Boston College took on a whole new look when it began admitting female undergraduates to the School of Education in 1952. (Photo courtesy of University Archives)
Turning Heads, and Opening Doors
No ladies' rooms. No sweaters allowed. BC's first female undergrads look back and smile
By Reid Oslin
They still remember the lack of ladies' rooms and the awkward reactions of a few teachers. They recall the gym classes held at a grammar school across Commonwealth Avenue, the strict dress code and the mandatory afternoon teas.
But when the female members of the Lynch School of Education Class of 1956 - Boston College's first coeducational graduating class - look back 50 years on their pioneering days in Chestnut Hill, they do it with affection, pride and more than a few laughs.
On Sept. 29, Class of 1956 president Carolyn (Kenney) Foley accepted an Alumni Achievement Award presented to the entire class for their efforts in making Boston College a fully co-educational university.
"There were 171 students in the first class to enter the School of Education in 1952," says Foley. "And 110 of them were women" - the first females to take classes on BC's previously all-male campus.
With 4,000 male students enrolled in the University's other undergraduate divisions in the early 1950s, "it was pretty intimidating for us," Foley says. "The fellows who were in the School of Education with us were more accepting of the women than those in Arts and Sciences or the business school, and they really supported us as the year went on.
"The other guys came around, too," Foley adds with a laugh, "just a lot slower."
Fifty years ago, Boston College was not built to accommodate female students. Campion Hall, the home of the Lynch School of Education, did not open until the fall of 1955, and so the female students - almost all of them commuters - were assigned a common locker room area in the basement of Gasson Hall.
Students majoring in secondary education took their classes in English, history or languages in Lyons Hall. With only men in the student body up to that point, no thought had been given to the necessity for ladies' rooms in the building. School officials decided to designate rest rooms for men and women on alternating floors.
"One time I ran out of a classroom in Lyons across to what I thought was a ladies' room," recalls Elizabeth (Bulman) Craven with a hearty chuckle. "When I got in there, I discovered it was the men's room floor. I had to hide in the stall until classes had changed so I could come out."
"It was a different world back then," says class secretary Claire (Hoban) McCormack. "Most of the Jesuits had never taught women before. I remember the very first day we were there and some friends and I were looking for our classrooms in the Tower Building [now Gasson Hall].
"I was at the end of a corridor, not knowing which way we should go next, and I turned around and out of each doorway was a Jesuit's head sticking out looking at us going down the corridor. We must have been such a novelty in our little plaid skirts."
Kathleen (Donovan) Goudie recalls, "Some of the professors had a really difficult time with women coming on the campus. Even some of the Jesuits, when they were walking down Linden Lane, would not lift their eyes to look at us. They would put their heads down and not make any eye contact. It had been a bastion of men for so long."
But not all members of the era's Jesuit Community were so shy or adverse to change. One was Rev. Charles Donovan, SJ, the SOE's founding dean. "Fr. Donovan was just fabulous," says McCormack. "His dream was to have a school that combined liberal arts education and enough education courses to qualify you to teach school.
"He was so inspiring. I'll always remember the first time he spoke to us he said 'There will be a combination of courses. You will be taking theology and philosophy and foreign languages and everything else, but it doesn't stop here. It means that you will always have time to read a novel, be interested in current affairs, you'll still go to a symphony or to a theater. We want you to be well-rounded people forever. That you will bring to the classroom if you become that kind of a person.'"
Fr. Donovan's enlightened curriculum aside, there were state-required physical education classes for female students at that time. "On gym day we changed into our gym suit that was like a dress with gym bloomers underneath," McCormack says. "Then we had to put a raincoat over that, regardless of the weather, because you couldn't walk through the campus in a gym suit. We had to walk across Commonwealth Avenue and up that little hill to Mount Alvernia School where we had our gym class."
Dress rules for all students were strictly enforced in the 1950s. Females were required to wear skirts, stockings and dress shoes. Sneakers or ladies slacks were forbidden. "We were not allowed to wear a sweater unless it had a cover-up over it," laughs Foley. "I guess you couldn't have anything on that might put anybody's mind on something else."
Boston College's first "coeds" were placed under the protective wing of SOE Dean of Women Marie Gearan. "Dean Gearan was very particular that we should be ladies preparing for a profession," Craven says. "We would have teas in the rotunda of the Tower Building and she would invite people from various boards of education. We would have to walk around holding our cups and speaking appropriately.
"It was good, it was interesting and it certainly prepared us," she says.
Boston College's entering class of women found a few barriers in the way of extracurricular activities as well. "I was an English major and had an interest in journalism, so I thought I would work at The Heights," says Goudie, "I began as a typist and then moved on to writing feature stories.
"Then I was elected one of the editors of The Heights and it set off what I was told was the first protest ever held on a Catholic campus. The men - or the boys, whatever you prefer to call them - were very upset. They filled the Lyons Hall cafeteria and signed petitions and so forth to have me ousted. The Boston Globe even did an article on it. I guess it was 'world-shaking' or so they thought.
"Fortunately, the protest failed and I remained on The Heights staff and was delighted to do so,' says Goudie, now retired after teaching for 40 years and raising her nine children.
"I do have to say that for me, Boston College was a turning point in my life. The education I received there, the professors I had, the lifelong friends I made; it really was a remarkable occurrence."
McCormack, a teacher for 30 years, notes, "If you think of just numbers, there were only a few of us then, but it made us bond as a group. Even today, if we don't see one of our classmates for a long time, somehow you can just touch base. It's as if we were back at school and had seen each other just the day before.
"It was probably the most important four years of my life. When you talk about the value system that becomes entrenched and established when you are that age, well, BC did it."