'They were certainly pioneers': Fairfield University looks back on 50 years of women

Photo of Katrina Koerting

FAIRFIELD — It’s hard to imagine Fairfield University without women. They make up the majority of the student body and hold leadership positions throughout campus, both among the students and faculty.

But the transition from an all-male school to co-ed didn’t happen that long ago. The university is celebrating 50 years since the arrival of its first undergraduate class of women.

“They were certainly pioneers,” said Elise D. Bochinski, the university archivist.

Fairfield welcomed 234 women in fall 1970, accounting for about 11 percent of the overall student population. Within the 1970 freshmen class, there were 538 men and 181 women. The first class to complete all four years at Fairfield also yielded the school’s first female valedictorian in 1974 — Karen Stonkas Ponton.

By 1979 though, women surpassed men for the first time and made up about 52 percent of the student body. Today they account for about 60 percent.

“We’ve come a long way,” Bochinski said.

Though the first undergraduates were admitted in 1970, women have been a part of Fairfield University longer. They were able to take classes through the graduate department of education when it was established in 1950, the first honorary degree was given to a female commencement speaker in 1953 and two full-time, female professors joined the staff in 1963.

“We were secretly co-ed in the graduate program,” Bochinski said. “At that level we were always open to women for professional degrees.”

The decision to go completely co-ed started in the mid-60s when Rev. William C. McInnes became the new president. He set out to win faculty and students over to his proposal, speaking with them at various places around campus.

Fairfield was a young university at the time, having started just 20 or so years before in 1942. By opening up to women, it essentially doubled the applicant pool, Bochinski said.

“We were looking to grow and expand,” she said.

Admitting women also added another dimension to the educational experience and better prepared students for the real world, said Jennifer Anderson, vice president of marketing and communications.

She said a key part of the Jesuit program is dialogue, critical thinking, service and a sense of the world being bigger than an individual. Women brought new and important perspectives to these discussions to make them holistic.

“Women helped complete the education,” Anderson said.

The decision also came amid larger cultural changes. Women were asserting themselves more and other universities were becoming co-ed.

“It’s a significant achievement when you educate women alongside their male counterparts as equals,” Bochinski said. “It was a huge milestone.”

Not everyone welcomed the move. Student polls from the 1960s show varying support for it. There were questions for what it would mean for the classrooms and residential life and what changes they would have to make for it.

The decision was ultimately passed in 1968, along with the creation of the university’s nursing program, setting the start date for 1970 to give them time to prepare and recruit. Most of the women learned of the university by word of mouth or from their guidance counselors.

“My brother went there, so that’s why I ended up there,” Joanne Ryan, a member of the first class, said in an oral history project with the university. “My brother was a senior when I was a freshman. Back then you didn’t look at 50 colleges. Your parents said, ‘You can only go an hour away.’ And I said, ‘OK.’ It was different, a whole different landscape.”

Anne Marie Samway was hired to be the assistant dean of students in 1970 and help oversee the transition.

One of the residence halls was slightly modified for the women, including adding full-length mirrors, ironing boards, refrigerators and dressers. Even with that, the signs it was previously all-male still showed.

“I remember that the bathrooms still had the urinals in them when we were there, which we thought was kind of interesting,” Mary Jane Galvin, another member of the first class, said in the oral history project. “I mean there clearly had been no thought about what women were, as opposed to what men were. But I didn’t really care about that. I was excited to be at college.”

Intramural sports were added for the women and they could essentially join all of the clubs and activities on campus in some form except for the all-male glee club. They started their own singing group a few years later.

Overall, the women reported little resistance. If any, it came from the older Jesuits teaching, but Bochinski said that seemed to disappear quickly based on alumni experiences.

Peggy Callagy, one of the first women, recalled some of the friendly pranks their male peers would play on them, including pulling the fire alarms in the Loyola residence hall so the women would run out with rollers in their hair.

“This was before we had parietals which allowed men in the building,” she said. “So we had a curfew of some kind and after curfew they pulled the fire alarm — and they’d be out there with boxes of donuts.”

While there were opportunities, it took some time for the women to come into leadership positions.

Though women held positions in the student cabinet, the first female president of the Fairfield University Student Association, the student government, wasn’t elected until 2002 when Karen Donaghue won.

Anderson said it wasn’t until the 80s that “women really blossomed” in terms of athletics and activities. By the time she was a student athlete in the early 90s, women had strong roles within campus life.

“Everything was really well integrated,” she said.

The first women accepted were recruited for success, helping pave the way for the thousands of women to follow in their footsteps.

“All of these women,” Gail Kennedy said in the oral history about her peers in the Class of 1974, “are really very bright, intelligent people that have gone on to have great careers, but also have grown as human beings — a mixture of not only the upbringing that we had, but also the type of things that we were exposed to at Fairfield, including the academics.”

Both Bochinski and Anderson said women played a critical role in the university’s growth, especially in academic prestige.

“I don’t know if Fairfield would have had this success if it didn’t admit women,” Bochinski said.

kkoerting@newstimes.com