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Pioneers and Pacesetters: CMC's First Female Students

CMC Registrar Katharine Lowe tips her cap to Barbara Christman, Makia Payne, Deborah Hasty, and Mary Eiland, the first female students to receive CMC diplomas in 1978.

“Many of the women in that first class turned the urinals into planters in their bathrooms,” recalls Susan M. King ‘85, one of Claremont McKenna College’s female ‘pioneer’ students. While ‘pacesetter’ refers to the first three generations of female students, ‘pioneers’ refer to every generation of female students who applied to Claremont Men’s College.

Just about 50 years ago, in April of 1975, 28 out of 41 trustees at Claremont Men’s College voted to admit female students to the college. Despite this shift to coeducation, it would not be until 1981 that the institution’s name would change from Claremont Men’s College to Claremont McKenna College (CMC). “All of us in the class of ‘85 picked Claremont Men's College to appear on our diploma,” King told me, “because that was the school we applied to.” 

However, even after the admission of female students and the shift in name, by no means were the first female students at CMC guaranteed gender equality at the college. The path towards equality was bumpy. 

Like King, Lisa A. McCaffery ‘86 applied to Claremont Men’s College but was accepted to Claremont McKenna College. McCaffery and her peers encountered a mix of skepticism and resistance from some of the older faculty.

McCaffery told me, “I felt like there were definitely still some of the older faculty members walking around with a chip on their shoulder because there were female students.” Reflecting on her time at CMC, McCaffery commented, “Being a minority, I had to learn to speak up for myself and learn to ask for what I wanted.” 

Carrie George ‘80 shared a similar experience.  “He didn’t even give us a chance,” she said of her marketing professor. “He didn’t want us there; he didn’t like us, very dismissive.” 

CMC’s first female students experienced sexism—ranging from microaggressions to instances of blatant aggression. The first year of coeducation, male students wore t-shirts saying ‘Get Cunts off Campus.’ George described female students’ responses to hostility: “They laughed at it! I wasn’t as offended in retrospect as I should have been. When you are 1 of 35 women in a school of 800 people, just your presence is breaking the mold, and trying to go further than that is really hard.” 

While most women described some level of gendered barriers, seemingly all of them spoke highly of CMC’s transition to co-ed. “I think the school really welcomed women with open arms,” Mari Adams ‘80 recalled. George shared similar sentiments: “CMC really was a place where I built lifetime friendships; many of them that are still really present today. So, I loved it.”

While these women were pioneers and pacesetters, they were also just students like us—sometimes struggling just to keep up. 

Reflecting on her time at CMC, McCaffery recalls “a series of hard disappointments.” One of the most surprising disappointments was during her swimming exam that CMC previously required. “When I jumped in the pool to take my swim test and got to the other end, I had the basketball coach who was administering the test that day bending over and saying to me, ‘Young lady, you are far too young to be this out of breath and uncoordinated in swimming,” McCaffery shared. 

King shared her challenges adjusting to CMC’s student body: “All of a sudden you’re with a whole new echelon of really smart people, really accomplished people. And people who have had life experiences that are just you've never been exposed to it before.” But while her peers challenged her, she noted that “You don't know how big you can dream until you hear from other people and learn what their dreams are.”

King also shared her financial struggles: “I worked all four years to help pay for college. And it was just a lot. And it was the first time I really struggled in the classroom. So that was a very difficult situation.” 

King recalled that she worked many part-time jobs, including at the mailroom. While CMC students today know the mailroom as “Story House,” King shed light on what Story House looked like for older generations of CMC students: “The first students at CMC were living in Story House, which was actually a farmhouse on Green beach. That's what Story House actually was. There was a woman who had an orchard and donated her house. And so the people lived in the basement; they took their meals on the ground floor.” King continued that these men “had Quonset huts: they built this temporary housing. Some people lived in the basement of Bridges Auditorium. I mean, this was a scrappy, can-do group.”

It can be surprising to reflect on just how recently CMC’s all-men’s college filled with Quonset huts transitioned into co-education. While educational and workplace gender integration seems firmly established today, CMC women just decades older than us faced schools and workplaces with rapidly changing gender norms. 

Adams reflected, “You don't realize how recently things changed.” She described her first job after CMC: “I went into the Foreign Service only a few years before they changed the rules, so women did not have to resign when they got married.” She continued, “In my first diplomatic assignment, I was the only female diplomat in the country.” 

Even today, Adams discussed how “professional women always do this in financial meetings, you'll look around in a seminar room and start counting the women. I think we all do it. And just to see like, what is it? Ten percent? Twenty percent?”

While the obstacles faced by the first female students at CMC might seem irrelevant today, the current absence of such obstacles serves as an important reminder of how quickly social change can occur on our campus. Hopefully, this serves to motivate present and future students in their pursuit of educational equity.


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