Fifty years ago, in 1970, La Salle University admitted its inaugural class of female undergraduate students. Those students—only a few dozen to start—broke through the glass ceiling of a higher-education institution founded in 1863 as an all-male college.
Those first students thrived amid challenges and hardships endured both in and out of the classroom. Today, women comprise nearly two-thirds of La Salle’s total student population, and among undergraduates, the female-to-male student ratio is 60:40.
At the University’s administrative and academic levels, women hold five of nine positions in La Salle’s Executive Cabinet and serve as deans of all three schools at La Salle.
“Our first female students were trailblazers and difference-makers who forever altered the identity of La Salle University,” said Colleen M. Hanycz, Ph.D., whose appointment in 2015 made her La Salle’s first female University President. “Their pursuit of a degree shaped La Salle’s legacy and instilled confidence in others who followed. They didn’t know it at the time, but their enrollment here also made it possible for me to lead this great University several decades later. We are truly grateful for their contributions to La Salle history.”
The following long-form story, which appeared in full in the Summer 2015 edition of La Salle Magazine, chronicles the history of the first female undergraduate students at La Salle University:
In summer 1970, La Salle prepared for a moment that would change its history. The institution was about to deviate from a design that had been in place for more than a century—not unlike today, as Colleen M. Hanycz, Ph.D., settles into her new office in the Peale House as the University’s 29th President, the very first woman to lead La Salle.
Forty-five years ago, a few dozen young women readied themselves to settle into a new environment as well. Soon, they would take their places in the classroom as the first full-time female undergraduate day students at La Salle.
It was a time filled with excitement and uncertainty. Some were concerned that this change would alter the very fabric of La Salle—an institution that had educated only men for 107 years. It did. It’s bound the community at La Salle even closer together and added some new flourishes to its rich heritage.
In the pages that follow, a few of those first young women and the faculty and staff members who witnessed their arrival recall the beginning of a new thread in La Salle’s storied history.
Diane Bones, ’75: Just look at photos from that 1971 to 1975 era and you’ll see how the world was transforming from button-down to tie-dye, and La Salle was right there in all its colorful, rebellious glory. For me, La Salle was pulsating with interesting, vibrant individuals who were involved in art, technology, sports, philosophy, women’s rights, racial equality, and peace movements.
Tina Halpin, ’76: It was an exciting time; not only were we in college, but it was the time of the Equal Rights Amendment, the Vietnam War, and consciousness-raising. We were going through our own experience of figuring out who we were, and so was the country.
And so was La Salle. After a meeting of the international chapter of the Brothers of the Christian Schools in 1966, the rules that prohibited Brothers from teaching women were revised on a local basis. This change opened the door for women’s admittance to La Salle’s Evening Division in spring 1967.
In 1969, President Brother Daniel Burke, F.S.C., Ph.D., kept the process moving by creating a “Committee on Co-Education,” which was chaired by Brother Emery Mollenhauer, F.S.C., Ph.D., and included faculty, students, and two administrators.
Summarizing the committee’s historic recommendation at the time, Br. Emery said, “To seek to continue our identity as an all-male college would be to perpetuate an anachronism. On educational grounds alone—and what other reason can be offered for our existence—the case for coeducation is incontestable.”
Br. Emery, Provost emeritus and former Dean of the Evening Division and associate professor of English: The first women came in when I was Evening Dean. I tried to get them (admitted) in ’62, actually, but that didn’t work. We had to go to our Provincial then. This gets slightly complicated. The Christian Brothers had an old rule—you could not teach women. At least you weren’t supposed to. … It’s a way-back French thing. It’s been changed, obviously… It was one of those things; it was kind of inevitable for survival.
Br. Charles Gresh, former Director of Housing and Dean of Students: Some Brothers were opposed to it. They felt that, you know, we had gotten along 100-plus years without coeducation and there was no reason why we couldn’t get on without it. However, on the other side of the coin, it was a must point of view from admissions, growth, and programs. All over the nation, of course, things were changing.
John Rossi, professor emeritus of history and author of Living the Promise: A History of La Salle University: Well, it turned out to be the salvation of the school in a way. I mean, I don’t know whether we would have survived as a single-sex school.
However, it wasn’t just about fiscal stability and boosting enrollment; the majority of students wanted to expand their horizons. In 1968, 82 percent of La Salle students surveyed said they favored coeducation. The campus was ready for a change, and then-President Br. Daniel was ready to lead the way as La Salle embarked on a new era. The institution fully opened its doors to women for the first time in September 1970—a decision that was years in the making.
“While the full impact of the decision on all of the programs is not completely clear, the general prospect seems to be a happy one for most of the campus,” Br. Daniel said at the time. “The coeds, we believe, are going to make significant contributions to the quality of academic and social life at La Salle.”
That fall, La Salle welcomed 837 freshmen to campus—138 of them were La Salle’s first full-time female undergraduate day students. Most of these young women didn’t see themselves as groundbreakers or game-changers; they wanted to further themselves and find their place, on campus and in the world.
Marianne Salmon Gauss, ’74: I didn’t see it as a huge, scary thing. I just saw it as something I’d have to overcome. … I don’t think most of us would consider ourselves women’s libbers. We were just pretty independent, but I don’t think we came to La Salle to change the world and to get our rights back. I think we wanted an education, and that may have looked like women’s lib to the men, but my perception of most of the women I knew was that it was their way of just getting their own.
Bones: Even though I came from an all-female high school atmosphere, I wasn’t all that intimidated by the guys. In fact, to be truthful, it was fun to suddenly be in the minority. … Male students always treated me well. … Even though women were in the minority, we were welcomed. And we found each other—the ladies’ room on the third floor of the Union served as a refuge for women students when we needed a break from the ‘all-boy band!’
Joan Mancini Fitzpatrick, ’74: From the very first day at La Salle, I felt right at home. I was one of the few girls from a public high school and was used to coed classes, so it was not too intimidating to me. But most of the girls were from Catholic high schools where classes had been segregated. Many of the girls were extremely nervous at first and hesitated to walk into the male-dominated cafeteria. I remember many girls eating their lunches in the third-floor bathroom of the Union those first few months.
These female students weren’t the only ones who took some time to adjust to their new surroundings. Many of the male faculty members were in the same boat. Having only had experience in single-sex education, some struggled to find their footing in this new academic environment.
Fitzpatrick: As 18- to 22-year-olds, the students were loving it. But most of the teachers at La Salle had only taught male students for years and this was a huge change for them. I think the professors and the Christian Brothers were actually the ones that had the hardest time adjusting.
Rossi: It took a while because the Brothers didn’t understand women at all. There were the Brothers whose influence was very high at that time, and there were a lot of Brothers at that time—they would kind of throw their hands up and didn’t know what to do. So I think it took a while for them to get on their feet about that.
Br. Emery: I think some faculty may have had some difficulties adjusting in the classroom. If you have an all-male audience, which my experience has been, too, you can be more off-handed and kid a bit. But I find I have to be a little more careful at some times with some of the young women than I would tend to be with the men.
Fitzpatrick: Most professors were kind and accepting, but they were unsure of the protocol, and, if anything, they treated us a little with kid gloves at first.
Gauss: I think some of the laypeople had a harder time. I had a professor who used to say there was no place in his lab for a woman, except at the sink washing glassware, and although that sounds like a pretty funny line, I don’t think he was kidding, and none of the women in his class felt he was kidding. And I’ve talked with him about it since then, and I think he was just unnerved by it more than anything else. He had never taught women. He didn’t understand us. When you’re 18, you think everybody’s equal, and I now know that’s not true.
Fitzpatrick: The professors definitely had a harder time adjusting, but I feel they learned to appreciate the new women’s point of view and, in the long run, realized how beneficial the coed environment was and how competitive the women made their classes.
Br. Emery: Women tend to be good students—they’re conscientious, in general. There are bright women and there are bright men, and as a whole, (women) tend to be kind of more conscientious about doing their work.
Gauss: The women they admitted that first year were academically significantly stronger than the men. So now, they were going to have to compete for grades with people they hadn’t had to compete with before, which is interesting, too.
Halpin: At one point, one of my professors admonished the male students in the class and told them they had to step their game up because the women were here. We were so excited to be there and wanted to do well. We didn’t want to prove the critics against women’s education right. … The English Department was at least 50/50 men and women. Some of my basic core courses here and there would be more guys than women, but I didn’t feel intimidated or unsure. The professors were very welcoming. I came in the third year after going coed, so maybe some of those growing pains had passed.
Fitzpatrick: I remember being the only girl in my speech class. … It was such a fun class with Sid MacLeod, and all the guys were super supportive and always had my back.
Rossi: When the women came on board, you noticed right away a slightly different tone. The women raised the tone a little bit. The manners softened a little bit. Behavior was a little bit better in class and outside of class.
While, by and large, most of the male students were more than happy to rise to the occasion, there were some who took a little bit longer to warm up to their female classmates. Eventually, both the men and women adjusted to a new equilibrium, but not without the growing pains that typically accompany any change of this magnitude.
Gauss: I think the upperclassmen perceived it as a betrayal of the contract they made with the College in many cases. I think they felt like, you know, now they’re going to have to dress better, and they were going to have to behave better, and it was just a hassle.
Fitzpatrick: Visiting campus, I still recall male students leaning out of the tower in Wister Hall, yelling to us to come to school there. I think they were ready and anxious to have some coeds on campus. … I don’t remember anything sexist or rude from the men on campus. All in all, it was a fun atmosphere because I found that most students at La Salle come from good, hardworking families and are taught respect for others. I actually feel that the men at La Salle during those transitional years were so excited and happy to add women into the mix on campus that they were almost protective of us. They honestly appreciated having us there.
Gauss: I think it just got to be more comfortable. … The first semester was scary. The second one wasn’t so bad. By the third or fourth semester, you figured out that in every class, there would be one guy who was going to give you a hard time just because you’re a woman, and there would be one guy who was going to be nice to you just because you’re a woman.
Br. Emery: You get all men together, and you have a few wise guys. The overall effect (of women coming to campus)—they had a civilizing effect. (The men) were less raucous, I think, after three or four years. And the women obviously survived, and I think they were very happy.
The first women at La Salle not only survived, but thrived— and, in turn, the culture on campus and in the classroom did, too. Whether they saw themselves as groundbreakers or not, these women helped La Salle to forge a new identity that remained true to its traditions and educational legacy, but also evolved with the rapidly changing world just beyond campus bounds. It was a defining moment in the University’s history and in their personal history as well.
Bones: I believe that my La Salle experience was a turning point in my young life. I came to 20th and Olney as a naïve schoolgirl and left as a woman who was ready to start her career and make her way in life.
Fitzpatrick: It was a unique experience to be among the first women at a previously all-male college, and I still find myself amusing friends with tales from those years. Being the first women on a college campus is something that not many people get to experience. It was a small quirk that made my life a little different than the norm. I am still very close to the women I met at La Salle, and I think our bond is even tighter since there were so few of us. My college experience at La Salle was very rewarding and made me a much more confident woman in many ways.
Editor’s Note: Special thanks to Barbara Allen, Ph.D., assistant professor of history, and the students in her graduate course on oral histories who conducted some of the interviews that appear in this story, as well as Media and Digital Services Librarian Rebecca Goldman, who curated all of these oral histories at digitalcommons.lasalle.edu/histdeptohall