In 1971, nine female transfer students sprawled across the porch of their campus home, Grey House. As one of the women, Gardner Roller Ligo, fixed her bike chain, a male student crossed Main Street and said: “Hi, I’m from The Davidsonian, and we want to do a story on the co-eds.” The women exchanged knowing glances; this was their new title: “the coeds.” They conversed with the student reporter, he snapped some pictures, and they carried on with their day.1Gardner Roller Ligo, zoom interview by author and Maggie Shehane, October 13, 2020. A week later, the college newspaper went to press. At the top of the fold read: “Coeds Seek Living Experiences, But…” followed by a picture of Roller Ligo, leaning over her bicycle from behind.2Russ Merritt, “Coeds Seek Living Experiences,” The Davidsonian, September 10, 1971. https://library.davidson.edu/archives/davidsonian/PDFs/19710910.pdf
By the time that Davidson College trustees decided to formally admit female students in the early 1970s, women had been attending classes for over a century. Although denied enrollment as degree-seeking students, the daughters of Davidson faculty attended classes starting in the 1860s, and by the 1890s, more women, particularly the daughters of local businessmen, attended classes “by courtesy” of faculty.3Mary Beaty, “Active and Benevolent Ladies: A Short History of Women at Davidson College, 1837-2011.” https://library.davidson.edu/archives/women/ Research is ongoing, but hundreds of women seem to have taken classes at the college before the formal admission of female students. In 1972, the trustees voted to formally bring coeducation to Davidson. The presence of the first official female students disrupted the century-long traditions of granting degrees only to men at one of the most elite private colleges in the Southeast.
Interviews with Gardner Roller Ligo, a transfer student during the 1971-1972 school year; Dr. Vicki Switzer, class of 1974 and the first woman to officially enroll; and Cissi Lyles, class of 1979, provide powerful testimonies of their experiences as some of the first degree-seeking women at Davidson College.4 To view these oral history interviews, follow this link: https://davidson.primo.exlibrisgroup.com/discovery/collectionDiscovery?vid=01DCOLL_INST:01DCOLL&collectionId=81274828260005716 Although many male students and faculty responded to coeducation with skepticism and prejudice, female students advocated for themselves, created allies, and gained the respect of faculty, staff, and their fellow students.
Davidson’s switch to coeducation in the 1970s occured in the wake of a tumultuous and transformative decade of political movements for equality by marginalized groups, including women. In the 1960s and 1970s, women began to demand equal educational and professional opportunities and access to traditionally male spaces, including some colleges, universities, and graduate schools that had refused admission to women. In her interview, Roller Ligo described how “there were only nine of us [women] and 900 of them… You walked into the library or the dining hall and you were just hit with a wave of testosterone– I mean, there were men everywhere. They were just everywhere.”5Gardner Roller Ligo, zoom interview. Being one of the first meant being one of a few.
Many men scrutinized their new female peers. Lyles described feeling like she was in a “…meat market.”6 Cissi Fulenwider Lyles, zoom interview by Kerri Prinos and Christopher Mazariegos, October 5, 2020. However, they sought out the other women and respectful, equality-minded male students for support. The women also found support in the Director of Housing, Scotty Nichols. Roller Ligo described how “she came to us the first day and said: “Okay, I’m here for you. Just tell me what you need, because I have no idea what’s going to happen.”7Gardner Roller Ligo, zoom interview. Despite the intimidating atmosphere, female students identified those who supported them and formed a community.
In the classroom, some faculty and male students treated women with hostility. One male student wrote an op-ed about the “traumatic changes” brought on by coeducation and dismissively suggesting to his male peers that “the added perspective of a woman in a [Humanities] discussion will be just as titillating as the good old days in high school.”8Gray Wilson, “Women Will Bring Traumatic Changes,” The Davidsonian, April 28, 1972. https://library.davidson.edu/archives/davidsonian/PDFs/19720428.pdf. As Roller Ligo recalled, many women discussed having to prepare twice as much as their male peers because “…if [they] didn’t get it right, [they] got stomped on verbally.”9Gardner Roller Ligo, zoom interview.
These female students lacked academic role models, and most of the career advice they received centered around expectations that they would marry and raise children. One of the few female professors at the college, Dr. Louise Nelson, who taught in the Department of Economics between 1964 and 1988, approached the female students early in the semester and said, “You’re not serious students; you’re only here to get husbands. I don’t want you in my classes.”10 Gardner Roller Ligo, zoom interview. Nelson’s motivations are unclear from current evidence, and we hope to learn more about dynamics between female and male faculty and female students in future interviews.11Mary Ann Dzuback, “Research at Women’s Colleges, 1890-1940,” in Women’s Higher Education in the United States: New Historical Perspectives, ed. M.A. Nash, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 140. When female students did receive academic mentoring, it was often misogynistic. Roller Ligo remembered:
One of my friends went in to talk to the Registrar, a very nice man, well-intentioned. She said, ‘I want to go to medical school.’ He said, ‘Oh, no. You mean you want to be a nurse. Right?’ She said, ‘No, I want to go to medical school.’ He said, ‘honey, I don’t think that’s going to happen.’ … She had a 4.0 GPA at Davidson, she could have done anything she wanted… It never occurred to him that a girl, a coed, would want to be a doctor, because he said, ‘you’ll get married, you’ll be too busy.
Even when the women tried to avoid conflicting with men, they could not avoid blatant sexism. Once, the director of Alumni Engagement called Roller Ligo and said:
‘We’re doing a special dinner for [the oldest alumni class] at the Carolina Inn, would you all be willing to help serve the dinner and dress in period costumes?’ I said, ‘what period?’ He said, ‘hoop skirts.’ I said… ‘what will the boys be wearing?’ And he said, ‘oh no, they will be at the dinner and you’ll be serving.’
In addition, these women constantly received comments implying they were of second-class status. For example, the women remembered the campus facilities being extremely gender-segregated. Roller Ligo said, “We couldn’t use the gym facilities, except for at specific times because the boys were there.”12Gardner Roller Ligo, zoom interview. The men were not always inclined to share the facilities, either. In 1970, “one of the women in the group loved to swim… She asked if she could use the pool….[and] she finally was told that there was a faculty member who liked to swim in the nude and he wanted to swim anytime he damn well pleased and he didn’t want some coed getting in the way.”13Gardner Roller Ligo, zoom interview.13 While the women’s movement was working to shift historical ideas of women as subservient to men, many men on campus clearly still held antiquated views of appropriate gender roles. These first female students took on the emotional labor of educating them. Roller Ligo remembers telling this man, “‘We’re not going to serve all the boys.” He was puzzled, but he came over and sat on the porch one day and [the women] sat down with him. And by the time he left he got it.”14Gardner Roller Ligo, zoom interview.
While the women’s movement was working to shift historical ideas of women as subservient to men, many men on campus clearly still held antiquated views of appropriate gender roles. These first female students took on the emotional labor of educating them. Roller Ligo remembers telling this man, “‘We’re not going to serve all the boys.” He was puzzled, but he came over and sat on the porch one day and [the women] sat down with him. And by the time he left he got it.”14Gardner Roller Ligo, zoom interview.While these women used such opportunities to educate faculty, staff, and students and create a more progressive community, this human resources work was additional to that required in their classes and uncompensated.
Gendered sexual harassment was also pervasive during this period. The first semester that women formally attended Davidson, The Davidsonian published a cartoon of a sexualized wildcat captioned “A Davidson Woman Needs No Introduction.”15 Paul Mitchell, A Davidson Woman Needs No Introduction (cartoon) in The Davidsonian, September 22, 1972. https://library.davidson.edu/archives/davidsonian/PDFs/19720922.pdf. This reduction of female students to sex objects prompted rebuttal. One woman responded to the chauvinistic cartoon by writing, “The Davidson man is known for his intellectual capabilities rather than his physique. Why is it then that the Davidson woman is pictured as a voluptuous, feline sex object?”16 Kathy Huntly, “Coed Dislikes Male Chauvinist Cartoon,” The Davidsonian, September 29, 1972. https://library.davidson.edu/archives/davidsonian/PDFs/19720929.pdf. When objectified, these early female students pushed back.
On one occasion, harassment became violent. According to Roller Ligo:
One night, one of the women got jumped in front of the guest house… This guy jumped out and grabbed her and she just screamed bloody murder and punched him in the face and ran home. And we called the police who called the Dean of Students who came and stood outside the door in his hat and coat and said ‘so what’s the big deal?’And the police officer told him the story and he said ‘well, I knew that would happen,’ and turned around and left.
This incident and inadequate response left the women feeling vulnerable, and they challenged administrators to “improve lighting in several dark lanes between buildings.”17 Russ Merritt, “Night Attack on Coeds Sparks Discussion of Campus Security,” The Davidsonian, January 14, 1972. https://library.davidson.edu/archives/davidsonian/PDFs/19720114.pdf. This, however, did not prevent all assault. Roller Ligo alluded to other instances of sexual assault on campus, saying the women would stay away from parties “…because there was a lot of alcohol and boys didn’t behave well, particularly when the room was 99 percent boys and one or two women.”18 Gardner Roller Ligo, zoom interview. In the early 1970s, campuses did not discuss date rape or consent. While Title IX was enacted in 1972, shifts in campus culture took years (and remain ongoing). In the early 1970s, men who behaved aggressively or violently toward female students did not expect to be held accountable by the administration. Instead, women did what they could to support each other and make campus safer for themselves and future female students.
College histories have characterized the transition to coeducation as a tremendous success because female students quickly assumed leadership positions across campus and excelled academically. Oral histories provide additional information, however, on the lack of institutional preparedness, the labor of community building among female students, and the personal and emotional costs of being some of the first formally enrolled women at Davidson College. For too long, these experiences have been omitted from the school’s historical narratives. Despite a pervasive culture of harassment and open discrimination, these women demanded respect and made Davidson a more inclusive place than when they arrived. As Roller Ligo said, “I mean the absolute courage I see in the women [at Davidson College.] It’s stunning…the women in particular are just…going to change this world. You’re gonna go out and kick ass and take names, as my father used to say. And make it happen.”19Gardner Roller Ligo, zoom interview. This determination is also part of our campus legacy.