“Forces Greater Than Ourselves”: An Interview with Sheila Tobias, Wesleyan’s First Female Provost

“What we were doing at Wesleyan was taking place in the context of a much larger sweep of change in American history and culture.”

Sheila Tobias with NOW Founder Betty Friedan in the 1970s while Tobias was Associate Provost for Coeducation at Wesleyan. Image courtesy of Ms. Tobias.

In September of 1970, the same month Colin Campbell became Wesleyan’s youngest ever president, Sheila Tobias arrived at Wesleyan as associate provost. A noted author, scholar, and feminist activist, Tobias’ task at Wesleyan was different than that of any previous administrator—and different than any provost since then. Wesleyan had only just begun admitting women, and for the next eight years, Tobias was to oversee the inclusion of women in student life and assist the University in hiring and retaining female faculty. She was also instrumental in bringing the first women’s studies courses to Wes.

“It wasn’t a party school, but it was a school that catered to young men in all their glory,” Tobias says of the Wesleyan of the 1960s. “That was the place that I was invited to help change.”

While Tobias says that Wesleyan transitioned into coeducation more swiftly than many of its peers (“Wesleyan did it right”), she insists that the changes on campus were part of a much larger movement. “What we were doing at Wesleyan—namely, integrating a formerly men’s college—was taking place in the context of a much larger sweep of change in American history and culture,” Tobias says.

Wesleying is psyched to present an interview with Sheila Tobias, whose published books include Overcoming Math Anxiety, They’re not Dumb, They’re Different, Breaking the Science BarrierRethinking Science as a Career, and Faces of Feminism: An Activist’s Reflections on the Women’s Movement. For more on Sheila Tobias and her career at Wesleyan, see her website or this Special Collections blog post by Cordelia Hyland ’13

Thanks to Vanessa Burgess ’77 for arranging the interview.

What was Wesleyan like when you arrived there?

It would be very hard for today’s Wesleyan students to imagine what the University was like when it was an all men’s college, because it was over 40 years ago. And the spirit has changed.

Physically, the school is very much the way it was then. There are some newer buildings. But the layout of the campus and its position on High Street—even Downey House and Russell House, the arts complex and the science center—were all in place. The library, too. If I were to blink, having come back a few weeks ago, I would recognize Wesleyan as very much the place, physically, to which  I arrived in 1970.

But apart from that, it was an altogether different place. I heard an anecdote recently from a Wesleyan graduate of 1962, who sat near me at the Tucson Opera. When I asked him to recollect for me what it was like being a freshman back then, he said he had taken public transportation to Middletown and was carrying his heavy luggage up to High Street from the bus stop and there he spied a liquor store on the corner that said, “Welcome, Wesleyan students.” It wasn’t a party school, but it was a school that catered to young men in all their glory. That was the place that I was invited to help change.

Why did Wesleyan invite you to help change that? What was your record at the time?

Why did Wesleyan decide to go coed? My recollection is there was a Chairman of the Board who had four daughters. He was very enthusiastic about Wesleyan, to which he donated a lot of time and money. It was to his chagrin that his own daughters couldn’t experience the education that he had so enjoyed. That may have been the proximate impetus for the change.

As a historian, however, I have to say that coeducating the male-only Ivies was in the air. Within a two-year period, Yale went coed, as did Princeton and Brown and a year later Dartmouth, Amherst, and Williams. It was a sign of the times. The question as to why I was invited  is that I had already gotten to do a kind of second-generation coeducational modification at Cornell University, where I had been employed from  1967 to 1970. In that effort, I started some women’s studies courses and also looked critically at all  the barriers that had discouraged women students from being fully integrated and kept women faculty from either coming to the campus or being promoted after they were hired.

Those were the two aspects of the job Wesleyan wanted me to do. The one was to change the program to be more women-friendly. And secondarily—though not secondarily in my view—to make sure that we went from seven women faculty, which were all there were in 1970, to if not 50% a good percentage.

What year did you first arrive at Wesleyan?

I arrived at Wes in 1970, which was the first year in which 40% of the freshman class were women. There had been two or three dozen transfer women in the ’6970 year, but this was the first formal year of coeducation. Within a year, the administration went to 50%. This was at a time when Yale, Brown, Dartmouth were all reluctantly taking in maybe 20 or 25 women. Wesleyan was already way out in front in commitment to women’s education.

What were some of the biggest challenges for you that year?

I would say the biggest challenge were if not complaints, then concerns  from some of the male faculty, who were not opposed to coeducation per se but were a little skeptical as  to what effect it would have on the University. The first group resided for the most part in the humanities. They believed that a lot of young men chose men’s colleges in those days because they were more comfortable in humanities classes which were not dominated by females. The second group of faculty were in the technical and mathematical sciences, and everyone now knows that I moved very forcefully into opening mathematics for girls. But the second group of faculty were worried that with 50% fewer males coming to the College (to make way for the females), they would have an under-enrollment in those majors.

It didn’t take much to persuade either of these groups to give the process time. I would say, let’s not prejudge what female students are going to like and not like. Let’s not prejudge what male students will be like when Wesleyan is no longer an all-male college. Let’s just move forward. If I had to generalize the  spirit of the faculty that I encountered, they were a little skeptical. But they felt basically goodwill.

The women students turned out to be competitive, exciting to teach, and interchangeable really with the male students.

How did the culture of the school change?

Up until the 1970s,  Wes men had to go out of town to a college like Wellesley or Smith to have any kind of encounters with females, and it was very unnatural (for those who had gone to c0ed high schools)  not to be sharing classes or homework with females whom one was dating. When dating was segregated from other school activities, it  could be make for a very stilted and unsatisfying social life.

One of my goals—and Jeanine Basinger shared it—was to bring programs to campus that provided  a way of celebrating women’s the culture: the arts, the performances, and the skills of women in our country and elsewhere. And so one of the big events we organized in the second or third year was a Joan Crawford retrospective. We invited this famous movie star from the 1940s to do a review of her films in an interview format with film clips as illustration.  McConnaughy, the then all-campus cafeteria, was packed to the gills with students. Most of them were still male. But the point was not just to bring women in and hire women faculty, but to  demonstrate that women were as able in their talents as men. Another weekend, we danced to a women’s liberation rock band, and that was really an experience for the men of that generation—women providing cutting edge music, and not just as singers. That was a fun part of my job.

Photo via the Tucson Citizen.

Photo via the Tucson Citizen.

The president at the time was Colin Campbell?

The new president came in at exactly the same time I did. It was also a nice moment to turn the page, so to speak, on the old Wesleyan to the new Wesleyan. He himself had graduated from a coed institution, by coincidence the very one where I been working—namely, Cornell. And I came in at the same time Wesleyan went coed. Pretty major changes were occurring in September of 1970.

How did male students react to some of these changes?

I made some very good friends among the faculty, but also among the male students. Vanessa [Burgess ‘77] and I share a student  friend who arrived the same year Vanessa did. I remember one telling incident. Jerry and I had become mentor and mentee the way faculty and students often do in a residential college environment. And at one point he was trying to show me how very much he was like me, and I may not have been responding in the way he wanted me to, so in anger he blurted out, “The problem with you, Sheila, is you can’t identify with me because I’m male!” And I thought that was so funny. I was being criticized by a young male student for not being able to identify with him—when I had been instructing male faculty that they needed to work hard to identify intellectually with women students..

Some Wes men were more helpful than others, especially a few key editors on the Argus. Being a newspaper, the Argus was able to shape the culture and,  to some extent, determine attitudes. One year, Andy Futterman [’78]—an undergrad who was editor of the Argus—took it upon himself to welcome and celebrate women. Women became very rapidly members of the Argus staff. (I believe a woman who was editor of the Argus is now editor of the NYC Forward.) Women had the spirit to add to the college.

What else do you think should be mentioned about your experiences at Wesleyan?

What we were doing at Wesleyan—namely, integrating a formerly men’s college—was taking place in the context of a much larger sweep of change in American history and culture. And so we were buffeted by forces greater than ourselves. Yes, it was a brilliant stroke of the Wesleyan trustees to decide to have a female provost and not just a dean of women. But supporting our work was this concurrent wave of change in women’s roles and the larger society’s perception of those roles.

I also want to mention the course on women in American Studies. As previously said, I was early proponent and co-inventor of the field we later called Women’s Studies at Cornell. In the spring of 1971,  I brought this course to Wesleyan and taught it for I think seven of the years I was there. It was taught in a (for Wesleyan) larger lecture hall. And I had both male and female students. What I was seeking would be called today  a composite of American women’s history, psychology of women (real and purported), and  some analysis of the first and second waves of feminism, suffrage (1848-1920) and “the second wave”(1961-present).  Other faculty followed suit.

By 1978,  male and female Wesleyan students had exposure to a half dozen “women’s issues,” “women’s literature,” and what would become “women’s studies.” (Later  4,000 courses around the country. Nationally, academic activists were determined to  make up for the omissions, the distortions, and the trivialization of women in American Studies. In sum, a a very high point of my work at Wesleyan from 1970-1978 was teaching American Studies 210.)

We’re going to spend some time over the summer designing a seminar with the remaining activists from Yale and Princeton and Brown and Dartmouth who worked on the coeducation at their institutions. And we’ll get some more of the data and some comparisons. I believe that Wesleyan did it right—better than the other universities, and in the tracking of women’s faculty. But we can’t claim that until we have more data.

We [also] had a sizable portion of African-American students, and we had a decent portion of Puerto-Rican students. So Wesleyan was undergoing change in multiple dimensions. The dean of Wesleyan, Edgar Beckham, was dean of the college while I was there. We were very integrated and cutting edge. We were trying to have Wesleyan look like America. I have to comment and compliment Wesleyan for being ahead of the curve on all of the issues.