A protest, a vote, and 50 years of change: What happened when Lafayette went co-ed

This logo was used to commemorate the tenth anniversary of co-ed classes at the college. (Photo courtesy of Special Collections, Skillman Library)

“I don’t think the freshmen notice any difference, I notice the attention is from the upperclassmen.”

“Yes sir, they’re horny as Hell!”

These two quotes appeared on the front page of The Lafayette from the first co-ed class at the college who discussed their reactions in an article by Nancy Baran

On September 18, 1970, The Lafayette published an issue including the editorial statement: “Blessedly, co-education is upon us. The endless carping and bitching of our predecessors has evidently paid off.” It included unattributed quotes from freshmen and upperclassmen on their thoughts about the college having enrolled its first classes to include women.

“Too many boys,” one woman said.

“They’re bothersome,” said another.

“I really like chicks – I can’t see spending four years without them,” one male freshman said, while another expressed hope that “freshmen girls would stick to freshmen boys.” A senior said he thought the women seemed to be “here primarily for social reasons.”

It was a 19-9 vote by the all-male board of trustees on June 27, 1969 that passed a resolution to admit women to the college, but, ultimately, it was the result of student efforts.

“We [most students] wanted co-ed by 1970,” said American Studies professor Peter Newman ‘73. “There had been a survey. After the surveys done by the alumni, the students wanted to do a survey, and over 75 percent wanted co-education.”

“The admissions department knew that if Lafayette wanted to stay competitive and attract the same quality of students, it would probably have to go co-ed,” Newman added.

Newman said he suspects the other 25 percent may have been seniors, who wouldn’t be able to experience co-ed college either way. He added that it seemed inevitable that the college would go co-ed, but the question was when.

Newman was a freshman when he was part of the movement petitioning to go co-ed. He said once students got to Lafayette, it didn’t feel like a “natural situation,” because most of them had gone to co-ed high schools and it “was a step backwards.”

“They called a meeting in Colton Chapel called by the administration, to decide when to go co-ed,” he said. “My theory had been they called the meeting at the chapel because if 50 students show up it looks empty. We went around to every fraternity and every dorm. When the president showed up, every seat and every aisle was filled. We said we wanted to go co-ed in the fall.”

Thus, Lafayette was co-ed that fall. 123 of the 515-student freshman class were women, the paper reported, and 23 other women were accepted as transfers. Just four women were enrolled in engineering.

“It didn’t appear as lopsided as it sounds,” Newman said. “You saw women on campus, it wasn’t completely odd. One of the big concerns of the faculty was that women would only take liberal arts, but that proved within a few years to be untrue.”

The Lafayette polled women at the college in February 1971, finding 26 of 51 who responded were “very pleased with academic life.” 15 percent were “merely satisfied,” and 10 said they were “unhappy or disappointed.”

“There were facility issues,” Newman said. “They dealt with the issues, but for the first year there was nothing there.”

The freshman women lived in Ruef Hall, then called “New Freshman Dorm,” where Newman said they were held to a different set of rules.

“One of the accommodations they made right away was putting in bathtubs and sewing machines,” Newman said.

Later in 1971, the Lafayette field hockey team debuted. The student paper first covered them after a pair of losses with two paragraphs, spending the better part of a full page on football, just a preview for their next game.

“When the [women’s] teams first formed, they would share uniforms with other teams, they would share locker rooms,” Newman said. “With Title IX, it became imperative to sort these issues out.”

In 1976, an evaluation of the athletic department found that the college was indeed in violation of Title IX regulations in women’s sports.

“To match the Lafayette-Lehigh football game, we had a powderpuff game where the women played and the men cheered, and it was possibly the most brutal game I’ve seen in my life,” Newman said. “I think it was flag football, but blocking and taking people out, it was a brutal game.”

In 1972, Linda Yock Baker became the first woman to graduate from Lafayette. 

Catherine Patterson became the first woman to win a Pepper Prize in 1977. The college administration approved the creation of sororities that year, and Beta Gamma would be established as the first Lafayette sorority one year later.

In 1980, The Lafayette dedicated a page to the 10th anniversary of the college going co-ed, with a piece about other colleges going co-ed around the same time, written by the paper’s first woman editor, Ann Gallagher.

Another article on the page detailed the growth of women’s sports to eight different teams, all of which recorded winning seasons in the 1978-1979 and 1979-1980 academic years, highlighted by field hockey’s regional playoff appearances and even a Division II lacrosse national championship in 1980. Since then, field hockey has placed in the national top-20 at the end of the season three times: in 1999, 2002, and 2012.

Now, 50 years since the first co-ed classes, the last three Pepper Prize winners have been women. More than half of the student body is women. Of Lafayette’s 23 varsity sports, 11 are women’s teams and one team—fencing—is co-ed.

According to Lafayette President Alison Byerly, a committee has been working on creating events to celebrate half a century of co-education at the college.

“While we expect this anniversary will be especially significant to alumnae who were among the first women to attend Lafayette, we believe this is an important milestone for the entire community to celebrate,” Byerly wrote in an email. “The addition of women transformed and strengthened Lafayette, and is in many ways a template for the college’s willingness to adapt and change over time.”

About AJ Traub

AJ Traub '20 is the assistant sports editor of The Lafayette. He studies geology and French.

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