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The Board Votes and the Women Arrive

Written By: information_management - Mar• 26•08


Decisions often come only after years of thought, experimentation, persuasion, and struggle. Approval by the Board of Trustees of full residential coeducation on October 17, 1975 represented the culmination of several years of work, but it also represented a new beginning for the college and new opportunities for its

Women had been part of the Wofford community ever since
Maria Wofford’s husband made his bequest to found the institution, and a
handful of women had enrolled and received degrees. Pressure began to build in the late 1960s for
coeducation, and the board and administration responded with the experiment of
day student coeducation. Women succeeded
at Wofford, but as day students, they felt like second-class citizens. Last week’s story highlighted some of the
disparities that the women students themselves found annoying.

When the trustees revisited the college’s admissions policy
in 1975, they had a number of options to consider, and their decision was
complicated by changes in federal law and by evolving student attitudes. The task force considering the change
realized that fewer male students wanted to attend an all-male
institution. Many other formerly
all-male colleges in the Southeast and on the east coast had become
coeducational or were thinking about it. By excluding half of the population and then having to select from a
decreasing pool of men who were interested in single-gender education, Wofford
would find itself having to compete very hard for a small number of qualified
students. Administrators feared that the
quality of the student body would suffer.

Continuing to limit women to enrolling as day students was
not an option. The 1972 Civil Rights
Act, better known as Title IX, required non-discrimination in treatment of
students. While the college could decide
not to admit women at all, once admitted, the college had to offer students the
same opportunities, including housing, without regard to gender. The only question then was to revert to being
all-male or to move to residential coeducation, and if full residential
coeducation was the option, how to implement it. President Joe Lesesne told the Old Gold and Black that “the board
agreed that Wofford could not remain a high quality liberal arts college for
men only…. The quality program that we have here would be maintained and
strengthened by going fully co-ed.”

Administrators and trustees looked at coeducation as an
opportunity to improve the quality of the student body, and selected a path
toward full residential coeducation The
decision to admit women was made on the basis of improving the college and the
quality of the student body. The first
group of women students recruited had stronger credentials than many of the men
with whom they were admitted. The Old Gold and Black, recognizing the
significance of the Board’s decision, began its article “October 17, 1975 may
well one day be remembered as the ‘second founding’ of Wofford College.

The college converted the top floor of Wightman Hall (since
demolished) into facilities for women students and made rooms available for
women as of the fall semester of 1976. Administrators
planned to postpone recruiting women in larger numbers until the fall of 1977,
when more rooms in Wightman or in another residence hall. Most students told the Old Gold and Black in
the fall of 1976 that they thought coeducation was going well. Dean of Students Mike Preston told another
newspaper reporter that some of the greatest opposition to coeducation came
from fraternities, who thought increasing numbers of women would diminish the
numbers of me who could join their fraternities. The small numbers of women left many of them
feeling isolated, and many subtle and not-so-subtle snubs came their way.  Some men felt sad and angry that a tradition
had been changed, and others admitted that the women were smarter than
them. Zta1977“There are some very sharp girls
on campus, and I lose out a lot when I match wits with them,” one senior
said. Male students paid attention to
women dressed, the way they answered questions in class, the way they behaved
at parties, according to one early woman. “You are constantly on display,” explained Joyce Payne. Women tried to participate in as many
activities as they could, from serving as athletic trainers to shooting pool
with their male classmates. “We had a
need to say, ‘we’re here and we’re going to participate,’” said Payne.

Images: Headline from the Herald-Journal; Sally Nan Barber and Kathy Thomas, from the 1977 Bohemian; Members of Zeta Tau Alpha, from the 1977 Bohemian.  Click for larger images.

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