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The Catholic Historical Review 89.3 (2003) 489-510

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Gender, Coeducation, and the Transformation of Catholic Identity in American Catholic Higher Education

Susan L. Poulson and Loretta P. Higgins

Much of the recent scholarship on American Catholic higher education in the twentieth century has focused on the demise of a unified Catholic intellectual tradition and the growing secularism and dependency upon laity in Catholic institutions. While recognizing that numerous Catholic colleges and universities have reached new heights of academic respectability and financial success, many lament the loss of Catholic higher education's distinctiveness as it increasingly resembles its more secular counterparts. A rapid decline in the number of clerics and religious women, the growing laicization of university governance, the rising numbers of non-Catholics on the faculty and in the student body, and the lack of a coherent, widely-shared ideological consensus of what constitutes Catholicism are frequently cited reasons for the loss of a distinctive Catholic culture. 1 We propose another reason that, while sometimes mentioned in recent works, has been under-explored: the profound changes in gender norms in Catholic higher education created by the widespread adoption of coeducation. By examining the histories of Boston College, Georgetown University, and the University of [End Page 489] Notre Dame, we will explore how the recent wave of coeducation contributed to a critical cultural break with past Catholic practices. For while the minds of students are shaped by the content in the classroom, they are also influenced by the cultural values and social rituals reflected in campus life. The wave of coeducation that swept through Catholic higher education a generation ago hastened the acculturation of American Catholics to contemporary society.

Sex Segregation and the Structure of Catholic Higher Education

When Catholics first established their colleges and universities in the United States, sexual segregation was the national norm. Coeducation first emerged in 1833 when Oberlin College opened with forty-four women students enrolled in its Female Department. Several small religious colleges followed Oberlin's example, including Iowa College (Grinnell), Knox, Wheaton, Lawrence, Northfield (Carleton), Berea, and Washburn. The largest boost to coeducation came at mid-century, when several Midwestern land grant institutions began to admit women, including Iowa in 1855, Wisconsin in 1867, Indiana, Kansas, and Minnesota in 1869, and Michigan and Missouri in 1870. 2 By 1870 there were nearly a hundred coeducational colleges; by 1890 there were 282; and by 1902 there were 330. 3 Most of these institutions were in the West and Midwest; the more traditional South and East had proportionately more single-sex institutions. At the turn of the century, seventy-one percent of American colleges and universities were coeducational, and forty percent of American college students were women. 4 Thus, while the large majority of college students nationwide attended a coeducational institution, students at Catholic colleges pursued their education in a single-sex environment.

This single-sex characteristic of Catholic higher education became further entrenched when Catholic colleges for women opened at the turn of the twentieth century. Largely in response to the concern that [End Page 490] growing numbers of Catholic women were attending non-Catholic institutions, many bishops "urged, and occasionally ordered" women religious to establish colleges. In 1899 six women became the first to graduate from a Catholic college when they received their degrees from the College of Notre Dame of Maryland. Debate among Catholics over the propriety of higher education for women continued when Trinity College opened a year later in the nation's capital. Proponents of the institution, such as the Bishop of Peoria, John Lancaster Spalding, and the president of Boston College, Thomas I. Gasson, S.J., strongly supported the ability of women to develop professional aspirations. 5 Women religious continued to establish colleges at an astounding rate. At the end of World War I, there were ten colleges that enrolled 1,500 students; by 1968 there were 142 colleges educating 101,000 students. 6

It is tempting to see the sudden surge of coeducation in the late 1960's...


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