To the Lafayette Community:
This year marks the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave women the right to vote. It is also a historic year for women at Lafayette College: 50 years ago, on this very date, Lafayette welcomed its first female students into the classroom. We will be celebrating this milestone with a variety of panels and events throughout the year reflecting on the history, and challenges, of women at Lafayette.
When the decision to admit women was approved by a 19-9 vote of the Board of Trustees on June 27, 1969, it was a controversial one. But the College moved swiftly to implement it, and the community reacted warmly to embrace it. Unlike some colleges that struggled with coeducation for many years, Lafayette adapted very quickly to this significant change.
When I became Lafayette’s first female president in 2013, I was proud to take my place alongside a distinguished line of first women in Lafayette’s history.
By Sept. 10, 1970, fewer than 15 months after its vote on co-education, Lafayette had its first female trustee, its first female administrator, and its first 146 female students; 23 of these students were upper-class transfers and 123 were still referred to as “freshmen.” That administrator, Assistant Dean of Students Suzanne Herman, told The Lafayette that she and the other women on campus were not “pioneers” but “adventurers.” Having heard the reminiscences of many of the “First Women of Lafayette” over the years, I can affirm that it was quite an adventure for many!
One year later, women’s athletics was introduced. By 1972, one-fourth of the female students were athletes on seven different teams. That year also saw the first female graduate and the first female nominee for the Pepper Prize. Lafayette’s first female ROTC graduate received her diploma in 1977, the same year that sororities were approved. By 1981, we had our first female editor of The Lafayette and our first gender-focused courses in history, sociology, and anthropology, followed by the development in the early ’80s of a program in women’s studies, now women’s, gender, and sexuality studies.
Today, a little more than half our students are women, and we are among the top 20 engineering colleges or universities in the country in the percentage of women (40 percent) studying engineering. Nearly half of our faculty are women, and we have made great strides in the number of women teaching in STEM disciplines in recent years.
At the same time, the College continues to strive to improve gender equity and to ensure a safe and welcoming environment for all at Lafayette. In recent years, a number of College initiatives and student organizations have been directed towards issues of sexual assault and sexual misconduct, LGBTQ+ support, and gender equity. While we have come a long way, we still have work to do.
Our yearlong celebration of this 50th anniversary of coeducation seeks to capture the history of women at Lafayette as well as look ahead to the future. Events, including a special, invitation-only “reunion” of Lafayette’s female adventurers being held tonight, will be virtual. I hope that you will join us online throughout the academic year to celebrate the legacy of coeducation at Lafayette, learn its history, and hear interviews with some of those path-breaking women. A Skillman Library virtual exhibition showcases photographs, documents, and memorabilia commemorating this remarkable period of social change at Lafayette. We’re also collecting stories from women— and men— who experienced Lafayette’s first years of coeducation; you can submit your story here. Finally, I hope that you will consider supporting the First Women of Lafayette Scholarship Fund, which helps to ensure the continued presence of outstanding female students in our classrooms.
Today, as we celebrate the contributions of women in the Lafayette community, we continue the important work of making Lafayette more diverse and inclusive by striving to become accessible to all talented students regardless of their financial means. Lafayette College was strengthened by the addition of women in 1970, and it continues to be strengthened today by the admission of students representing a wider range of backgrounds, geographic locations, and experiences than ever before. I am proud to see Lafayette continue the legacy of transformation begun 50 years ago today.
Alison R. Byerly