Sewanee women look back on nearly 50 years

A 1969 Purple article featured a photo of the first female student to matriculate, Judith Ward Lineback (C’73).

By Fleming Smith
Contributing Writer

In a 1970 open letter to all “concerned Sewanee gentlemen” in The Sewanee Purple, a male student announced decisively, just a few months after women were integrated into the University of the South, that “girls are trouble.” Women ruined the choir, he says. They “invaded our sanctuary.” They even wore blue jeans.

50 years after Sewanee became co-ed in 1969, Sewanee women are still wearing blue jeans. Despite the letter’s warning that “this University is suffering because of the girls,” a group of alumnae are coming together this fall to celebrate 50 years of women’s accomplishments at Sewanee.

A nearly 40-member committee of alumni and staff are currently planning a reunion for Sewanee’s women during the next Homecoming, October 31-November 3. A proposed schedule includes events such as a panel of Sewanee women from every decade, a gala, coffee and conversation with students on Sewanee alumnae, and a potential arts showcase.

“I think what usually happens when you get generations of Sewanee alums together, in this case all women, but whoever comes back, it’s fun, because you’re start off talking about what’s different, and then 10 minutes later you get to talking about how much everything is really the same,” Laurie Saxton (C’78), committee member and Sewanee’s director of news and public relations.

Saxton and Terri Williams (C’81), committee member and assistant vice president for University Advancement, both hope that women from every decade and class year will journey back to the Mountain to share their Sewanee stories and celebrate together. The reunion’s website page is currently accepting Sewanee women’s stories for posterity. In an interview with The Purple, Saxton and Williams shared their own memories of Sewanee and its early co-ed years.

Both alumnae recalled that Sewanee’s integration of male and female students didn’t go smoothly at first. According to the University webpage for the “Founded to Make Men: Exploration of Masculinity at the University of the South” exhibit, the decision to admit women was contentious. Single-sex education was becoming less popular in the 1960s, and as admission numbers dropped, the Board of Trustees “passed a motion to admit ‘not more than 100 qualified women students’ for the 1969-1970 academic year.”

While the Vice-Chancellor at the time, Edward McCrady, and other members of the administration and Board of Regents opposed the decision, 103 women enrolled at Sewanee in 1969.

A September 26, 1969 Purple article described Sewanee entering a “brave new world” as women integrated into the University.

“The stories that we’ve heard is that they made that decision, and they just really hadn’t thought about the logistical stuff, like bathrooms,” Williams commented. The University created a “Dean of Women” to handle female students, opposite a “Dean of Men.” Female students faced several policies that did not apply to men, such as a curfew for the “privacy and protection” of women, according to a quote from Dean of Women Elizabeth Morrow in a 1969 Purple article.

When the beloved Mary Sue Cushman took up the role of Dean of Women in 1973, a position she held until becoming Dean of Students in 1992, she “really had to stand up for the women,” Williams said. Some rules were slow to change; dorms still had a “visiting hours” policy for members of the opposite sex, which proctors had to enforce.

“You could only have guys over until like 10 or 11 on a weeknight or 1 on a weekend. I was a proctor, so part of our job—so ridiculous—was to go around the dorm at like 11 and get the boys out. When I was in Hunter, I just knew there were certain rooms where I’d go yell at [the boys] and get them out, and they’d just come in the window,” Williams said with a laugh.

In the classroom, Saxton and Williams said they always felt respected.

“Either I was really naive, or Sewanee did a really good job of pretty quickly—and not Sewanee necessarily, I think Sewanee women, the women who were here—did a good job of paving the way,” Williams commented.

Saxton agreed, saying, “Those first few classes of women, some of them were so brilliant that it made it easier for us…I have heard some of the old-time faculty say that the academic level, the intellectual discussion in class got better when women came. Once they figured that out, they were on board.”

While more women entered the student body, however, the faculty remained almost entirely male. Saxton only recalls having one female professor in her time at Sewanee, and she believes there were only two or three female professors in the entire faculty by 1980.

Ruth Sanchez (C’86), a current Spanish professor and reunion committee member, said of her experience from then to now, “It’s a total different world…I like to see more women in the faculty, I think it was needed. Though it’s still a problem.”

She and many other alumnae named Anita Goodstein, a history professor, as one of their inspirations while at Sewanee.

“I just wish Anita and Mary Sue could see [Sewanee] now, because I think they’d be really proud; their early investment has really paid off with all these great, young students that are here and leaders and going out and doing amazing things in the world. They were a big piece of that,” Williams commented about Goodstein and Cushman, who have passed away.

As they look forward to the reunion, the committee members are busy putting together events that they hope both alumnae and current students will attend. Possible events for the reunion weekend include an arts showcase, an open house with the Bairnwick Women’s Center to show current resources for women on campus, a legacy event for alumnae whose daughters have also attended Sewanee, and a Rhodes Panel with Sewanee’s female Rhodes scholars.

“I know it’s Homecoming, but I hope [students] will participate,” Williams said. “Our alums love being with students.”

Despite the 50 years that have passed since women integrated into Sewanee, many alumnae feel that Sewanee is timeless, and no matter their class year, that’s what will bring women together this fall.

“When I came back 10 years ago, lots of things were different. Gailor wasn’t the dining hall, McClurg was; streets were gone; but underlying that is so much that’s the same. And that is mostly good, not 100 percent, but mostly it gives us a common starting point for relationships and getting to know each other,” Saxton said.

Speaking of her experience in the first class of women, Katie Fockele Elberfeld (C’71) described, “People asked: ‘What is it like to be a Sewanee woman?’ They wondered if we had come to Sewanee to find a husband. And I always replied to that second question that if we were looking for husbands, we’d have chosen easier schools!”

She added, “For a while, it seemed to me that Sewanee didn’t understand or acknowledge the importance of our being the first, the ones who dipped their toes in the water, for themselves but also for all the women who would go to school there along the years. The 50th anniversary means so much to me because I see now that the university does understand what our contributions meant and how they have helped shape Sewanee into the grand experience it is now.”

The Facebook page for the reunion, numbering more than 2,600 members, constantly updates with photos and memories of Sewanee women’s time on the Domain. When asked what the reunion meant to them, many alumnae responded with their pride at how far women, and Sewanee as a whole, have come over the years.

“I’m from the class of ‘03 and I think one of the most remarkable things is how I very much felt at Sewanee that I was on a path that had been blazed by the 35 years of women who came before me,” Emily Ochsenschlager (C’03) commented.

She continued, “And then I look at the classes who have come after me, and I’m really amazed by the trails they’re blazing: changing the name of Sewanee’s academic honor society, fighting for better representation on campus, asking tough questions about Sewanee’s history. I feel honored to be a part of a tradition of strong, intelligent and badass women.”

It’s clear that a great deal has changed over 50 years; there’s no more curfew, there are many more female professors, and, for better or worse, lots of women are wearing blue jeans for class dress. With changes to come in the future, alumnae are confident that Sewanee women are up to the challenge.

“The Sewanee experience is a powerful, life-altering opportunity for all who seek the challenge, those women who first crossed the thresholds and those who embark on the adventure today. I feel blessed to have been a part of the first 50 years and I know there is a bright future for the next 50 years,” said Virginia Phillippi (C’86).

For more information on the reunion, check the reunion’s social media on Facebook and Instagram, and see their website here. Look below for more reflections from Sewanee alumnae on the reunion and their time on the Domain.

Elizabeth Ivey Garrett (C’04): My mom was so proud when I got into Sewanee because of the caliber of school it is. She is the right age to have been able to be in the 1st matriculating class of women at Sewanee but lamented to me that she would never have applied there because her academics weren’t good enough.

Katherine Rogers Brown (C’78): As a Jr in high school (Indiana) and looking for schools I browsed the NY Times Book of Colleges looking for a southern school and ask my Dad about “The University of the South” since he was from Nashville. His comment was you can’t go there, it is only men. At the time the listing showed that there were women admitted, but I don’t remember the number. If I remember correctly, I think I told him he was wrong. So we planned a visit to the Mountain. It was love at 1st sight for me. Acceptances to Duke and Wake Forest were more what my Mom had in mind for me, but I was set on Sewanee. My Dad was very proud that I got accepted.

Erin Elayne Wolfson (C’03): I was born and raised in Hawaii, and had heard about Sewanee from several people at my family’s church. (My mom is an Episcopal priest.) I had always had in mind that I was going to go somewhere far away and do something different for college, and I was intrigued by this little Episcopal school in Tennessee with unique traditions, a beautiful campus, and strong academics. I applied to colleges all over the country, and didn’t actually visit any of them until after I’d applied—during spring break my senior year. I had already been admitted to Sewanee by then, and I fell in love as soon as I saw it. It felt magical to me, and so different than anything I’d seen—that’s what I was going for. While most of my high school classmates did not stay in Hawaii for college, a majority went either to the west coast or prestigious schools in the northeast; I was the Lone Ranger headed to Tennessee.

I spent a good chunk of my freshman year in culture shock and feeling like a fish out of water from time to time, but I made friends and found enough to love on the Mountain. By the time I was a senior, I felt so at home, so comfortable at Sewanee that it was hard to think about graduating and leaving.

By the time I entered Sewanee in the fall of 1999, there were more women students at Sewanee than men. To this day, I will tell anyone who will listen about what a really special college experience I had at Sewanee, and I am so proud to have been a part of the “new” tradition of women on the Mountain. It’s heartening to see the strong, bright, interesting women Sewanee continues to produce.

Guinevere Dorado (C’06): What’s strange is that what comes to mind has very little to do with Sewanee. My mother applied to colleges back before women were allowed into many of them; mom went to a Seven Sisters school (Wellesley) as the Ivy Leagues had yet to go coed. The knowledge that so much changed in just one generation, gives me hope for my daughter and the new opportunities that may open for her—and not just open, but open safely, into spaces where men and women are equally paid and respected.

Gnann Moser (C’71): I was so excited to be able to go to Sewanee, since I decided upon attending my brother’ s (Dr. Laurence Alvarez) graduation in 1959. Thankfully, the University decided to admit 100+ females. I sent my transfer application as soon as I could and have never regretted my decision!

Jessie Smiley (C’92): I find it hard to feel that it’s been twenty-seven years since I graduated. Every time I am back on campus, it still feels like home. That said, it was a relatively short time before I matriculated that Sewanee originally began admitting women, and looking back, it is clear to me that when I attended, it was still very much a campus formed around men and the needs of men. Currently my own daughter attends Smith, a college that has been women-only since its founding, and the societal differences in each campus’s treatment and valuation of women are eye-opening, to say the least. I loved my years at Sewanee, but I also now highly value the fact that the university has seen fit to acknowledge and honor women in this fashion. I feel this weekend represents one of many significant steps along the university’s ongoing journey of integration and appreciation of all its students, alumnae, and faculty, and I am very glad to see it taking place.

Allison Hastings (C’14), School of Letters: Before I came to Sewanee, financial aid tried to repeatedly deny my request for coverage of childcare costs. I had to learn the laws inside and out and train them. But for three summers, I had to go through this process of denial time and again. I’m grateful that I was able to pave the way for other parents of small children.

Bitsy Rogers Sloan (C’75): I attended Sewanee sight unseen, early admission. My Father wanted me to attend and one of the last things he did before he died was to sign my admissions papers. I was an orphan with no immediate family upon whom to rely. The headmaster of my Episcopal high school had a call with Miss Chitty and me and I’ll never forget her exclaiming, “She has no one!?”. Well, I had my chosen family in the Episcopal community and, as it turned out, Miss Chitty and Sewanee. Sewanee is where I grew up, made mistakes, learned of forgiveness and reconciliation, and extended my chosen family. Bob and Pat Ayres were among those who loved me and bore with me and helped me survive in spite of all I didn’t know. My Sewanee experience was life altering and magnificent. I cried, I laughed, I grew. I never felt separate or unwanted but I may not have known enough to recognize that I was truly different: poor and female. Somehow, that didn’t matter to me because of how my Father raised me until he died. Thanks be to God for him and Sewanee. #becauseSewanee

Heather Bennett (C’94): I am profoundly grateful for the fact that the estate of Miss Georgia M. Wilkins made it possible for me to attend Sewanee (and graduate with zero student debt).

Cindy Clark Selby (C’77): I was in the 5th class of women. I had had 2 cousins who were Sewanee alumni: Edwin Davenport and Patty Coleman (one of the first women admitted), so I knew its reputation as a good school. My mother’s childhood friend, Glover Dale Baker, who was Episcopalian at the time, encouraged me to apply. Her two children, Sr. Margaret Andrew (Jenny Baker) and Fr. John Sims Baker, attended and graduated from Sewanee after me. I am very grateful to Albert Gooch for pushing to accept more students from public schools in 1973. I did so much growing up during my 4 years there, and I became an Episcopalian as a result.

Virginia Phillippi (C’86): Thinking about this amazing milestone I find myself looking back at incredible experiences and memories and excited about the future as my daughter matriculates this year. After 32 years away, I brought my daughter for her first visit last fall and as we passed through the gates and I gave my angel a brief respite I became immersed in memories of friendships forged freshman year in Gorgas, bonds created with professors who became mentors and family, and challenges and experiences that made me the person I am today.

It was 12 years after the University allowed women to attend when I arrived on campus. The men outnumbered the women something around 4 to 1. I liked those odds. I was challenged not only mentally to outperform but also physically on the cow pasture that was the hockey field. Through the encouragement of Drs Barclay and Joan Ward I learned that I could not only excel in a male dominated arena but that I thrived on the challenges. I gained a confidence that served me well in my career as a military intelligence analyst with a joint CIA/DIA operation, earning 3 awards and becoming the team leader in three short years. And I went on to excel in other careers, always with the confidence that I could do what I was determined to do because that’s what I did at Sewanee.

I tried to capture my Sewanee experience in the words found on the last page of the Cap and Gown 1986 and as I read them today, I still believe every word:

“We leave with the strength of ourselves, of our friends, and of remembrances of this mountain to draw upon, wherever we may roam and whatever we may do with our lives. We know who we are and that the person we are now will continue to change. Yet we have found our foundations in the sandstone of Sewanee. Our memories of years spent here will never change, though they may grow foggy, and so we call this mountain home and cling onto our angels as we say ‘So long.’

The Sewanee experience is a powerful, life altering opportunity for all who seek the challenge – those women who first crossed the thresholds and those who embark on the adventure today. I feel blessed to have been a part of the first 50 years and I know there is a bright future for the next 50 years. Yea, Sewanee’s right!

“Katie Fockele Elberfeld (C’71): Pride is a sin, we’re told. But I confess to pride when I contemplate women at Sewanee and how intrinsic a part of the university life they are now. In 1969, when my pioneer classmates, friends and I started school here, I was enthralled with the lively spirit, the pranks, traditions, fog, rain and close relationships with professors.

People asked: “What is it like to be a Sewanee woman?” They wondered if we had come to Sewanee to find a husband. And I always replied to that second question that if we were looking for husbands, we’d have chosen easier schools! For a while, it seemed to me that Sewanee didn’t understand or acknowledge the importance of our being the first, the ones who dipped their toes in the water, for themselves but also for all the women who would go to school there along the years. The 50th anniversary means so much to me because I see now that the university does understand what our contributions meant and how they have helped shape Sewanee into the grand experience it is now.

Fifty years later, Sewanee is still my home. I feel more home there than in my hometown or where I live now. It is a part of me that I am proud–yes, proud–to hold in my life accomplishments. But more than that, I am grateful.”

One comment

  1. I was a junior from Emory University in 1969 when I transferred to Sewanee. My parents owned a home on the domain. I graduated in 1971 along with a small group of upperclasswomen. We ARE the 1st graduating class! Life on campus was tough and challenging. Several professors stated that they didn’t vote for women to matriculate at Sewanee. The support amongst the male students was “mixed”. I personally was told by my advisor to not pursue a higher degree and to be satisfied in being a wife and mother. I am in my 48th year teaching AP World History, Spanish and US History at Radford High School, Honolulu, Hawaii. I have a BA from Sewanee in Political Science and a MA in Secondary Education from the Department of Education, State of Hawaii. I would call the Sewanee experience a lesson in survival.

    Rebecca Gwynn [Boardman] Johnson C’71

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