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It’s been 50 years since most Jesuit colleges went co-ed. But have they truly embraced their female students?

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, at least 20 Jesuit colleges and universities began admitting women to their undergraduate programs. While many had already admitted women to graduate programs, especially schools of education, the move to “coeducation” marked a break from the all-male Jesuit collegiate culture. Fifty years later, what have we learned from this significant change?

In order to answer this, it is helpful to take a look back at what things were like in the ’60s and ’70s, when so many all-male colleges and universities decided to go “coed.” What were their reasons? What was the experience like? Second, what insights can be found in the Jesuit tradition and in the then-emerging field of women’s studies as clues to the hopes and dreams of Jesuit higher coeducation? Now that we have 50 years of perspective on this move, what did we know then—and what didn’t we know that we might wish we had—that can help us now in looking toward the next 50 years?

Third, given the current crises in higher education (certainly exacerbated by the pandemic, but already there), including declining numbers of students, financial challenges and pressures to be more career-oriented, what might the Jesuit “coeducational” experience promise for an uncertain future? There are some unfilled promises, hopes and dreams that might help us move forward in a very fragile and uncertain time.

As women have entered Jesuit institutions, they have in many ways embraced the Jesuit mission. But has the Jesuit educational mission fully embraced women?

The 1960s and the move to coeducation

By any account, the 1960s were a tumultuous decade. The civil rights movement, the Second Vatican Council, protests against the Vietnam War, assassinations, the women’s movement—to name just a few of the most well-known events—all contributed to a sense that the world, and certainly the United States, was undergoing a sea change. Traditional ideas of education were being challenged; the book Up the Down Staircase was published in 1964 and made into a 1967 movie. It challenged traditional ideas about learning by telling the story of how a young, inexperienced but also gifted teacher was able to transform her students’ learning by engaging with their real day-to-day lives.

In 1960, a single mother who was also a doctoral student at my graduate alma mater, the University of Chicago Divinity School, wrote an article asking whether the widely-accepted idea that pride was the original sin of humanity was also true to the experiences of women. Did women really need to be less “full of themselves”?

Many in the baby boom generation were going to college. How were colleges and universities going to adapt to the times and to this huge influx of students? While some of the Jesuit colleges and universities had admitted women years before—by my count, eight of them, including LeMoyne, which was coeducational from its founding—20 more all-male Jesuit schools “went coed,” as the phrase went, between 1961 and 1974.

It is interesting to note that some of these Jesuit schools encountered difficulties in going “coed” in the first half of the century: They were reprimanded for admitting women, and some of them came up with very creative ways to avoid censure from Jesuit superiors in Rome. Marquette University, which first admitted women in 1909, appealed to Rome after it was ordered to stop, but ultimately received approval from the Jesuit superior general. Pope Pius XI, who was pope from 1922 to 1939, described coeducation as false and harmful to Christian education, because it ignored “divinely established differences.” (Does that sound familiar?)

The University of San Francisco’s student newspaper ran the headline: “Women Invade USF!”

Catholics were not the only ones to oppose coeducation. When McGill University in Montreal admitted women in 1884, the reactions were either hostile or suggested that women’s more sensitive natures would not be able to deal with the rigors of university education. I found it very interesting that Creighton University, which takes its name from Mary Lucretia Creighton, the woman who donated the funds for its establishment, specifically stipulated that the school was for the education of boys. The title of Nancy Weiss Malkiel’s 2016 book Keep the Damned Women Out! The Struggle for Coeducation (Princeton, 2016) expresses what too many men thought or said about the idea that their hallowed institutions would admit women.

In many Jesuit institutions, women had already been admitted to nursing, education and some graduate programs for many years before they were admitted to the arts and sciences undergraduate college, but it was not until women were admitted to full-time undergrad programs and lived on campus that the real changes began. At Fordham University, the practice of nude swimming was ended. At Georgetown University, women, unlike the male students, had twice-a-week room checks to make sure that their rooms were clean, and they were also held responsible for their male guests’ behavior. Interestingly, the men at Georgetown were said to be less likely to date their female classmates than the women who attended some of the nearby women’s colleges. The University of San Francisco’s student newspaper ran the headline: “Women Invade USF!”

But for all of the concern about what changes would have to be made to dormitories, how women would change the campus climate, what to call the women’s athletic teams (the Fairfield “Stagettes” is one unfortunate example), these decisions to go coed were largely decisions about money. Given the increased competition for students, most of these schools realized that they would lose their most promising male students to coeducational schools. In addition, the women who were applying to and enrolling at these formerly men’s schools were often academically superior to many of their male classmates. Another story in USF’s student paper lamented the “damn average raisers!”

As these schools went coed, what was the experience like for women? One article on the topic describes how three quarters of the women in the first coed classes at Boston College felt discriminated against. But in looking at how the schools understood the process, it seems that, for many of these institutions, (be they secular, religiously sponsored, Jesuit or other,) the question seemed to be: Is admitting women good for the institution? Note that the question was not: Is admitting women to these institutions good for women?

Many of the women’s colleges that did not go coed struggled to survive, and sadly, most of them did not. It was the case then, and is still the case now, that there was more prestige associated with a formerly all-men’s school than with an all-women’s school, with a few notable exceptions.

At the same time that both men’s and women’s Catholic schools began going coed, their leadership was increasingly turned over to lay boards of trustees, often in order to qualify for federal and state financial aid. Was this a good thing or not? The scholars Susan L. Poulson and Loretta P. Higgins noted in 2003 that more than a few professors and administrators thought this transition marked “the demise of a Catholic intellectual tradition.” Even more, they argued, coeducation “hastened the acculturation of American Catholics to contemporary society.” This was in some ways a good thing, but in other ways, the authors suggested, it definitely was not.

Taking women seriously as students, staff and faculty means that the Jesuit institution considers them as essential to its mission.

The growth of women’s studies

The first women who went to the formerly all-male schools were very good students indeed. In fact, many of them outperformed the men in their classes. But did the presence of women on these campuses mean that the educational experience really took note of them? I think it is fair to say that the academic expectations for women students at formerly all-men’s institutions were no different than they were for the men: That is, they would take the same courses, be held to the same standards and receive the same kind of education that had been there before. But is that enough?

In 1968, the first year that women were admitted to Regis College in Denver as undergraduates, the student newspaper, The Brown and Gold, asked a few faculty members to respond to the question, “How do you think the presence of women will affect your classroom environment?” One woman professor of education said simply, “It will improve it.” Overall, the responses were positive, with the exception of a Jesuit professor of English who commented that he would “go on making girls the butt of my jokes just as in the past.”

This kind of remark is, unfortunately, all too common: The trivialization of women is, sadly, something that was and still is taken for granted. And those who object such remarks, are told that they are too serious and lack a sense of humor. We have to acknowledge that when women are “added” to whatever mix, it often becomes a time for men to make jokes that minimize the impact of women or, worse, caricature them as a threat (“Women Invade USF!”). And as much a fan as I am of Pope Francis, it is difficult to forget that he called the addition of women theologians to the International Theological Commission “strawberries on the cake.” The trivialization of trivialization—or, to borrow a term from the Black Lives Matter Movement, the dismissal of “microaggressions”—takes a toll, in that women are expected to deny their real experiences of being offended or belittled and to just “play along.”

While most of the Regis faculty members anticipated that women in their classes would be serious students and that classroom discussions would be improved, none of them seem to have considered the possibility that the content of this education might need to be rethought. Initially, it seems, they expected women to add something to the education, but that “something” had more to do with the atmosphere in the classroom than with what the education actually contained. Ideally, the women would become, as they were described at the University of Oxford when it admitted women, “honorary men.”

20 all-male Jesuit schools “went coed,” as the phrase went, between 1961 and 1974.

But in those years of questioning everything, including education, it soon became clear that it was not enough simply to add women or any other group previously excluded from the ivied halls. Students all over the country were questioning their education, its purpose, how it was carried out and what it was supposed to produce. Florence Howe, who died just this past September and who was the founder and longtime editor of the Feminist Press, a distinguished scholar of literature and one of the founders of the field of women’s studies, once observed that the education of women was originally intended to train mothers and teachers to be moral leaders of their families and their (usually very young) students.

In recalling this educational history, Howe confirmed the point that “all education is political,” whether acknowledged or not. But given the climate of the 1960s, with the increased presence of women not only in all-male colleges and universities but also in the business world, in medicine and in politics, the idea that women would simply be “honorary men” was not going to happen. Enter women’s studies.

In acknowledging the political nature of education, women’s studies saw itself not only as an academic field of study but also as a movement to change the world. It has often been said that women’s studies is the academic arm of the women’s movement, which has always sought to make the world a place where women as well as men have not only equal opportunity but where the experiences of both women and men are honored.

Women’s studies as a discipline had at least three goals. The first was to challenge the idea that the traditional curriculum, or, the “dead white males,” as they are often called, represented the best possible approach to what constituted a liberal arts college education. This is not to say that what had been taught for centuries was necessarily wrong; it was rather that the knowledge was partial, and claimed to be neutral, but came largely out of the experiences of powerful white Western men. Recall the challenge of the aforementioned University of Chicago graduate student to traditional theological ideas of original sin as pride.

The second aim was to question whether there was one superior way of communicating and learning. Books like Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice challenged traditional ideas of moral development—ones that assumed the more abstract, the better. And the third aim was to challenge the idea that the knower is an objective and disinterested observer and that real scholarship does not take a position. This was described by one women’s studies scholar as “the view from nowhere.”

At first, women’s studies saw itself as doing compensatory education: There were women in history, literature, politics, and we needed to include them. But scholars soon came to realize that it wasn’t just a question of “adding women” to the curriculum; it was more a question of transforming the curriculum itself.

My point here is that women’s studies was the next logical step in the journey from all-male colleges to real coeducation. For all institutions, but particularly for Jesuit ones, the current crisis facing higher education is not just one of funding, of more STEM courses or fancy athletic facilities. The real issue is taking seriously the moral nature of education at all levels, especially at the college level, as we consider how the events of Jan. 6, 2021 were due in part to shockingly poor and misguided ideas of what it means to be educated.

Educating people, rather than providing a consumer product, means providing a real alternative to a dehumanizing culture.

Jesuit higher education 50 years later

Finally, I want to think about where we are in 2021 and what Jesuit institutions can continue to do to make Jesuit education a central place for moral inquiry in a time that desperately needs it. Teaching and scholarship should not be the only areas on which we should focus; having an institutional mission and a campus climate that is fully attentive to women, gender and sexuality, as well as race and class, can help to resist the push towards the commodification of higher education, continue and expand the Jesuit tradition of cura personalis and make the college and university community a place dedicated to truth and the common good of all. Jesuit education can become more inclusive, more concrete and embodied and more dedicated to justice, as feminist scholars have advocated.

Jesuit education is not a commodity: The entire Jesuit tradition is counterevidence of this. It is a relationship. Taking women seriously as students, staff and faculty means that the Jesuit institution considers them as essential to its mission. While women have taken on every kind of position at these institutions, Jesuit institutions can take the lead in ensuring that the concerns of women are taken as seriously as those of the athletic teams. And what I say here goes for other underrepresented groups as well. Educating people, rather than providing a consumer product, means resisting the culture—and simultaneously providing a real alternative to a dehumanizing culture.

Following this, Jesuit schools can expand the scope of cura personalis, or care for the whole person. In his book University Ethics, Boston College theologian James Keenan, S.J., refers to this when he emphasizes the importance of faculty really getting to know their students and their struggles, that academics cannot be seen apart from the contexts in which students learn. This means paying attention to the larger social and political context of where we are.

Particularly during the pandemic, many faculty have realized that the reasons why students may not have their video screens on during a Zoom class or discussion may have more to do with the particular student’s living situation than that student playing video games during class. This attentiveness, I think, is actually one of the things that Jesuit institutions have done very well: Transfer students that I have taught have commented positively on the difference between their Jesuit education and their experiences at other institutions. If women’s studies has had any kind of impact on teaching and learning, it is very much in line with cura personalis. Women’s studies scholars refuse to separate themselves from their scholarship, and they take sides when it comes to significant issues of justice.

Our current climate is crying out for leaders to be “stewards of truth,” and the Jesuit mission is particularly well-suited to this.

Like all institutions when it comes to coeducation, Jesuit institutions need to keep in mind what it means to be a person, that persons are embodied, that many of them have families and family responsibilities and that some of them bear children, the future of our societies. Women’s studies programs have worked hard to ensure that faculty and students’ lives are not abstractions, although they have not been as attentive to staff needs. There is a great tradition here that recognizes our complex humanity. I think of Arrupe College at Loyola Chicago University, which is helping students who need one get a leg up on their education. Still more is needed.

This leads me to my last point: the pursuit of truth and the common good. The promise of the 1960’s was a more relevant college education. Coeducation promised to provide a more realistic college atmosphere that, along with the other challenges of that decade, also tried to ensure that their graduates would carry their critical questions to their work in the wider world. I think we can all agree that Jesuit institutions have a special responsibility to help this happen. As women have entered Jesuit institutions—as students, but also as faculty and staff—they have in many ways embraced the Jesuit mission. But has the Jesuit educational mission fully embraced women? How have women and underrepresented groups made their way into curricula? Are women with families able not only to survive but to flourish? Or have women become “honorary men”?

To take inspiration from the Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movements, we need to consider how our institutions can be more inclusive, more attuned to the concrete needs and realities of people’s lives and more directed toward justice and the common good. In this, Jesuit education needs to stand out for its commitment, especially to those most in need, and resist the temptation to be market-driven. This is not the time to give in to market forces

This past winter, President Patricia McGuire of Trinity Washington University, formerly the all-women’s Trinity College, wrote in an essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education that colleges are “the robust environment for critical and moral reasoning…[they have] the willingness to challenge conventional wisdom…and to serve the common good.” She went on to say “Let the money follow the purpose, rather than having the purpose be dictated by the money.”

Our current climate is crying out for leaders to be “stewards of truth,” and the Jesuit mission is particularly well-suited to this. Feminist scholarship, for its part, has consistently called for inclusivity, drawn attention to the concrete and embodied realities of our lives and advocated for justice, all points that are completely in line with the Jesuit mission. The historical cooperation between Jesuit schools and women has been a positive one; it is now a challenge to meet the future, so that women can succeed on their own terms, not on those set by men.

Perhaps what we really need is a new “Ratio Studiorum,” the venerable Jesuit plan for educational formation. A new one can emphasize inclusivity, justice and truth for the 21st century. I don’t have the answers to how this can happen, but the resources of our schools, their commitment to finding God in all things, and especially in the most vulnerable, need to be gathered to live up to the promise they have made. Fifty years of Jesuit coeducation leads not to everyone becoming “honorary men,” but rather to a rich and diverse community always dedicated to being and doing more.

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