sending a daughter to an expensive private college unless it can pay her way.”[iii]  While the Fuller memo points to the administration’s profit-driven motives for implementing co-education, evidence shows that the student body was ready to welcome women to the College.  A poll taken by the Trinity Tripod in October of 1968, less than a month after Fuller wrote his report, showed that 76% of students were in support of having females as classmates and peers.[iv]  This proves that, while the administration may not have been ready to accept women for reasons of social progress, they would find at least some level of support from the student body.

            Although they finally bowed to the pressures of competition in 1974, the Amherst administration and Board of Trustees were initially very reluctant to admit women, and their hesitance was initially matched by ambivalence on the part of the student body.  It was not until the early 70’s that the tide of student support for co-education switched in favor of the admission of women.  Discussion surrounding co-education at Amherst gained steam around the same time that Trinity admitted it’s first women, yet the College claimed that the problems surrounding a switch to co-education were too great to overcome.  According to Joan Annett, who took classes at Amherst as a part of the “12-College Exchange” in 1970, wrote, “The feasibility of coeducation at Amherst is, undeniably, a complex issue; however, most of the obstacles involved are not as insurmountable as many of the officials of the College would have us believe.”[v]  Despite the rapid acceptance of co-education among elite Northeastern colleges, the Amherst administration managed to paint the difficulties attached to co-education as being too difficult to overcome.  And while any resistance to co-education prior to 1970 by Trinity officials and trustees was counterbalanced by strong student support for co-education, this was not the case at Amherst.  In December of 1968, two months after 76% of Trinity students had declared their support for co-education, only 49% of Amherst students did the same.[vi]  It was not until 1973 that the support for the admission of women began to grow among students and faculty, and the administration finally decided to appoint a committee to study the benefits of transitioning to co-education.  A Boston Globe article from November of 1974 reported that, “there was considerable opposition to it by the alumni…however, as other schools began to accept women and pressure for the change built up among Amherst faculty and students, the trustees last year agreed to consider at this year’s meeting if a study could show its benefits to the college.”[vii]  The results of this study finally convinced the Amherst community to accept co-education, but the absence of active support for co-education over the last few years would prove to predicate an uphill battle for Amherst’s first women—one that they would find themselves undertaking with very little external support.

The first generation of women at Trinity found that, while the administration was often ambivalent to their struggles, they could rely on the support of certain portions of the student body and the faculty.  In the classroom, while isolated instances of prejudice were certainly present, women reported that the system as a whole treated them with fairness.  One member of the class of 1979 reported that they “don’t remember being treated any differently than [their] other male classmates.”[viii]  Not all of the early women at Trinity corroborated these reports of academic equality, including another member of the class of 1979 who recalled that they “felt discrimination against women by faculty, in the classroom—blatant—with words.”[ix]  While Noreen Channels did not report the majors of the individuals quote in her survey for the sake of privacy, the disparity in academic experiences had by Trinity’s first women suggests that the integration of women into the classroom was welcomed differently by different academic disciplines.

Outside of the classroom, Trinity’s first women faced numerous, terrifying struggles, but reported that they were able to find support among the student body, which they found especially vital in the absence of administrative support. One member of the class of 1979 recalled the reluctance of the Administration to act on their behalf, saying, “Even though there were a significant number of physical assaults on women, there was essentially no college-sponsored remedy,”[x] while a 1984 graduate remembers, “the response of [a male administrator], when told of a gang rape of a women at Trinity (at a frat) by male students, was ‘boys will be boys’”[xi] The actions of the Trinity administration during the first years of co-education explicitly speak to their priorities; the reputation of the College was a far higher consideration than the health, safety, and wellbeing of its female students.  Another member of the class of 1979 provided a recollection that, while providing further evidence of the College administration’s skewed priorities and general apathy to the safety of women, spoke to the courage of a more progressive student body that recognized female students as their peers, and recognized their safety as being an important issue.  She recalls,

My friends and I were outraged when there were a number of rapes and assaults (1974-75) and TC would not post composite drawings of the men who were responsible.  We were told it would hurt the reputation of the school.  The make students, without the help of the school, organized escort services and in 2 cases that I witnessed, the students cornered and/or beat up 2 men who’d been assaulting or planning to assault women.  One of the suspects was caught in my dorm bathroom, hiding with a knife.[xii]

The above passage, while highlighting the failure of the Trinity administration to support their first female students, makes it clear that these students were not entirely along in their difficult journey.  Brave male students, without any support from the College, stood by Trinity’s first women as they faced the incredibly daunting challenge of integrating into the campus community.

            The first women to attend Amherst, in light of the broad resistance to co-education, often felt that they were unwelcome and excluded. From when they first stepped on campus, the first female students were made to feel as though there presence was opposed and their admission was illegitimate.  Alissa Reyness, a 1981 graduate, reflected on the hostile campus culture, saying,

When school started that fall, there were rumors about coeducation.  Rumors that the majority of the alumni, and many students and faculty were against it.  The decision (so the rumors went) had not been based on notions of equality and equal access, but on economics:  Amherst was losing out in the application pool to the now coeducational Big Three.  Another rumor was that the high proportion of attractive women that first year was an intentional sop to the unwilling students, alumni, and faculty.[xiii]

Reyness’ account of the rumors that were circulating campus during their first year it very easy to imagine how unwelcome women felt in the Amherst community.  However, the hostility went beyond the campus murmurings and was sometimes far more direct.  One female member of the class of 1981 an incident where she realized how blatant and universal the hostility could be.  She writes,

One very strong, clear—and still sad—memory I have was of a reunion dinner in 1980.  The president at the time came in to speak and he was booed—by a lot of people there—because he had been instrumental in the coeducation of the College.  For me it was like a deep wound—to see this great man treated badly and disrespectfully like this—and also to feel that these people—alumni—hadn’t wanted me at the College.  I’ll never forget this scene.  I found a male friend after this and tried to explain my hurt to him and he didn’t even understand.[xiv]

The first women at Amherst, as evidenced above, felt isolated and unwelcome on their own campus.  Emily Cooperman of the class of 1982 described “a whole atmosphere, a kind of culture, in which [she] felt [her]self clearly a foreigner.”[xv]  This experience differs from that of Trinity’s first women in that women at Amherst felt that they were ostracized on a more universal level, and they felt that they were without allies.

            Since these first women bravely carved their way through Trinity and Amherst, both institutions have come a long way in terms of treating women fairly, but both still have a long way to go.  One member of the class of 2016 reported that she has thus far had a “fair classroom experience,” but that “Trinity is a male-dominated social institution.”[xvi]  Another member of class of 2016 spoke of the mistreatment of female faculty that still exists at Trinity, saying that, “My advisor is leaving for [another University]…because she can’t deal with how she’s treated as a woman by her colleagues.”[xvii]  This student also noted a present stigma surrounding the Woman and Gender Studies program at Trinity, saying that, “[as a Woman and Gender Studies minor,] people assume I’m a feminist who doesn’t shave their legs.”[xviii]  The experience of women at Amherst has come a long way since co-education.  One member of the class of 2015 said, “I don’t see my experience at Amherst as being as scripted by my gender as I think I might have felt soon after co-education.” However, she noted that “many classroom spaces are still male-dominated, and men will speak disproportionately to the number that are in the class.” [xix]  While the framework laid by the first women at each of these institutions has done a great deal to improve the female condition at Amherst and Trinity, continuing to fight for equal treatment is still of the utmost importance.

The first women to attend both Trinity and Amherst faced an incredibly daunting battle, and found that their respective administrations did little to support them.  However, support among male students at Trinity (which was largely absent at Amherst), resulted in Trinity’s early female graduates finding a support network that was not present at Amherst.  Women at each school, with or without allies, fought for their safety, their rights, and the opportunity for their voice to be heard.  While both schools have made tremendous progress, women in the NESCAC and beyond are still fighting for the same rights, and it is my hope that by better understanding where the battle has been, we are all better equipped to fight for a better, more just future.

 Special Thanks to Rob Walsh, Peter Knapp, Jack Dougherty, and the staff of the Amherst College Archives & Special Collections Library for their invaluable help with research.

[i] “The Hot 100 Archives.” Text. Billboard, January 2, 2013.

[ii] Robert Fuller, “The Admission of Women Undergraduates to Trinity College,” September 30, 1968.

[iii] ibid.

[iv] “76% Support Coeducation in Tripod Evaluation.” Trinity Tripod. October 11, 1968, Vol. LXVII, No. 8 edition.

[v] Joan Annett, “Coeducation at Amherst: A Feminine View,” Amherst Alumni News XXII, no. 3 (Winter 1970): 3–5.

[vi] “Amherst and Coeducation: A Summary.” News of Amherst College: Amherst College Bulletin 63, no. 6 (March 1974).

[vii]McMillan, Gary. “Amherst College to End Male Tradition, Trustees Decide to Admit Women Next Fall.” Boston Globe, November 3, 1974.

[viii].Noreen Channels, Survey of the Trinity College Alumnae Conducted in the Spring, 1990 (Hartford, Conn., United States: Trinity College, 1990). Pt.4, P.10.

[ix] ibid. Pt. 4, P.17.

[x] ibid. Pt.3, P.5.

[xi] ibid. Pt.3, P.15.

[xii] ibid. Pt.3, P.6.

[xiii] Auban Haydel and Kit Lasher, The Fairest College?:  Twenty Years of Women at Amherst (Amherst, MA, 1997). P.13.

[xiv] ibid. PP.10-11.

[xv] ibid. P.29.

[xvi] Monteleone, Isabel. Interview with Isabel Monteleone, Trinity College, Class of 2016. Interview by Evan Turiano. Face to Face, April 21, 2014.

[xvii] Reny, Olivia. Interview with Olivia Reny, Trinity College, Class of 2016. Interview by Evan Turiano. Face to Face, April 20, 2014.

[xviii] ibid.

[xix] Ellis-Moore, Kyra. Interview with Kyra Ellis-Moore, Amherst College, Class of 2015. Interview by Evan Turiano. Email, April 22, 2014.

One thought on “Carving an Uncertain Path: The Experiences and Legacies of Trinity and Amherst’s First Women”

  1. This essay compares co-education at Trinity and Amherst and argues that while both colleges “showed profit-driven motives” for accepting women, this meant that they did not adequately support the first cohorts of women, and furthermore, that opposition by Amherst male students and officials made women’s experiences there more difficult than at Trinity.

    Some of the essay’s most persuasive evidence in support of its thesis is the comparison of 1968 polling data in favor of coed among 76% of Trinity students (you accidentally wrote “officials,” which you can fix online) versus Amherst students (49%).

    But I was not as persuaded by the “profit-driven” argument. Partly this is because both institutions are technically non-profit, and secondly, the essay could have done more to clarify how they colleges acted “in their self-interest” rather than the interest of educating women for their own sake. For instance, you briefly refer to Amherst trustees agreeing to consider co-education “if a study could show its benefits to the college,” and elaborating further on what that meant would have helped here.

    Furthermore, the essay argues that Trinity women “reported that the system as a whole treated them with fairness” while glossing over many instances of Trinity women who reported that male professors ignored or did not call on them in class in the Channels report. I fully understand how different women may report different experiences of co-education, but the essay jumps over this too quickly. Furthermore, as they essay moves into women’s reports of Trinity administrators failing to respond to assaults on women in the 1970s/80s, while that may be outside of the classroom, it’s hard to characterize as a system that operates under a principle of “fairness.” Very interesting evidence of “male friends” (you accidentally wrote “make”) acting to support women without College support.

    Finally, while I’m very impressed with the number of Amherst sources you obtained in your last 24 hours of researching this project, and two anecdotes from Amherst women are powerful, it would have been ideal if you could had compared the Lasher and Haydel book with the Channels study. Overall, a rich comparison of the two campuses that makes me think in new ways on the topic.

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