Better dead than coed?
Thirty years later, looking back at the end of single-sex education at Goucher
In 1986, the school that began life as the Woman’s College of Baltimore made the decision to open its doors to men.
It wasn’t an easy call.
For several decades, college administrators and trustees had watched as many men’s colleges, including the Johns Hopkins University and the Ivy League schools, began admitting women to their undergraduate programs, making it increasingly difficult for women’s colleges to fill their classrooms. After years of study and debate, on May 10, 1986, the Goucher College Board of Trustees voted overwhelmingly to allow men to attend the century-old women’s institution.
“It broke my heart, but my head said it was absolutely the right thing to do,” recalls Patricia Goldman ’64, president of the Board of Trustees at the time. Led by then-President Rhoda M. Dorsey, the administration and board looked at other colleges, studied the effects of going coed, and took a hard look at the future of women’s colleges.
“It was a business decision,” Goldman says. “We were marketing to … a shrinking population; women were not looking specifically for—or were outright rejecting—women’s schools.”
As the trustees debated inside the Alumnae House, some 200 students gathered outside to protest, according to a Baltimore Sun article. Many were wearing T-shirts made for the occasion adorned with the phrase “Better Dead Than Coed.” Among the protesters was Meghan Orr Mulvihill ’87, then junior class president.
“At the time, I was vehemently opposed to it,” she recalls. “I felt as though there were fewer and fewer opportunities for single-sex education, and that we were just succumbing to perceived financial pressures, and I didn’t like it.”
Mulvihill’s outrage didn’t stem from self-interest. Hardly a shrinking violet, she had spent three of her four years in high school as the class president in a large coed school. In retrospect, she thinks she would have done fine at a coed college. But she had heard the predictions—that men would take over at Goucher— and says she and her fellow students felt shut out of the decision.
“I really felt as though I was an advocate for others,” Mulvihill says. “You’d hear studies about women who were suppressed in leadership opportunities—even expressing opinions in the classroom— because they were female.” It was also, she says, a family tradition: “My mother went to a single-sex college; my sister went to a single-sex college; my father went to a single-sex college. … So it just sort of resonated with me.”
Nearly three decades have passed since that day. In 1986 there were 211 first-yearstudents; this year there are nearly 400. Over the years, the college has also grown to include 10 graduate programs, instituted a mandatory study abroad requirement, and codified its commitment to social justice with programs like the Office of Community-Based Learning and the Goucher Prison Education Partnership.
For many, like Mulvihill, the controversy that surrounded the decision to go coed has faded with time. “I do think it was probably the right decision,” says the Chicago lawyer.
“I think a lot of the change in my opinion is because I now have a child who is a junior in high school. I would consider letting her look at Goucher,” Mulvihill says. “More than anything, I’m a huge proponent of small schools, and I’m sure that was because of going to Goucher.”
Some longtime members of the Goucher community remember the transition from single-sex to coed as traumatic; others say it barely made a difference in their classes. Still others point out that Goucher’s legacy of single-sex education is one that continues to shape the college today.
Psychology Professor Rick Pringle came to Goucher from the coed University of Kansas in 1979. Initially unsure about the idea of single-sex education, Pringle came around with the zeal of the converted.
“I was very skeptical about going coed because I thought Goucher was going to lose its fundamental identity. I thought it would be a mistake,” the longtime psychology professor recalls. “We were really good at educating women, and [college administrators believed] those skills were going to translate equally well into educating men, but there wasn’t much intentionality.”
Pringle has little doubt that the admission of men made more than a superficial difference. He and a colleague, Katherine Canada, who was then a Goucher psychology professor, studied classroom gender dynamics at Goucher before and after the transition and found that the interactions between students and professors shifted when men were present. In a solely female class, the professor would ask a question; the student would answer, and a back-and-forth exchange between the student and professor would ensue.
“It was almost conversational—very probing, very respectful,” he says. “As the proportion of men in the classroom increased, we saw women dropping out of those chains. How important was that? That’s hard to say.”
Some of his colleagues, including Jean Harvey Baker, who graduated from Goucher in 1961 and who has taught in the History Department since 1972, say while the campus dynamic was changed by the addition of men, it was also energized.
“I believed vigorously for a long time before the college went coed that life was coed, so the college should be coed, especially since there were all kinds of financial reasons to do that,” Baker says. “But in time—maybe five or six years—the whole project was successful, and we forgot about it. The pioneers disappeared, and while males continue even today to be a smaller proportion of Goucher College, it became natural.”
From what Baker observed in the classroom and as an adviser, “The whole system of coeducation was just a marvelous boon for the women who went to Goucher.
“Before that, Goucher was something of a cocoon, and you could go and spend four years and study philosophy and never learn much about life. But with coeducation in the classroom and the dormitories, there was more energy. So that’s the difference.
“The similarities were: small, intimate, faculty relations, and a non-competitive environment. And they were retained,” Baker says.
Perhaps that was because faculty were aware of concerns that women would be pushed aside and went out of their way to make sure that didn’t happen, says Political Science Professor Marianne Githens.
Githens, who in 1972 founded Goucher’s Women’s Studies Program, was in favor of going coed (though she points out that she was lucky enough to be on sabbatical when the heated debates were taking place).
Goucher had a longstanding tradition of preparing women to succeed in male-dominated professions such as law and the sciences, she says. And that didn’t change. “The notion of encouraging women carried over, the notion of mentoring women, of really actively advising them about moving into more professionally oriented fields on graduation. There was that kind of carryover—of not ignoring the women because men were more likely to be successful.”
Providing examples for women, many agree, was a big part of Goucher’s success as a women’s college, and one that remained after men were admitted.
“One of the theories about why women’s colleges were successful for women in the ways that they were,” Pringle says, “might have to do with the fact that there are so many female role models in the administration, and on the faculty, and on the staff, and we still have that.”
Indeed, Goucher has long had a reputation of being home to powerful and important women—scientists, lawyers, activists, and others—who blazed new trails for women in their fields. Githens points out that three of the biggest names in feminism when the coed debate was raging— Alice Rossi, NOW co-founder and president of the American Sociological Association; Isabel Sawhill, Brookings Institution fellow; and Florence Howe, who is considered the mother of women’s studies—all spent time teaching at Goucher. And partly through the efforts of women like them, the outside world has come around to Goucher’s way of thinking.
But for some alumnae, the end of single-sex education represented the end of Goucher College. “At that time,” Baker says, “it was a severe blow to some of them who were the most feminist because they had come expecting an all-women’s college. And some refuse to have any commitment to the college because they are still so outraged that the college went coed.”
To this day, former Trustee Patricia Goldman says, “There are still one or two people who don’t talk to me.”
She’s sympathetic. If she had been a student in 1986, she says, she might have been out there protesting, and she admits that even now she gets a bit of a shock when she sees a young man in her Washington, DC, neighborhood wearing a Goucher sweatshirt. But at a recent reunion, Goldman was struck by Goucher’s male alumni, in whom she could see the same devotion to the college that she and her peers felt. “I’m proud of the fact that we did it,” she says and adds that many of her classmates have told her that, in retrospect, the college made the right call.
Even the skeptical Pringle has come around.
“I thought it would be a mistake,” he says, “but teaching coeducational classrooms is also just fascinating.”
It’s a conversion tinged with nostalgia, but Pringle says a lot of the things he loved about the old Goucher remain, including the commitment to social justice, the strong Women’s Studies Program, and the gender balance of the staff and faculty.
“We tend to still be … if not feminist, we still tend to show powerful women in powerful places,” he says. “We have great role models for men and women.”
Provost Leslie Lewis, who came to Goucher in July, is one of the women Pringle is talking about. As the college’s chief academic officer, she has been taking a crash course in Goucher history, and the way that history informs the present.
“I’d say that the same kind of teaching that enabled women to see themselves as participants in all aspects of society continues to live at Goucher—to the benefit of all of our students,” Lewis says. “This means that issues related to social justice are addressed, sure, but also that all students are encouraged to find their voices, to come into their own—and Goucher faculty seem to have a knack for that kind of teaching.”