Claiming a Voice

By Sandra Grayson
Illustration by Seana Lyn Mickols

I began teaching part-time at Saint Mary's in 1984, 13 years after the College became coed. In 1988, presented with two offers of full-time employment, I chose the school at which I felt most at home, intellectually and personally. But I also recognized that there was a lot of work for women to do at Saint Mary's College.

Aside from the admirable and fearless Mary Springer, women didn't have much of a voice during my first decade on campus. In the classroom, women students often deferred to men. Students reported sexist graffiti in the library and the dorms; they also reported hostile or disparaging remarks by some faculty members. One female student spoke of casually racist and sexist comments from professors; she described her "African American Woman Writers" class as "an oasis in the desert." In Collegiate Seminar, the reading list was even more overwhelmingly male than it is today. 

Of course, the College had changed a great deal from its men's college past. Wondering about that past, I talked with some colleagues who know it firsthand. Ted Tsukahara, who arrived as a freshman in 1958, remembers a small, friendly College where most of the students were children of Irish or Italian immigrants but where he, as a Japanese-American boy, felt very welcome. Ted would have liked coed classrooms, but there were several women's colleges close by, and the students cooperated on musical performances and met at what were then called "mixers." 

Kathy Roper arrived as a new history professor in 1969, and like Ted, remembers a friendly campus. The College was in the midst of change, however, with a new president, Brother Mel Anderson, and an exciting new curriculum, featuring a January Term and eight required Seminars. The next two years were a time of social ferment, on and off campus. On campus, students and faculty gathered to protest the firing of Odell Johnson, an African American, from his position as dean of students. When Kathy spoke publicly against the firing, she heard a Christian Brother say, "How can I speak after this mini-skirted professor?" In 1970, when four Kent State students were shot by National Guard troops, Saint Mary's closed to protest the killings. It was the second college in the country to do so. Kathy's sense of that time on campus was that everyone was mobilized to work for change. But she was not yet thinking about changes for women.

Her office mate, Theo Carlile, also arrived in 1969, and she was thinking about the situation of women, perhaps as she sat in their windowless office or hiked to the one women's room in Dante Hall. Theo recalls that when her program chair introduced her to her first group of students, who were all male, he added the trivializing comment, "And isn't she lovely?" In the first year of coeducation, Saint Mary's had only about 40 freshman women, who, Theo reports, censored themselves in class discussions to avoid being accused of raising issues that related solely to women. She also remembers a professor who accused a female student of submitting someone else's work; he believed she wasn't intellectually capable. Theo left Saint Mary's in 1975, but returned in 1982 to a different campus. The numbers of women had increased greatly, and they were more than holding their own in the classroom. To Theo's satisfaction, it was now possible to address the Greeks' obsession with gender.

We can thank Brother Mel for these changes. As he told me, Brother Mel came to the presidency of Saint Mary's having served as the principal of coed high schools; he believed that young men and women should relate to each other intellectually as they matured, and saw single-sex education as "silly." In addition, Saint Mary's in 1969 had what was then a large budget deficit – $121,000 – and the College needed to expand the student body to remain viable. And as it happened, coeducation was already in the Moraga air: the student body had declared its support, and a College-sponsored survey of males in Catholic high schools suggested that Saint Mary's would be more attractive to males if it were coed. Another poll showed that twice as many Saint Mary's faculty members supported coeducation as opposed it. 

In December 1969, the Board of Trustees voted 9-3 for coeducation, too late to enroll a full class of women for fall 1970, but the change was made.  Brother Charles Hilken, a student then, recalls that there were so few women in the first class that he can picture each individually; one traveled everywhere on roller skates. Most male students were friendly, but as Brother Mel writes in his memoir, some men turned their backs on female students and chanted, "Here come the skirts." 

Is it likely that women would be treated as equals at a formerly all-male college, within a larger society in which women weren't treated as equals? Of course not.

Initially, Brother Mel felt the College would simply need to add women's rest rooms and hire a dean of women to be ready to admit women. But he also directed the redesign of residence halls, creating suites to provide privacy for women and men along with flexibility in housing students: it would not make sense financially to maintain an all-male or all-female floor for just a few students. 

Ed Tywoniak transferred to Saint Mary's in 1972, the second year of coeducation. He remembers two kinds of women students, whom he describes as the nice Catholic girls and the trailblazer women. Ed also told me how the College initially solved the restroom problem: on the second floor of Mitty, which housed females, it placed flowerpots in all the urinals. Though Ed thinks male and female students figured out how to live and learn together, he does remember that in his music appreciation class, the instructor became enraged when a female student challenged him and ordered her out of his class.

Frances Sweeney arrived at the College a decade after Ed, when about half of the student population was female. The student body officers were all male, and, although coeducation was firmly established, women and men were kept rather separate. For example, when the College reenacted the 1959 phone booth stuffing in 1984, one team was all male, the other all female. (The women won; they had a size advantage, but they also were faster.) Frances Sweeney credits many male and female professors for their support of every student, but also remembers male professors who were openly unfriendly toward women. Frances notes that it was Sister Clare Wagstaffe, the dean of women, who created both a health center and a counseling center.

More changes followed. In 1992 the Collegiate Seminar, under the energetic leadership of DeSales Perez, began a series of discussions on women's thought. Female and male faculty began meeting to draft a proposal for a Women's Studies minor. We submitted a proposal in 1992, and the Faculty Senate approved it by an overwhelming, though not unanimous, vote. The first Women's Studies courses were offered in spring 1994. And at some point in those years, the undergraduate student body became over half female. 

Theo Carlile became Women's Studies director because, in her words, "The program was important; there was no place for feminism on campus before Women's Studies." Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo succeeded her, and continued the work of educating the campus on women's contributions to society and the arts. I became the program's director in 1996. I remember telling the Women's Studies governing board then that I thought Saint Mary's needed "kindergarten feminism," and that if at the end of my term everyone on campus was aware of gender as a shaping force in their lives, I'd be happy.  

There were specific problems that we had to face, however.  Saint Mary's, like every college campus, had to deal with the issue of sexual assault; in 1989, the College had instituted workshops for incoming students.  But in 1997, a number of assaults led students to say that the College had to do more. Students wanted sexual assault counseling; they also wanted a safer campus, with more lighting and blue light emergency phones. In fall 1997, Denise Witzig, the Women's Studies coordinator, and I joined with Sheri Richards, director of the Counseling Center, and together we wrote a proposal for a Women's Resource Center. 

Spring semester 1998 arrived, and we continued talking with the administration.  But a group of Women's Studies students,

angered by a recent assault and a lack of response from the College, decided to organize a protest march. The new administration was not happy, but the students were determined. Student leader Erin Wetzel Dietzen '98 remembers, "We wanted to make an impact and we wanted change." 

The march did make an impact.  As The Collegian reported, under the headline "Marching for Respect," 250 students marched quietly around the campus and many spoke in the open-mike session that followed. Students spoke about safety issues, including the need for lighting in key areas of the campus and students' desires for a Women's Resource Center. Female and male students also voiced their concerns about issues ranging from class size to the departure of several administrators. Some stood to speak of their love for the College. A few weeks after the march, I was informed that Saint Mary's would create a Women's Resource Center.

Women students had changed the College in ways Brother Mel in 1969 could not anticipate. What I think had happened on campus is this. Before this time, women students, even though they were in the majority, still felt as if they were guests at a men's college. By 1998, women felt Saint Mary's was their College, too. And they were ready to require that the College take them seriously and meet their needs. 

Much progress has followed. The Women's Resource Center, which welcomes female and male students to its counseling and education programs, plays a major role in educating the campus on gender issues. Women's Studies is now a major. Judging by classroom and lunchroom conversations, my goal of making gender an essential feature of our intellectual dialogue has been achieved. As a community, we've also become aware of the importance of race, ethnicity, social class and sexual orientation in shaping our lives. When I compare the College today to the place where I began to teach in 1984, it's clear that Saint Mary's has deepened its sense of what it means to respect and educate the whole person. We understand that we are enriched by the multiple talents, identities and voices of all our students.

Institutional change is hard, but Saint Mary's has made enormous progress in the last 40 years. Change may be initiated from the top, as when Brother Mel envisioned a coeducational college. It progresses when members of our community speak to claim their place and voice – when all of us say, "This is our College, too." Women have done this, and thus the history of women at Saint Mary's is a history of change.

Sandra Grayson is an English professor at Saint Mary's. She adapted this essay from a speech she gave in April at an event honoring her as the 2009-2010 Professor of the Year.