A Men’s College With Women? Over 50 Years of Women’s Leadership and Education at Bowdoin College shares the experiences of women both preceding and following the implementation of coeducation in 1971. Founded in 1794, Bowdoin built a reputation as a men’s college for more than 175 years before admitting women into the student body. Despite this, the historical record preserved in the College Archives illuminates the valuable role of women in the Bowdoin community long before they were welcomed as students: faculty wives, donors, honorary degree recipients, Brunswick community members, students in non-traditional programs, and later, faculty and staff.
The introduction of coeducation to Bowdoin led to a vast expansion of women’s leadership at all levels — student, faculty, staff, and administration — as these women created a space for themselves in a school of men.
The exhibit documents women at the College from before they were students to today, when 51.5% of Bowdoin’s student population identifies as women. This transformation is due in part to the women of the 1960s and 70s who fought for their place in higher education as Bowdoin, and many other eastern liberal arts colleges, began the process of coeducation. With the integration of genders came unforeseen challenges such as inadequate healthcare services and campus safety protocols. The exhibit highlights women as leaders in campus life, faculty and staff perspectives, and contemporary issues of gender on campus.
A Note On Terms
Though many documents from the Archives use the terms man and male or woman and female interchangeably, we have chosen to adopt Judith Butler’s conception of the difference between sex and gender. Butler refers to “sex” as a person’s biological characteristics while “gender” is a socially constructed act performed by an individual. In this exhibit, texts that differentiate between genders use man or woman rather than male and female to acknowledge the distinction between biological characteristics and social identity. This may lead to phrases like woman professor which may sound awkward at first. But, as Emma Kellogg articulates in her 2020 thesis about performed masculinity, “ask yourself, what assumptions are betrayed by this discomfort?”
It is also important to note the cis- and binary gender expressions represented in the historical documents on view throughout this exhibition and the regular usage of outdated and derogatory stereotypes within these documents. It is the work of scholars at all levels to interpret, contextualize, and help us better understand our history through these materials. We recognize that today the College seeks to support all students, regardless of gender, and that the challenge to create an inclusive space for all gender expressions and identities persists.