Mixed Company:
Women At Santa Clara

By Gerald McKevitt, S.J.

Fr. Curran and coeds
Father Francis Curran talks with co-eds.
From the 1962 Redwood, Archives of SCU.

“It is mannish, but we haven’t a woman in the whole place,” said Charles McCoy, newly appointed president, when describing Santa Clara to a visiting journalist in 1926. “And I suppose,” the female reporter quipped, “ you wouldn’t know what to do with her if you had.” That brief exchange typified Santa Clara University during much of its first hundred years when women, with rare exceptions, were notable by their absence. Even after the University abandoned its “virile tradition,” as one student put it in 1957, the institution struggled to integrate women into its all-male culture, a process that proved to be as complex as it was transformative. 

Santa Clara, like most institutions of higher learning, began as a single-sex institution. References to women in its early history are infrequent. Co-founder Michael Accolti, S.J., records that when the school opened its doors in 1851, John Nobili, S.J., hired “a respectable matron to take care of the house, the smaller boys, and I know not what else.” Her name and identity, however, are lost to history. Women often visited the College, including Louise Foot Ely, wife of naturalist Charles A. Ely, who left a lively description of the place in 1859. Students sought the company of the opposite sex. A collegian in the 1860s frequently recorded in his diary having “had a good time with all the girls,” usually acquaintances at nearby Notre Dame Academy. Santa Clara’s classrooms, however, remained for generations closed to women.

Their absence is traceable to both U.S. and European beliefs that emphasized the differences between the sexes. Santa Clara’s Jesuit founders brought from Italy a tradition that assigned women and men separate spheres of activity and carefully monitored contact between them. St. Ignatius, founder of the Society of Jesus, devoted much attention to women and relied on them for support in the early years. So chastened was he by charges of undue familiarity and by other difficulties, however, that his Constitutionsordered Jesuits “not to take charge of religious women or any other women whatsoever.” Although that ruling proved to be highly elastic, for much of their history, Jesuits betrayed the same prejudices that prevailed in European society at large. In 1886, superior general Peter Beckx, S.J., instructed members of the order to avoid conversing with women because they “are generally speaking, inconstant in their resolutions, and talk so much, that a great deal of time is wasted with them, and very little lasting fruit comes from it.” Nineteenth-century Jesuits, subject to fierce anti-clerical attacks and therefore preoccupied with avoiding scandal, exercised extreme caution in dealing with the opposite sex. When earthquake and fire destroyed San Francisco’s St. Ignatius College in 1906, homeless Jesuits were temporarily housed in a nuns’ convent. One elderly Italian priest, Telesphorus Demasini, anguished about the move. “He thought it was compromising for us,” a contemporary wrote, “and also for the poor sisters.”

Old World biases were reinforced in the New where the public questioned female educability. By the time Santa Clara was founded, American attitudes had progressed beyond the view expressed in 1776 by John Adams to his daughter: “it is scarcely reputable for young ladies to understand Latin and Greek.” In the early years of the republic, public opinion gradually grew more favorable to female education in response to a need to raise virtuous citizens. In the nineteenth century, the Second Great Awakening promoted female influence as Christian wife, mother, and instructor of small children; and the desire to Christianize the western frontier emphasized the training of women as schoolteachers. Thus, when Santa Clara opened its doors at mid-century, women’s education had made great advances, especially through the founding of female academies. But the number of colleges offering joint education of the sexes was few. The first to do so was Oberlin College, then an obscure Midwestern evangelical school, which granted its first degrees to women in 1841, only ten years before Santa Clara’s founding. 

Despite these advances, old prejudices persisted. Many Americans feared that too much education might render a girl unfit for her subservient role as wife and mother. A widely read book by Edward Clarke, retired Harvard Medical School professor, Sex in Education (1873), maintained if women exhausted their “limited energy” on study, they would not be able to fulfill their biological function as child bearers. Santa Clara students accepted the notion that women contributed to society not by their erudition, but through their exercise of moral authority. “Man may derive great good from true female society,” the editors of The Owl, the College’s literary magazine, wrote in 1872. “He is bound to be respectful, and thus his morals are guided.” Santa Clarans shared the popular belief that secular education undermined woman’s role in society. 

Woman nowhere looks more lovely, more truly great, than in her house, and surrounded by her children. It is not in the court room, in the pulpit, or in the political rostrum, but it is among those of her own household than woman’s influence can effect so much. 

Many women accepted their subordinate status. “Man finds his greatest pleasure in winning laurels on the field of battle, triumphs in diplomacy, success in art and science,” a rare female contributor to The Owl wrote in 1874. “Women were not made for such things. She mistakes her mission when she aspires to them.” Female success in the sphere usually reserved to males was greeted with surprise and condescension. After reviewing an impressive issue of the Vassar College magazine, Santa Clara’s student editors reported “we should not have expected anything half so good from a ladies’ college.”

By the time the College celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, educational advances led to greater respect. More girls than boys were graduating from American high schools, earning them access to more jobs, especially in teaching, the chief profession open to them. However, the number of female college students provoked a fear that they would dominate the schools and interfere with male academic performance. Alarmed at climbing enrollments, Stanford University in 1904 established a ratio of three males to each female student, a restriction that was not overturned until 1933. To divert the rising tide of females attending the University of California, President Benjamin Wheeler of Berkeley endorsed the establishment of junior colleges throughout the state. Nonetheless, by 1930, over 43 percent of the students enrolled in college were women, with the vast majority of them (82.9%) attending coeducational schools. 

For their part, Catholics, like many other private educators, resisted coeducation. With the exception of Marquette University, which selectively admitted women in 1909, they preferred to educate the sexes separately. According to historian Edward J. Power, “the moral issue—a determination to preserve the college from becoming a harem—was always the central and deciding one whenever coeducational policies were debated.” Santa Clara’s Henry Woods, S.J., voiced this concern in 1904. “The coeducation of the sexes is a fruitful source of immorality,” he wrote. At Berkeley, “young men and young women associate together not only in the classroom but also outside . . . They are together in the theatre, the dance, the supper, and they are beginning to associate half-clad at their athletic sports. They are subject to no parental control.” These views found support in the 1929 papal encyclical, The Christian Education of Youth, which, underscoring differences between the sexes, officially proscribed coeducation. 

Although its admissions policy remained unaltered, Santa Clara inched closer to the American mainstream after 1910. That year President James P. Morrissey, S.J., “started a democratic regime in which the barriers were felled,” an alumnus recalled, and “Santa Clara entered the march of progress.” The new vogue of social dancing, although often accompanied by driving in cars and drinking, nevertheless led to the first formal dance at the University. The invasion of the flapper in the 1920s brought increased contact between the sexes. Off-campus social functions centering on annual dances were sponsored by societies in the engineering, business, and law schools. Students shared society’s fascination with the strong-willed female, but they also shared the public’s anxiety about the changing role of women. When a 1927 survey asked Santa Clarans if they preferred to marry a “flapper” or “an old-fashioned girl,” 64% of them agreed with a classmate who replied, “if there is an old fashioned girl to be found, I’ll marry her.” Their response to another questionnaire, however, revealed they shared America’s growing respect for educated women—whom students described as “the modern girl”—one who is “intelligent and high-minded.”

Women entered the all-male Santa Clara citadel in increasing numbers, albeit cautiously, in the thirties. Some participated in the activities of the Catala Club, a women’s service club founded in 1930. Other newcomers found employment in the University library. Intercollegiate athletics brought female spectators to campus events, although, as visitors discovered, there were limits to their participation. When a group of women, including a commissioner of the Pacific Athletic Association,attempted to attend an amateur boxing match in Seifert Gymnasium in 1929, they were turned away at the door. “We did not feel that it was a fit occasion for women,” announced President McCoy, “and consequently did not admit them.” Nor was it deemed appropriate for women to appear in campus dramatic productions. In the thirties, campus director of dramatics, Fenton McKenna, produced several plays, including “The Taming of the Shrew,” requiring female roles, a break with tradition that allowed greater latitude in play production. But controversy ensued. “I am strongly opposed against such an innovation,” one student wrote. “Within the walls of our beloved institution, our students have a right to seek refuge from the outside world so full of troubles and distractions.” Jesuit superiors agreed. From headquarters came orders in 1937 that women would not appear in dramatic presentations in the future, a ruling that prevailed for the next two decades.

World War II profoundly transformed America’s colleges. As historian Barbara Miller Solomon observes, “for the short time of national emergency the curriculum provided women with opportunities that seemed to belie sex labels.” In 1942, Santa Clara, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Education, offered courses in engineering, science, and management training for the first time to both men and women. The following year, even Harvard began to open its doors to undergraduate women, evidencing the nation’s new appreciation of female ability. At war’s end, however, women suffered a setback as stereotypes about domesticity reappeared, and the GI bill flooded campuses with millions of veterans, thus curtailing women’s access to higher education.

At postwar Santa Clara, however, opportunities actually increased. In 1947, women were admitted to the business school’s evening program. “Every person in business—and the home is a business that takes sharp knowledge of management these days—should avail himself of this opportunity,” declared Dean Charles J. Dirkson. “The home that is run like a business is an orderly, happy home.” This was “revolutionary news” for the all-male University, the local media observed, but it failed to shock because the campus had grown accustomed to the presence of women students during the war.11 The hiring of a female professor a few years later raised more eyebrows. In 1955, Margaret Chamberlin, a public speaking instructor from San Jose State, became Santa Clara’s first woman teacher. 

A more controversial step in the University’s transformation occurred the following year. In 1956, President Herman J. Hauck, S.J., announced that nurses from nearby O’Connor Hospital would enroll as non-matriculating students at Santa Clara in the fall. Their enrollment reflected contemporary women’s growing preference for occupational training, which accounted for more than 60% of female college graduates. The presidents’ declaration was greeted “with boos, and hissing, and cries of protests,” but, according to the New York Times, students carried signs the following fall “demanding ‘we want dances’ as twentyfour nurses from O’Connor Hospital signed for one-year liberal arts courses.” Another innovation was equally groundbreaking, although it drew less media attention than the arrival of the nurses. In 1956, the Law School became coeducational, enabling women for the first time in the University’s history to pursue a course of studies leading to a degree. Santa Clara’s movement toward the mainstream of American higher education was advanced still further two years later when the business school enrolled women in its graduate program. 

Throughout the fifties, shrinking enrollments—in part a result of the departure of the GI’s—convinced many single-sex colleges to embrace undergraduate coeducation. As Newsweek magazine observed in 1958, over a third of the 3.4 million students enrolled in U.S. colleges were women: “for reasons of efficiency and economy, and academic reward, more and more men and women are studying together and liking it.” Santa Clara’s academic vicepresident, Joseph C. Diebels, S.J., argued in 1954 that coeducation would be “a great benefit to the Church.” “Catholic girls are in education to stay,” he argued, “and therefore we face some definite responsibility towards them.” Dean of Arts James A. King, S.J., agreed. “If we consider the need for education” in our area, “there would seem to be no question” that Santa Clara should do it.

A major obstacle to change was the opposition of Bay Area colleges operated by women’s religious congregations. To avoid such conflict, the Jesuit superior general, John B. Janssens, S.J., had ordered that before coeducation could be implemented at any Jesuit college in the U.S., approval would first have to be obtained from the bishop in whose diocese the school was located. After taking office, President Patrick A. Donohoe, S.J., sought that permission from Archbishop John J. Mitty of San Francisco. There were two basic reasons for the decision, the president maintained: first, “the argument of practical economies”; and secondly, it is good for men “to learn to adjust to the existence of the other half of the human family; a mixed university is a much more accurate mirror of life . . . and better preparation for the society the student is entering.” After months of negotiation, clearance was given. On March 21, 1961, Donohoe startled the campus with a surprise announcement that women would be admitted to the school’s undergraduate degree program the following fall. Thus, Santa Clara became the first coeducational Catholic institution of higher learning in the state. That same spring, the first woman to graduate in the 110-year history of the institution, Marian Olsen Doscher, received a master of business administration degree. 

Thus, Santa Clara joined the national march toward educational equality. During the 1970s, many prominent institutions that had long resisted—the University of Virginia, Yale, Princeton, and later Columbia—also gave up the battle and admitted women. By 1976, ninety-one percent of all U.S. colleges were coeducational. But the transition was not always easy, as Donohoe later conceded: “We were pretty green when the change took place.” Although most of the first women applicants were the daughters of alumni who welcomed the reform, the president’s tradition-shattering decision angered many in the all-male student body. The campus struggled to integrate its new students. Hastily written, strict codes of conduct soon had to be modified in favor of more self-discipline, as women students demanded equal status with their male counterparts. In 1976, thirteen years after coeducation was introduced, males still predominated most areas of University life. Only one woman sat on the 21-member board of trustees; and only one was included among the school’s top 22 administrators. Of the University’s approximately 206 faculty, women occupied only 16 full time and 6 part time positions. “We have to stick together,” observed English professor Elizabeth Moran. “There are so few of us.” 

Feminist consciousness, growing out of the general politicization of the sixties, challenged the University on many fronts in the years that followed. Women discovered the importance of working together, pushing for the inclusion of courses relating to women in the curriculum and for the creation of interdisciplinary women’s studies; and faculty research about women yielded an explosion of scholarly writing. Santa Clara participated in the giant strides made nationally by women’s collegiate athletics in the seventies. As a result of the women’s movement and Title IX, which prohibited sexual discrimination by schools receiving federal assistance, athletic scholarships for women and participation in women’s collegiate championships multiplied. By 1999, Santa Clara ranked among the nation’s top 36 Division I institutions in allocating equal scholarships for male and female athletes and the highest share of its athletic budget for women’s teams. 

As Santa Clara celebrates its 150th anniversary, some conclusions about woman’s evolving participation in the life of the institution are self-evident. First, the University’s experience is best understood in the larger context of both American and Catholic higher education. Although a typical single-sex American college in its first decades, Santa Clara increasingly marched to a different drummer by the turn of the century, pursing a set of values distinct from other American colleges. Catholic colleges, both male and female, along with many other private institutions, adhered to the tradition that emphasized differences rather than similarities between the sexes. Viewed in that context, Santa Clara’s evolution was not unique. However, as American higher education, especially the public sector, responded to the shifting role of women in society, so too did the University. 

Secondly, women’s presence on the campus did not begin with their admission as undergraduates in 1961. That event was part of an on-going continuum that mirrored changing gender relationships in America. Campus fascination with the new arrivals, important as that event was, has tended to overshadow the preceding steps of the postwar era that made full inclusion possible. 

Finally, the company of women profoundly recast the University. Coeducation, accompanied by a greater selectivity in admissions, transformed it from a 1,500- student, all-male school in 1961 to a coeducational university with a total enrollment of more than 7,000 fifteen years later. Although the advent of female undergraduates was not the sole cause of Santa Clara’s growth in the second half of the century, it played a leading part in the University’s enhanced academic and financial standing. 

The shift in mentality that accompanied the move toward gender equality, although difficult to measure, was no less significant. The hiring of the University’s first woman teacher in 1955 provoked astonishment in the campus newspaper. Forty five years later, students took it for granted that a class might just as well be taught by a female as by a male professor. The law school’s first woman student (“all alone—with 1,500 boys,” as the press put it) complained she felt “out of place a lot of the time,” an experience shared with the University’s female undergraduates of the fifties. But by 1999, women constituted a majority in both programs.17 Although equity in numbers is not a guarantee of equality, it does evidence a fundamental shift in campus social consciousness; it also testifies to an awareness that higher education is as important for women as for men. This article first appeared in the Winter 2001.Explore from the Bannan Institute for Jesuit Education and Christian Values.