Women at Holy Cross

By Tiyana-Marie Bassim | October 27, 2022

This year, Holy Cross will be celebrating fifty years of coeducation, an enormous milestone that has changed the college forever and for the better! I had the honor of talking with Dr. Theresa M. McBride, an alumni of Seattle University, a Jesuit college, and a Founder of women and gender studies, who taught at Holy Cross for 47 years in the history department. She was also the faculty representative who worked with the lawyers regarding the current Title IX policies. During my interview with Professor McBride, she provided much insight into life before and after coeducation at Holy Cross.

From the 1960s, Holy Cross underwent considerable transformations in its curriculum, enrollment, and diversity. The college dropped its core curriculum, providing greater choice for students in courses. This change led to today's 59 diverse academic departments and programs. In 1968, the then Academic Dean, Reverend John E. Brooks, took the step to personally recruit Black students, believing this was a critical step for a student body that had been overwhelmingly white. Looking back, it was a very significant and necessary step for a college that, at that time, was regional in its draw and also small, with about 1,800 students. The enrollment was increased to 2,400, and it was evident that the college would have to continue to recruit more diverse students. Fr. Brooks, as college president, and the Trustees had become convinced that recruiting women students for Holy Cross was the right thing to do.

The decision process was thorough, as Professor McBride put it. Students, faculty, trustees, and alumni were all surveyed on the proposal to coeducate. All of the groups were in favor, although some of the alumni were more reluctant, for they were used to a male college and a much smaller one at that. An interesting note is that one mathematics professor created a position paper for faculty discussion outlining some disadvantages to coeducation, but it was never debated. The overwhelming majority of the faculty voted in favor.

The preparation for women's arrival included design changes to the dormitories, but also a thoughtful discussions on what coeducation meant for Holy Cross. While the focus seemed to be on redesigning bathrooms and adding mirrors, discussions also aired the larger question of what coeducation would mean. One of the most significant changes Holy Cross had made in its history was the admission of women in 1972. In the first year, only about 20-25% of the students admitted were female. Over ten years, the number of women rose to 50%. Professor McBride emphasized that coeducation was not something that just happened. It was a lengthy process that continues today in various different forms, and we are still learning to adapt to different students and to changes in the larger society.

In the early 1980s, while female students rose to parity, women faculty and administrators, starting from a very small number, increased significantly. In 1981, a small group of women administrators and faculty, known as the committee on the status of women, dealt with a wide range of issues that had been recognized to adapt to coeducation. One was inclusive language and dropping the universal use of “he,” which Professor McBride stated was more challenging than many would think. Another example was the issue of the lack of family leave for faculty and administrators. Because young women faculty had only seven years in which to attain tenure, they faced a significant challenge to balance their personal lives with professional expectations. The committee also tackled the issue of safety on campus for students and others, including better lighting on the campus and discussion of response to crises..

While female students thrived, alumna recalled encountering patriarchal and paternalistic attitudes. For example, an economics professor expressed his view in the faculty debate that most of the women at the college were not going to pursue careers in law and medicine. Rather, after they graduated, they would get married and have children. There was also increased worry about violence against women discussed in Ann Cahill’s “Women on the Hill”, which surveyed twenty years of alumna. Great changes came for Holy Cross in the 1980s and 1990s, and women's roles at the college and in the world changed.

The first cohorts of women at the college faced challenges and paved the way for women and other diverse groups on campus today. Professor McBride described the female students in the 1970s and 1980s as resilient. According to And Thus Entered Women: The Beginnings of Co-Education at Holy Cross from 1967-1976 (an exhibit organized by Holy Cross’ Archives and Dinand Library), many of the first women felt isolated among a much larger male student body. The placement of the first women in Brooks Hall physically divided men and women rather than promoting integration, and first-year women felt it difficult to bond with the upper-class students on campus. Housing was expanded for female students as successive classes brought in more women. It was not all negative for women, but there is no denying there were challenges. The women who often confided in Professor McBride were female athletes. They felt disadvantaged compared to male athletes, even as the application of Title IX was supposed to require equity of resources across intercollegiate athletics.

For women faculty, the expectations seemed very high. To achieve the goal of tenure at Holy Cross, women seemed to carry a greater burden of service along with meeting the expectations of excellence in research, and publication. Before policies on parental leave were enacted, women faced additional obstacles to achieve tenure compared to their male colleagues, despite departments being committed to hiring women. However, this changed when women were finally in tenured positions, became heads of committees and of departments, and assumed other high forms of leadership. A more diverse student body and increasing hires of women contributed to a more welcoming climate.

By the 1990s, female faculty and administrators increased in number, along with the fact that women faculty in tenured positions became a higher percentage than at many comparable colleges. The effects of all of these changes from the expansion to students admitted to the increased diversity of the student population led the way for more opportunities for students in post-graduate awards and national programs in which Holy Cross was invited to participate. The changes were one of the reasons for its heightened national profile.

The 50th anniversary of coeducation is a milestone to be celebrated and remembered. Former president Fr. Brooks often said that coeducation was the best decision he made during his 27 year tenure. Professor McBride commented that coeduation is a continuous process seen in different ways today. It is important to remember this aspect of Holy Cross’ history, the efforts by many to make it happen, and the resilience of the first cohorts of women in the college.

Edited by Maggie Reddington