• Celebrating 50 years of women at Sewanee

    By: MARY HANCE, The Tennessean

    Updated:

    "It's safe to say that in the last five decades, Sewanee got a lot more than it bargained for when the board of trustees decided to admit female students," Vice Chancellor John McCardell Jr. wrote in the summer 2019 Sewanee magazine. "Women have changed the University of the South - for the better - in as many ways as Sewanee changes its students over four years."

    It is hard to believe it was 50 years ago when my alma mater first admitted female students.

    In fall 1969 - the same year Princeton and Yale went coed - 103 women joined about 800 men on the bucolic 10,000-acre mountaintop campus in Middle Tennessee, and the die was cast for what some called a "brave new world" at Sewanee.

    - A lot of us were resistant ... but then we married them

    Sewanee's vice chancellor, some in the administration and some male students were against admitting women, but the university board of trustees voted in June 1968 in favor of expanding to a coeducation. Less than a year later, women arrived on campus.

    "A lot of us were resistant and cussed the idea of women at Sewanee," said Pete Stringer, a Nashville banker who was a junior when the first women enrolled. "But then we married them."

    Stringer and his wife, Bella Katz Stringer, who was in that first class, have been married for 47 years.

    "I can think of at least five of my friends who married Sewanee women, too," he said.

    Laurie Saxton, a 1978 graduate who is now director of news and public relations at Sewanee, said even though the admission of women was controversial, her research shows the "clamor for coeducation was resounding."

    "I believe they (board of trustees) viewed coeducation as critical to growing enrollment and getting highly qualified students to attend the college." Saxton said.

    But there was pushback. According to the university archives, the student newspaper printed a male student's letter to the editor in 1970, saying the "girls have invaded our sanctuary" and are "a devastating factor in our community."

    But when the girls arrived, plenty of the boys were eager to embrace the new world, with reports of more than 150 men filling the lobby of the girls' dorm on the first day, all looking for a date.

    With a ratio of eight men to one woman, some surmised the women enrolled to find a husband, or, as they joked, "to get her MRS."

    But one feisty freshmen, was quoted as saying: "If we were looking for husbands, we'd have chosen an easier school."

    Although the decision to admit women to colleges might have seemed socially progressive, the bottom line was that it made financial sense.

    Albert Gooch, director of admissions from 1970-1983, said the overall applicant pool had gotten smaller and the popularity of same-sex schools had waned. It was "critically important for successful liberal arts colleges to not be same-sex anymore," he said.

    That first year, there were 82 first-year female students and 21 transfers. By 1971, 16% of Sewanee students were women. Ten years later, they made up 43% of the student body. In recent years, it has been about half men, half women, with this fall's enrollment counting 912 women in a total 1,763 students.

    By all accounts, what some called the "incursion of women" brought challenges to Sewanee's historically all male campus, which was founded in 1857 by clergy and lay delegates from southern Episcopal dioceses.

    While classroom and dormitory assignments and basics like dining hall access seemed to be adequately anticipated, the administration neglected to take into account crucial courtesies, such as having women's restrooms in classroom buildings.

    There was no women's locker room in the athletic center, no female varsity sports, and the physical education classes for women were limited to coed sports like tennis, swimming and bowling.

    "They were not really prepared for us," said Anna Durham Windrow, who was in the first class.

    Dr. Jacqueline Schaefer, who taught French from 1967-2003 and was one of only three full-time female professors in 1969, said it was not just the female students the university was unprepared for. She said, in addition to no ladies' room for women faculty, there was no enrollment in the retirement program benefit, and women were barred from the all-male faculty club.

    The early coeds, whose admission scores were said to be higher than their male counterparts, made an immediate mark on the academic life at the university, with members of that first class being initiated into Phi Beta Kappa and other honors organizations.

    "I would venture to say the women were in the top 25 percent of the class," Stringer said. "The women's scores and grades lifted the boat."

    The academic and leadership achievement has continued. Six of the nine Rhodes Scholars Sewanee has produced in the last 50 years have been women. And this year the two most prominent student organizations have women presidents.

    At a recent gathering with seven members of that pioneering class, the women thanked Sewanee for an education, lifelong friendships and a love of learning.

    "I've always thought that having to navigate the boys club culture at Sewanee turned out to be solid preparation for my career," Windrow said. She is a long-time lobbyist, was senior adviser to former Gov. Phil Bredesen, and now owns Windrow Phillips Group, a government relations firm.

    "Confidence, resilience and persistence. I learned those lessons because there were not many of us, but together we changed the history of the university," Morgan Van Zandt Merrill said. "My grandmother, who had been a long-time supporter of Sewanee, called me on the phone after I was accepted and said, 'This is a unique opportunity.' ... She was right. How fortunate we were to be pioneers."

    Elliott Wallace McNiel said the perseverance and tolerance she learned at Sewanee served her well in her career in trade and professional association management, as well as her role as a mother.

    "When my daughters came along, I taught them to be strong participants in life, to never sit on the sidelines but always get up and take a swing. I wanted them to ... never let anyone tell them they couldn't do something because they were a girl," she said.

    When I arrived as a 17-year-old freshman at Sewanee in fall 1971, women were still in the clear minority.

    My dorm, Cleveland Hall, an old-style residence hall with communal bathrooms, had been converted from a male dorm simply by placing evergreen schefflera plants in the urinals and proclaiming it a women's dorm.

    My Episcopalian parents loved Sewanee but were skeptical because they didn't think it was "settled" for women. They were right, but that was part of the allure.

    I thrived on the challenge and sense of pioneering that came with being among the first women. I reveled in the gorgeous mountaintop setting and was enthralled with the longstanding traditions, like the Order of Gownsmen, and the close relationships with professors.

    Looking back, I am sure my Sewanee experience helped prime me for my early days in the newspaper business, where I was again in the midst of a man's world and realized, like at Sewanee, I had to work harder and act smarter to succeed.

    Like so many of the women in the first class, I believe being successful socially and academically at Sewanee gave me a confidence I don't think I would have gotten on other college campuses.

    A reunion for Sewanee's women is set for homecoming weekend Oct. 31-Nov. 3, with a panel of Sewanee women from every decade, a Skirts and Gowns exhibit, a gala and conversations with students.

    The university was recently named by U.S. News as #No. 43 among liberal arts college, and a "best value college" for 2020. It was also named by the Princeton Review as being the #No. 8 most beautiful campus in the country and was ranked #No. 19 for best career services.

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