Inside the Early Years of Coeducation at the College of the Holy Cross

A large group of women pose for a photo

How ready was the Holy Cross community for women, really? It depends on whom you ask.

It was Sept. 14, 1972, and Gayle Devlin Ciaramicoli '76, one of the first women admitted to Holy Cross, was in tears. The intrepid 17-year-old had come a far distance, alone, flying from California to New York, where she picked up her car and drove to Worcester. It was the last leg of the journey that was the most frustrating.

Ciaramicoli recalls her first moments in Worcester with the preternatural precision that accompanies a stressful situation.

"I could see Holy Cross up on the hill and I just drove around, trying to figure out how to get there," she says. "I stopped at a gas station and just started crying, and this very nice man led me to Holy Cross.

"I went right to Central Storage where my trunk was supposed to be, and there was a whole bunch of seniors there who were so nice and just talked me off the ledge," Ciaramicoli says, then smiles. "And then they carried my trunk up to Mulledy, and they did all that for me because, at that point, I was a basketcase all by myself in the car."

It was, she says, the first of many lessons in what it meant to be part of a Christian community: "Holy Cross taught me to pivot and adjust, to not go into a situation with any preconceptions. And one of the things that I came away with was a sense of community."

But how ready was the Holy Cross community for women, really?

It depends on whom you talk to.

There are memories recounted of an administration misguidedly assuming its female students required some kind of spa-convent, a Canyon Ranch-style nunnery tricked out with bathtubs, shampoo sinks, dressing "compartments" and makeup mirrors, along with security guards and cloistering in the upper floors of Mulledy (today Brooks) Hall. Changes to Kimball Dining Hall's menu at the time imply that some believed women's dietary requirements trended toward salad, cottage cheese and yogurt — and sloe gin fizzes and whiskey sours in the dorms' basement bars.

Other memories can be painful, specifically those that recall sexist behavior displayed by classmates and, occasionally, faculty. And while there were intramural sports for women that first year, Holy Cross deferred a decision about creating a competitive women's sports program, despite the fact that the class of 1976 was 30% female.

Susan Pietrogallo '76 is even-handed in her assessment of Holy Cross in 1972: "It was a bit of a learning curve for the school. I don't feel as though they were 100% prepared for what they were about to do."

What is consistent in recollections now a half-century old is an abiding pride and a conviction that the advent of women changed Holy Cross for the better.

A scene from the College"s first Coeducation Day, held on Oct. 12, 1967.

"This tradition-shattering move"

Joseph McKenzie '72 was The Crusader's editor-in-chief in January 1971. He characterizes the College's perception of what changes women students required as a bit overstated. "In the years leading up to coeducation, many women spent entire weekends at Holy Cross. On Sunday mornings, there were more women than men walking back and forth on Easy Street," he says. "Apparently, women found the dormitory rooms and bathrooms satisfactory.”"

McKenzie also recounts an exchange at an alumni event shortly after the implementation of coeducation. An alumnus asked College President Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J., '49 if coeducation meant that fewer sons would be admitted. "Fr. Brooks replied, 'For every son rejected, a daughter will be admitted. My only advice to you is to sire sons that get 650s on the SATs,'" McKenzie says.

Like the rest of the United States in the late '60s and early '70s, Holy Cross witnessed changes — large and small — in a variety of areas. From the elimination of the jacket-and-tie requirement at Kimball to actively recruiting and admitting more students of color — and in many ways in between — the College was evolving to meet the needs of the present day.

Though faculty, staff and students mostly supported the move to coeducation, two polemical figures in Holy Cross history offer a glimpse of how far afield opinions could be. Mathematics professor Patrick Shanahan's April 1969 "Coeducation at Holy Cross: A Dissenting Opinion" is a 30-page argument against coeducation. The crux of Shanahan's argument: The College hadn't done its homework and was acting hastily.

"Personally I cannot avoid the judgment that it was the responsibility of the [Educational Policy Committee] to see that a careful study was available to aid the faculty in coming to a decision, and that its failure to provide such a study was most unfortunate," he wrote.

Among Shanahan's many reasons as to why the College should further examine the issue is one that finds its antecedent in the story of Adam and Eve: "Many students, teachers, and other observers have experienced the fact that the campus of an all-male school has a more serious, studious, or businesslike atmosphere than that found at its coeducational counterpart," Shanahan wrote. "The different social atmosphere at a men's college has a marked effect on the academic atmosphere.

"After all, girls do have a powerful attraction for boys, and their constant presence represents one of the main influences in the coeducational students' life. When that influence is peripheral, the student can become absorbed in his confrontation with the intellectual world in a way not otherwise possible."

Shanahan's argument failed to move most of his fellow faculty members, the administration or trustees. Reflecting 25 years later on the board's decision in favor of coeducation, Fr. Brooks said "the change has enhanced the cultural life of the institution. I think there's a better understanding between men and women. In four years of men sequestered upon this hill alone, you could get an animal culture if you're not careful."

The reason for admitting women was not to provide a civilizing influence for the men, though. "We were trying to be loyal to our Jesuit tradition, our beliefs about higher education and the liberal arts. And women fit right into that pattern," Fr. Brooks said. "They've demonstrated this by the jobs they've gone on to do and the lives they've gone on to lead."

At the time, the decision drew worldwide attention. The Associated Press, The New York Times and the United Press International carried the story.

A Co-Ed Week participant moves into her room

"Is there a certain time of the month when it's better to give tests?"

Even with the positive press, the support of the president and the majority of its campus community, going coed was complicated and uncomfortable for some in those early years. Novelist Marilyn French, hired as an assistant professor of English in 1972, wrote the novel "The Women's Room" during her four years at Holy Cross. The novel, which sold millions, is considered a pioneering work in feminist literature. "The Women's Room" excoriates the all-male college where the female protagonist works. In a 1977 New York Times article, French, who left Holy Cross in 1976 when denied tenure, had harsh criticism for the College and recounted an anecdote that indicates just how foreign women were to some male faculty: "I don't know whom to ask," French recalled a Jesuit saying to her. "There are girls in my class. I never had girls in my class. Is there a certain time of month when it's better to give tests?"

"I think some of the older priests had a difficult time having women there," Cheryl Chapman '74 told Holy Cross Magazine in 1997. "Certainly that showed up in some classrooms. They ignored our hands. They didn't want to call on us in class."

Other aggravations were the result of well-meaning missteps, Mary Jane Dinneen '74 told Holy Cross Magazine in the same 1997 article. Some of those first female graduates characterized the College's efforts to accommodate them as well intentioned, while occasionally clueless. The adding of yogurt, cottage cheese, skim milk and diet drinks to Kimball's offerings went largely unnoticed. The administration's worries about women needing bathtubs, lingerie sinks, washing, ironing and drying rooms along with kitchenettes were amusingly anachronistic.

The College "had gone through a lot of effort to prepare for the women with the best of intentions and to the best of their knowledge. They did funny things like installing bathtubs because somebody had done some research and they found that if you had women on campus, you had to have bathtubs," Dinneen said. "There was some general flakiness. We actually had locked doors on the dormitory floors and, at that time, I don't think any other dorm did."

The administration had its own learning curve. Its misapprehensions about women's domestic inclinations and overreaching in ensuring their safety invited students' scorn if the 1976 Purple Patcher yearbook is a fair arbiter: "Guards were posted at Mulledy, almost like Arab eunuchs from A Thousand And One Nights. Rape lights penetrated every nook and cranny of the hilly campus. Mulledy became a bastion of security; the women often wondered if they were well-protected treasures or well-guarded prisoners."

"It took a while of women being there for them to realize that women wanted a lot of the same things as the guys," Dinneen said in 1997. "They wanted to play sports and to participate in all of the different campus activities."

George Shea '69 was one of a team of three admissions officers, led by James Halpin, to select the women who would become the first female Crusaders. The first early decision acceptance letters were sent in December 1971. Among the 30 women to receive offers, eight were daughters of alumni, and four of those ranked first in their respective classes. An additional 250 women were accepted into the class of 1976.

"Classes up until that time were composed of a significant number of students from all-male, Catholic high schools, specifically Jesuit Catholic high schools," Shea says. "So those young men hadn't had a coeducational experience from high school on. So it may have been different for them. Most of the women, the experience they had was coed."

Alumnae remember professors fumbling in their addressing of female students. Some professors called the men in the class "Mr." while calling the women by their first names. Others did the opposite. Less benign was one graduate's account of a male professor telling her not everyone was cut out to be a math major when she went to him for help.

Sexist behavior occurred outside of the classroom as well. A few alumnae recounted being catcalled by male students who scored their appearance on a scale of 1 to 10 as they walked to Kimball.

"It was intimidating to be a real minority," said Suzanne Geaney '76 in "Women on the Hill: Alumnae Reflect on Twenty Years at Holy Cross, 1972-1992" by Ann Cahill '91. "It was harder to raise your hand if you were the only woman in the class. Sometimes well meaning faculty members would say, 'Well, let's hear from a woman about this.' So even if you weren't ready to talk, you had to. So that was my motivation. I was never unprepared."

Beaven Hall residents enjoy a cookout social in spring 1975.

"The single-best decision"

In 2012, Holy Cross Magazine asked its nearly 40,000 readers to vote on the most significant moment in the College's history. Going coed took the top spot from 25 possible choices provided by Rev. Anthony Kuzniewski, S.J., professor of history and author of "Thy Honored Name," the official history of Holy Cross.

Asked to reflect on this milestone, alumnae shy away from casting themselves as junior Joans of Arc, young Angela Davises or nascent Gloria Steinems. They acknowledge they were women coming of age in a time of great change, but they were preoccupied with the typical concerns 18-year-olds have in their first year of college: making friends, getting good grades and fitting in.

"Most of us just assumed we were meant to go to Holy Cross," Ciaramicoli says. "I didn't have any preconceptions. I think a lot of the women just assumed they were going to fit in and do well. I didn't even think of myself as a woman, really, I thought of myself as a student. And I don't think a lot of the women in my class, well, they didn't give me the perception that they were feeling as if they were different. I mean, we obviously knew we were in the minority, but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing."

Kathy Connolly '77 characterizes her experience this way: "Imagine you decide to have a dinner party and invite 10 people from any number of connections you've made in your life. And you sit them at the table, and the chemistry works like you cannot believe; the personality of the class of 1977 was like that. I know there's going to be competitive accounts, but for the most part, people were there to get to know each other. And we had a lot of fun together. The relationships that were formed were hard and fast."

And sustaining.

"A friend's mother died freshman year, and I can remember her dorm room overflowing with classmates, just wanting to be with her because you're not supposed to lose your mother when you're 18 years old," Connolly says. "I was really taken with the visual of all these young people caring more about her than themselves in that moment. People wanted to be around this young woman who was just sobbing, and it was uncomfortable because she was so sad and inconsolable, and, yet, people wanted to be there to offer her comfort. Classmates, both men and women, came together to support her..'"

Mary Flynn Myers '79 credits the College for instilling that care for others. She enrolled on the advice of her uncle, Fr. Jim O'Brien, a Maryknoll missioner in Lima, Peru. He knew she was interested in social justice and thought the College would be a good fit.

In high school, Myers sought leadership roles and engaged in occasional iconoclasm. (She was the first girl in her high school to take shop class.) It was through Holy Cross' participation in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, though, that Myers learned how service leadership sometimes happens. Myers' "little sister," Melissa, lived in a triple-decker in Worcester and was the fifth of six children raised by a single mother. Myers mentored the girl for four years, spending time with her little sister on campus or taking local field trips to places like the Worcester Art Museum.

One Sunday night, while on the phone with the girl, Myers realized the 10-year-old was alone in the apartment with her little brother; Melissa's mother was in the hospital. Myers and a friend went to the girl's home and found the usually neat apartment in disarray. They cooked the children dinner, washed the tower of dishes in the kitchen sink and stayed until an adult sibling returned home. "What struck me about that night was that I was on the phone with Melissa for 15 minutes before she told me she was alone," Myers says. “If that had been one of my siblings, the first thing he or she would have said is 'Come help me now!' I realized Melissa had a maturity beyond her years and had been exposed to more than most 10-year-olds I knew. I realized I had lived a pretty sheltered life and that there were more ways that I could be of service. Holy Cross did a really good job of questioning what you were doing for others.”

Years later, Melissa sent Myers her high school report card showing she'd graduated. "I was so touched that she remembered me and our conversations about school. Like many who volunteer, I got way more out of it than I put in," Myers says. "I was blessed to be involved."

Kate Sheehan '75, a sophomore transfer student in 1972, recalled a campus fired up at the prospect of change.

"At this time in the College's history, the religious studies department included professors from many different religions: Catholic, Presbyterian, Zen Buddhist and more," she says. "The emphasis was on the commonality that religions shared. It was groundbreaking in a Catholic institution at this time. It was more about unity than specific divisions of religious sects. And liberation theology philosophy was dominant. I felt privileged to be a part of this ecumenical movement."

Today, there is just one remaining Catholic men's college in the United States: St. John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota. "You wonder if Holy Cross would still exist had it not gone coed," Shea notes.

What other truth can be teased from those early years of coeducation at Holy Cross? Perhaps this: For better and worse, the largely male campus mimicked the male-dominated professional world those first female graduates would enter. And the success of generations of Holy Cross women is proof of Fr. Brooks' contention that to educate women was to educate leaders. The Holy Cross of the 1970s was good training for a career — and a life, says Susan Pietrogallo '76: "I wasn't sheltered, but I wasn't worldly. I learned about being on my own and I learned about being connected. I learned people are all different and you had to learn to deal with different.

"Holy Cross opened me up to new things. It prepared me for what was out there for me."

Written by MaryBeth Reilly-McGreen ’89 for the Fall 2022 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

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