They Broke the Coed Barrier

edited by Jack Croft
photography by Douglas Benedict and Joe Craig

In the fall of 1971, the first group of female undergraduate students arrived on Lehigh’s campus. That initial band of 169 intrepid history-makers (far more than the 100 women the board of trustees voted to allow to enroll in May 1970) met a mixed reaction from their fellow students, faculty, and alumni.

Jane (Palestine) Jamieson ’75 - Retired Executive Vice President, Fidelity Investments, Boston, Mass.

It should be noted that women had enrolled in adult and graduate education at Lehigh since the early 1900s, with the first three women earning M.A. degrees in October 1921. And in 1947, Mrs. H. Barrett (Libby) Davis, wife of a speech professor, became the first woman to hold a full-time faculty position when she was appointed an instructor in journalism.

Still, the decision to accept female undergraduate students transformed Lehigh’s culture in ways large and small. In honor of the 40th anniversary of this historic event, Lehigh undertook an oral history project to capture the recollections of some of those first women. The following are edited excerpts from those initial interviews, which will become part of Lehigh’s Special Collections. Additional interviews will be collected throughout this anniversary year.

Choosing Lehigh

Susan Ascher: There’s something about me that always likes to be first. I’m a very competitive person, and when I found out that Lehigh was looking for its first class of women, I thought it would be an opportune time to go there and to experience something very, very different than what a lot of my peers were doing.

Barb Turanchik: I am a native of Bethlehem, and I think that one of the things that always intrigued me, as even a young child who grew up on the South Side, was that this place called Lehigh only admitted men. As a little girl, I played in Taylor Gym with my two brothers, and one day a man chased me out because he said, “No, you can’t go in there. There’s no girls allowed.” So I think it was one of those challenges that I had even when I was little, that said, “Wait a minute. No, I think I can get there.” And that was one of the reasons that I did apply.

“When it came to classes, it became pretty clear early on that I would be the only woman in most of my classes, and that had a good side and a bad side to it.” —Jane (Palestine) Jamieson ’75

Lois Sunflower: I was a freshman at Syracuse University, and my boyfriend went to Lehigh, and so I wanted to come here because I wanted to be with him. I also liked the fact that I could get a full undergraduate degree in English literature and then go on for a master’s in education, which was my goal.

Jane Jamieson: I think my decision to apply to Lehigh was pretty much about my dad. He had graduated in 1938. He was here in a really tough time. It was the Depression, but he had great memories. He loved his experience, and he really, really encouraged me to apply. I was in the process of putting in all my applications, and about three weeks after I put in my Lehigh application, I was accepted, and I was really surprised. I said, “Wow! This is really fast. I think the decision’s made.” Plus I didn’t have to finish my other applications.

Lois (Biamon) Sunflower ’74 - Beekeeper, Bear Honey Farms, Bath, Pa.

The First Day

Pat Chase: I remember freshman orientation. This was the first freshman class of women, in the snake pit at Grace Hall, and there was a big banner on the wall that said, “Welcome to the Unique Class of ’75,” and they had crossed out the word “unique” and written in “eunuch.” “The Eunuch Class of ’75.” I remember that distinctly.

Karen Stuckey: I recall the first night sitting outside our dorm, Carothers, with my roommate and another friend, and the guys were coming down over the hill like they were storming the beach at Normandy. It was just droves of them. The upperclassmen had been on campus for a few days already and had moved in, and they heard that the women were there in the dorms. We sat outside, and it was just like an onslaught. It was definitely weird, and it continued to be weird for much of the first year at least.

Jamieson: I had come from a small private girls’ school in Rhode Island. There were 57 girls in my graduating class, and here I came to Lehigh and there were a hundred women on campus with about four thousand men. The contrast couldn’t have been greater.

Ascher: Sometimes it’s just a complete blur to me what that first day was, because it was so overwhelming to enter what was essentially a fishbowl, where you would walk around and for hundreds of yards you could go without seeing another female. That didn’t really bother me, but it made me very aware that I really was going to be experiencing something very, very unique.

Outnumbered by Men

Heather Rodale: We were definitely aware of the fact that women were new to the campus and that the men who were already on the campus weren’t accustomed to us being [there]. You definitely had to be the kind of woman who loved to make friends with guys, because there weren’t a lot of women and we were scattered in dorms across the campus. I really felt that it was easier to make friends with guys.

Susan P. (Monkemeier) Ascher ’75 - President and CEO, The Ascher Group, Short Hills, N.J.

Jamieson: When I first got to campus, obviously it was mostly men, and one of the first things that happened, and it happened pretty frequently, is that people would say to me, “Where do you go to school?” I actually was pretty offended by that, because I said, “Well, where do you think I go to school? I go to Lehigh.” So part of it was asserting ourselves to say, “Hey, we really are a part of this community.”

Stuckey: It was definitely strange to be at Lehigh and outnumbered 32-to-1, if you didn’t count the grad school, which probably made it 34- or 35-to-1. But because of that, we never went anywhere alone. If you went anywhere alone as a coed in the first few weeks or months, everybody wanted to sit next to you and find out what’s it like to be a coed at Lehigh. So we went everywhere in a pack, kind of, and because of that, we developed really close friendships.

Turanchik: One of the most significant times in my freshman year was in my freshman English class. I was the only woman, surrounded by the guys, and I sat in the first row just because. And our instructor asked a question that was highly inappropriate, had some language in it that was not exactly acceptable in a classroom. I was stunned by the question, which was directed to me, but the guys around me answered for me. And it was very easy for them to be criticized or have their grades changed by this instructor, but still they felt that it was inappropriate and I should not respond, and they all stood up for me. That was a very important day, because we became not just men and women at Lehigh, but we became a class of people together, the Class of 1975.

“I recall the first night sitting outside our dorm … and the guys were coming down over the hill like they were storming the beach at Normandy.” —Karen Stuckey ’75

Jamieson: When it came to classes, it became pretty clear early on that I would be the only woman in most of my classes, and that had a good side and a bad side to it. The good side is, if I happened on rare occasion to miss class, I would get two or three phone calls from people offering to give me the class notes. The notso- good side of that was, on the occasions that I did not get to class, my professor knew I wasn’t there.

Chase: I remember not doing as well in calculus as I probably should have been, and being asked to see the [male] T.A., who pretty much asked me, “I don’t know why you’re here. Why aren’t you out looking for a husband?”

Turanchik: That was probably one of the things that a lot of the Lehigh guys thought—we were only coming here to get married. That certainly was not the truth for any of us. If it happened, it happened … but that wasn’t our goal in coming to Lehigh.

Heather Rodale ’74 - Board Member and Vice President, Leadership Development, Rodale Inc., Founder, Healing Through Arts, Emmaus, Pa.

Ready or Not

Chase: The stereotypes were still fairly strong. I remember that freshman orientation week, we had to take a vocational aptitude test. They handed out pink books for the women and blue books for the men, and I thought, “We’re in trouble.”

Stuckey: I’m not sure that Lehigh really did welcome the women in the early years. As a trustee later, I learned that the decision was more based on economics than any grand scheme to diversify the campus. We were an experiment till our junior year and definitely felt that. For our Freshman Rally, we were told to wear coats and ties. Many of the old alumni met us at the rally and told us that they voted against us. Some said, “But we’re glad you’re here anyway.” Others did not.

Sunflower: I don’t think that Lehigh was prepared for women to come, although they were enthusiastic about us being here and welcomed us. There were not enough facilities for women. I knew where every women’s bathroom was on campus, because there were only about four. [laughs]

Ascher: They didn’t have enough bathrooms [laughs], and we just dealt with it.

Jamieson: I would say that the decision to admit women was not universally embraced by the entire student body. I’m married to a Lehigh grad from the class of ’74, who actually voted against coeducation. In terms of preparation, the university did a couple of really great things. We had brand-new dorms. We had a brand-new dining facility. So that part of it was well done. The less great part—and something I hadn’t thought about when I made a decision to be in the first class of women—was there were no clubs, there were no intramurals, there were no sororities. Well, if you think about it, why would there have been? There hadn’t been any women here.

Sunflower: For me, it was, wow, I can be the first. The first swimming team. The first field hockey team. The first woman on the disciplinary committee. That was fun.

Ascher: As I’ve said many times, we might have been in a fishbowl, but we were not in a cocoon. They tried to make us more secure by having us sign in and out, but we didn’t want to live in a cocoon. We became very belligerent about that, because we said, “Hey, the boys aren’t signing in, so why do we have to sign in?” We wanted to be like everybody else at the school, who at the time happened to be mostly guys.

Karen Stuckey ’75 - Partner, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, New York, N.Y.

Memorable Experiences

Stuckey: A great unifying experience for all of us that first year was Powder Puff football.

We played against Lafayette. We had our dates coach us, and we had a lot of fun. The game was the day after the Lehigh-Lafayette game, and some of us had partied a lot the night before, but we had a good time. We did our hair and we put on our makeup and we came out, and Lafayette had black under their eyes and mouth guards and killed us. But we learned. The next year we went out and we played a lot more seriously and a lot more aggressively, and we had a great time again.

It’s something that I’ve kept the pictures of, and we still talk about who was a tight end and who could throw a spiral. We still keep in touch with those who were our teammates, and it really helped unify us across the classes. I know people who were freshmen and sophomores when I was a senior because we played Powder Puff football together.

Rodale: My favorite place on campus as a student was the Linderman Library. When I walked in, I felt like I could experience some of the history of the people who started Lehigh, of all the people who came before. I even imagined my father studying in the Linderman Library as I studied in the Linderman Library. I felt really lucky years later to be president of the Friends of the Lehigh Libraries during the construction when Linderman changed from the historical old building to the historical new building. The architects and the builders did a wonderful job of preserving the culture and the ambiance of that beautiful building, which was my favorite and still is my favorite.

Sunflower: One of the most influential people for me in my time at Lehigh was Dean Ruth Hurley. She was the [associate dean of students], and she came in making sure that our place here was equal to that of men. In 1973, she donated a trophy, called the Mary O. Hurley Award. It was given in honor of her mother, and it was for the student-athlete who participated the most in athletics. Besides being on the swim team, I was on the field hockey team and I also was the manager of the men’s swimming team, and so I was the recipient of this first award. She measured all of the trophies in the trophy case at Taylor Gym and bought a trophy that was bigger. So I was presented this trophy by Bill Leckonby, the director of athletics, and it’s about 4 feet tall, I guess. [laughs] So that was a way of saying women are important and they can even get big trophies.

“There are others that came before you, but you have a responsibility to continue and show that we are the strong women and we’re the strong Lehigh.” —Barb Turanchik ’75

Chase: I made a lot of friends through bridge. We played bridge, hearts, pinochle, poker. Even professors would play bridge with us. It was nice. We sort of got to know our math professors on a different level. We actually played competition bridge in the U.C.—where the Women’s Center is now was the card room. The U.C. would close at midnight, and if we weren’t done with the game, we’d go up to one of the fraternities, whoever’s house was closest, and we’d finish the game there.

Stuckey: I guess one of my favorite Lehigh experiences was when we were asked to raise money for a local charity and we were told that we could bake cookies or maybe have a kissing booth, and neither one of those appealed to us. But my dorm, Carothers, decided to steal the fraternity composites. As a trustee subsequently, that upsets me that we actually had access to all those fraternities, but a lot of them were still locked, and we used our charms to get in. We stole, I think, all but one of the composites for the fraternities on campus, and then we held them for ransom. Some people gave us $25, some gave us $100, some gave us a lot of grief. It was controversial in The Brown and White that we’d stolen them. Dean Hurley stood up for us. We made about $500, and the rest of the carnival only made $400. So we were pretty proud of our accomplishment.

Turanchik: As women would go to the Rathbone Dining Hall, guys would stand in a row, just like they were judging a skating performance, and they would put up their numbers of how we were rated. Of course, being wonderful Lehigh women, we decided we would do the same thing. When we turned the tables on the guys, they realized how much it was not fun, and it stopped immediately. It was just a matter of us sticking up for what we believed in and how we should be treated.

Ascher: I remember that we were in our dorm and the word got out that we were going to have streakers come through the dorm. Which, I mean, I couldn’t believe this was actually going to happen at Lehigh, because we were still a very conservative university, a lot of business students and engineers, people that you wouldn’t really assume would be running around, you know, stark naked just to play a prank. But true to form, we were sitting there in the hallway doing whatever we normally do, and they came running. And it was such a blur, but it was so funny—more a sign of the times than really a reflection of the school. But obviously it was okay for the guys to do that. I don’t think it would have been a good idea if the girls did that.

Pat Chase ’74 - Director, Lehigh University Facilities Services and Campus Planning, Bethlehem, Pa.

Enduring Influence

Sunflower: I am an entrepreneur, and risk-taking is something that I learned here at the university, not only in athletics, but in being encouraged by the leadership here to take different courses, to be involved in as much extracurricularly as I could, and to really be one of the people who were the face of women at Lehigh in the first couple of years. Those skills that I developed really help me now in my life, owning my own business and being out front, being a people person.

Jamieson: It turns out that I ended up in the investment business, and going from Lehigh, which was pretty much of a male institution, to the investment business, which was pretty much a male institution in the Seventies, was actually a good experience because the two environments were pretty similar in a lot of ways. And I think being here and being in this kind of an institution with this kind of tradition actually helped me get ready.

Rodale: I think that an education where there is a writing skill is incredibly valuable, whatever you do. In the business world I find that there are people who are really good at what they do, but they can’t always write about it. … I learned leadership skills here, because in order to be in the minority and get heard, you really had to look at other ways to say things and to express your ideas.

Ascher: I just feel it was a very, very good education in terms of making you understand that preparation is the best for anything that you do in your life, whether it’s your career or being a parent or whatever you may be doing—to be prepared. Sometimes we were and sometimes we weren’t, and we learned the consequences.

Stuckey: I was the first woman audit partner in the New York office at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and when people ask frequently, as they did then, “How did you do that?” I always say, “Well, Pricewaterhouse was coed compared to Lehigh.” Four-to-one or eight-to-one odds or something like that was nothing compared to being in the first class of women at Lehigh, and learning to think for yourself and speak for yourself. So I think Lehigh really prepared me quite well for that, and a lot of it had to do with the experience of being in the first class of women.

Barb Turanchik ’75 Director of Club Sports, Campus Athletics Advancement, Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pa.

Lehigh Today

Rodale: My family, the Rodale family, has a number of students who have scholarships here at Lehigh still, and every year I come and meet these students, and it’s a wonderful way for me to connect with what it feels like, what it’s like to be a student at Lehigh today. Because I was only at Lehigh for two years as an undergrad, more of my great memories are after I left Lehigh and working with these students. So I’m still really involved with Lehigh from the scholarship standpoint and from the Linderman Library standpoint. I’m very involved in coming to Zoellner and coming to lectures. I feel that my education at Lehigh did not end when I left as a student. I’m still here; I’m still enjoying the connections and the new connections that I still have here.

Turanchik: I hope that the women who are at Lehigh and are studying today will at least hear the message that, yeah, there are others that came before you, but you have a responsibility to continue and show that we are the strong women and we’re the strong Lehigh, and I think that that’s the important part, that we are Lehigh and we can do anything because that’s what we learn here.

Jamieson: I think being a trustee and now being able to spend a lot more time back on campus and to spend time with the faculty and the administration, to be able to meet students, is really fun. I think you get an appreciation for how much Lehigh has changed, but also how its values and approach are really consistent, and I think that’s a great thing to see. I love spending time with the kids and seeing what they’re doing and the issues and the struggles that they’re having, and how they contribute to the university and how the experience they have here gets them ready to go out and be successful in a whole range of ventures.