The Colgate Scene
May 1999
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Documenting Colgate's Daughters

by Deb Goldstein '99
"Going Coed" with former president Tom Bartlett in Special Collections
The course showed up in the registration booklet last spring -- Composition 332: Writing in the Social Sciences. A small asterisk followed the title, indicating the course was to be revised that semester; it would now focus on the "Going Coed Oral History Project."

     The description explained that the project was "an effort to document the experiences of students, faculty and administrators who took part in Colgate's transition from an all-male to a coed institution. Working individually and in groups, students will design the project and produce publishable essays based on archival research and original interviews."

     Having no idea what lay ahead of me, I enrolled.

     Thirteen of us showed up the first day to be welcomed by professor Vince DiGirolamo. DiGirolamo is an academically trained historian, with a Ph.D. from Princeton University.

     His past work ranges from a documentary titled "Monterey's Boat People," depicting the adversities faced by Vietnamese refugee fishermen in his hometown, to an article solving the mysterious disappearance of a sculpture by Beniamino Bufano in 1942. In all of his work, oral history has been essential to DiGirolamo's extensive research.

     "I believe oral history is an excellent way of getting at the experience of people whose perspectives are not usually part of the public record. When I came to Colgate I naturally wanted to continue this work: to write -- and teach -- oral history," said DiGirolamo.

     While there were countless areas in which to conduct the class's oral history research, DiGirolamo looked for a topic that would allow us to "harness our energies and try to work collectively on a common project, something that was doable; a project in which we could dig where we stand."

     While flipping through the Colgate catalogue, he read that the university went coed in 1970 and thought that maybe enough time had passed that his class could study that process historically, and possibly publish something by the 30th anniversary.

     The first topic on DiGirolamo's agenda was to explain to the class that at that point, the project consisted of nothing other than a title and even that was up for change.

     "This is not really my project," he said. "It's not something that I'm letting you work on. It's your project, or rather, it's our project."

     "Going Coed" would take whatever direction we chose.

     We began by raising several historical questions regarding coeducation: How was the decision made, by whom, and for what reasons? What kind of opposition was there to the change? Did alumni donations fall off? What was it like for that first group of women? Where are they now?

The "Going Coed" Oral History Project. Having no idea what lay ahead of me, I enrolled.      Though most of us wanted to dig in and start interviewing, there was much research to be done.

     DiGirolamo started by having us read background literature, including a short history of Colgate, an oral history of three women at UC Berkeley in the 1960s titled Loose Change, and Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. These materials sparked engaging discussions and heated debates about women and the entire university experience. In discussing these texts, many of us opened up, revealing personal decisions and attitudes.

     We met at Case Library's Special Collections several times as a group. With the help of the collections librarian, Carl Peterson, the room was soon filled with archival documents pertaining to coeducation and several years' worth of the Salmagundi, Colgate News and Colgate Maroon. Every few minutes we would be interrupted by a student yelling, "come over here and look at this!" The discoveries we made together were fun and very encouraging.

     Before long, the class was itching to get to the good stuff -- the interviews. Fortunately, we were prepared when Colgate brought former presidents Vincent Barnett (1963-1969) and Tom Bartlett (1969-1977) to campus for a weekend. DiGirolamo immediately scheduled interviews with both men. Senior Scott Miltenberger and junior Ainslie Ellis conducted the first interview with Barnett and his wife Barbara.

     The next day, the entire class met in Special Collections to jointly interview Bartlett. It was exciting that our first taste of interviewing was with the most influential and powerful men in the coeducational transition. The presidents provided us with an overall picture of Colgate's transition, which allowed the rest of the project to work top-down. The later interviews focused on students and faculty who experienced the shift.

     The highlight of "Going Coed" came in the final weeks of the fall semester, as we conducted individual interviews and orally presented our findings. The class definitely anticipated the (now) humorous stories of women attempting to fit into Colgate's masculine campus, but those anecdotes came up only occasionally. Still, we heard of a woman who was told by a professor that "she could dress better," and that the girls would get standing ovations from the men upon entering the dining hall. We were told that some men were intimidated to date the women at first, because they were smarter and had higher admission standards.

     However, we were also clued in on the more serious nature of Colgate in the early '70s. A former faculty member shed tears concerning some unfair university policies, men talked about their decision whether or not to serve in Vietnam and many mentioned the racial tension present on Colgate's campus in the late '60s.

     We concluded that coeducation was really only an element of "Old Colgate's" transition to "New Colgate" in the early 1970s.

     One particularly special interview came from senior Melissa Grimes, who interviewed her father, Donald '73. He was part of a small group of Colgate men to spend one semester at Skidmore, an all-girls school at the time.

     "This project is especially important to me because I consider it part of my history," said Grimes. "It was fun sitting down with my dad and hearing his stories in a new light. They now have context. This experience, along with many others, has formed the backbone of my research. As I am about to graduate as a Colgate woman, it makes me excited to know that we are part of a similar history."

     There was a unique level of excitement after each presentation because of the way the stories built on each other and connected the entire experience. Everyone found something different, yet it all contributed and made sense. Our class shared feelings of accomplishment and success. We had launched "Going Coed" and it had come together.

     "I will say that last year's course was the best experience I've had in a classroom. I think it was because the work was real," said DiGirolamo. "We weren't just doing exercises. We had to talk to real people and we had to know things -- we had to be prepared -- or it would be embarrassing."

     The project definitely held a special meaning for our class as well.

     "I truly understand Colgate now -- past, present, and future," said Ellis. "`Going Coed' will continue as a great contribution to Colgate's history, and I'm so proud that I could be a part of that."

     Senior Chris Tierney agreed. "I originally signed up for the class because some of my friends were in it, but it ended up being one of my most valuable Colgate experiences. I'm graduating this year, and I really feel that I'm leaving something behind."

     After first semester's experiences, I couldn't imagine the "Going Coed" project ending there. We had just gotten our feet wet, and what we found was fascinating. Six of us decided to continue our work as independent studies. Each of us narrowed our focus to a particular aspect of coeducation, including the fraternity system, athletics and the notions of Old Colgate versus New Colgate.

     "Going Coed" is an ongoing project and we have really only scratched the surface. We know that more is out there. Every story, every anecdote, every memory will make a difference in our project. As many of you reach the 25th anniversary of Colgate's Daughters, please share your stories with us. We're anxious to make you a part of "Going Coed."

     A website has been created by seniors Marta Kirsis, Louisa Colon and Ellis to reach potential project participants. If you are interested in contributing to "Going Coed," please contact us online at Or email Vince DiGirolamo at

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