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Conditions for women change over 3 decades

By Karen Kaplan

It is easy to take for granted that MIT has women's varsity athletic teams, a women's studies program, panhellenic sororities and even classes with more than one female student.

But there are some people at the Institute who remember what it was like to be a female student here 10, 20, even 30 years ago. And they remember it very differently.

"The real truth is that back then, if you were a woman and wanted to major in engineering, there was little choice as to where to apply, and MIT was one of the few schools that accepted women," said Christina H. Jansen '63, who received her bachelor's, master's and doctor of philosophy degrees from MIT's Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

Jansen, who is now a technology licensing officer at the Institute, was the third woman ever to graduate from the materials science department. She was one of about 20 women in the class of 1963, and almost all of them lived together freshman year on Bay State Road in Boston.

Housing limited

in early years

"Katharine McCormick bought a brownstone at 120 Bay State Road, and there was room for 18 students, so MIT tried to get 18 freshwomen every year to fill it," Jansen said. The limited availability of housing created a loose quota for incoming female students. In addition to the 18 who lived on Bay State Road, there were a handful of other women from the Boston area who lived at home and commuted to MIT.

With such limited housing, competition among women for admission to MIT was fierce. But the battle had just begun. When they arrived on campus, they fought against those who discouraged women from pursuing careers in science and engineering.

Jansen encountered this attitude in a chemistry class. "I had a senior chemistry professor and although on the first exam I got a very high grade, he told me that I really shouldn't be at a school like this and that I should go somewhere else, that I didn't belong here. I said, `Well, I did fine on the exam, and this is what I want to study.' All of [the female students] had some number of incidents like that," she said.

Sometimes the discouragement came from fellow students. "Back then, students referred to women as `coeds.' In general it was considered a very derogatory term -- coeds were considered wierd," Jansen said.

Administration supportive

"But the administration was really supportive. Any time we reported incidents like that, they'd back us up. We always felt that MIT wanted female students. The administration and the deans went out of their way to recognize that women were in a tough position," Jansen said.

The circumstances also strengthened relationships among the female students, said Jansen, whose friendships from college have lasted thirty years. "The best thing was that the women were very supportive of each other," she said.

For example, the Association of MIT Alumnae kept in touch with female students, inviting them for dinner, offering an emergency loan fund and presenting an academic award to outstanding female students. The students helped each other through a big sister/little sister program, which involved writing to freshwomen before they arrived on campus, answering their questions about MIT and offering tutoring assistance.

More women accepted after

McCormick Hall opens

After McCormick Hall opened in the early 60's, the number of women admitted to MIT increased. Bonny S. Kellermann '72, a political science major and now an associate registrar at MIT, entered in 1968 when the second tower of McCormick was opened.

At that time, "all the women on campus lived in McCormick. The advantage was that it enabled people to get to know all the other women students, but the disadvantage was that there weren't that many students to get to know," she said.

Coming to MIT often meant meeting other women interested in science and engineering for the first time. "The women here were people we had things in common with more than at home. They liked math and science. Coming to MIT was the first time they could express enthusiasm for that and not be put down," Kellermann said.

Aside from their interest in technical fields, MIT women found they had other traits in common as well. "When there were fewer women here, the women who came here were a little more of mavericks who were willing to do something that was untraditional and unusual," Kellermann said. "The women who come here have a good sense of inner direction, or what they want to accomplish for themselves," she said.

When Kellermann lived in McCormick, the dormitory had "parietal rules," including restrictions on the hours that men were allowed above the first floor and a curfew. "Supposedly, the curfew was for our own good, so that we would have an opportunity to let our dates know that we had to be home by a certain hour and did not get into compromising positions," she said.

But enterprising freshmen devised ways to avoid the curfew, and "the whole idea broke down fairly early in my freshman year," she said.

Women still encountered

sexist attitudes

The male-female ratios in the classrooms were improving, but some problems still existed. "I was the only woman in about half of my classes, and it certainly created some self-consciousness," Kellermann said. "In one class, whenever I asked a question, I was made to feel like I was ignorant and didn't understand things very well," she said.

After she noticed that the teaching assistant in that class "was really picking on this other woman and making her feel stupid and putting her down in ways that he didn't do to the men, I noticed that was what he had done to me. He undermined my self confidence. Once I realized that, I decided I was comfortable with the material and my performance went way up," Kellermann said.

The small number of women on campus also meant that opportunities for extracurricular activities, including athletics, were extremely limited. "Women's athletics were at the bottom of the totem pole -- it wasn't recognized as a real activity. The only teams for women were fencing, sailing and crew," Kellermann said.

MIT attracts more

and more women

Despite these drawbacks, MIT continued to attract more and more women. "I was obsessed with the idea of going to MIT," said Anita M. Killian '85, who earned her undergraduate degree in physics and her masters in earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences.

"I think I expected to have a lot of barriers to overcome and a lot of obstacles that weren't necessarily fair," said Killian, who is the academic administrator for the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.

As an undergraduate, she was interested in writing and took a class that made her late to a recitation for a technical class. "I was told by the faculty member teaching the [technical] course that clearly I wasn't taking his class seriously, and it turned out in spite of him that I did fine. He had no appreciation for anything other than physics and a real negative approach to a classical background of learning. I think he thought the reason I was into it was because I was a woman," Killian said.

Status of women improving

In recent years, conditions for women students at MIT have improved in many ways. "The biggest difference that I've noticed is women are getting taken far more seriously now," said Killian. "Women on campus do not have to act like men and dress like men and talk like men in order to succeed," she said.

Much of that change in attitude is the result of the increased number of female students here. "The numbers are the obvious change," said Kellermann. "A campus that's approximately one-third women is a significantly different environment than a campus that is approximately five percent women," she said.

Jansen agreed, saying, "I think with the numbers where they are, it can really be a normal college experience for women. There were 60 undergraduate women total when I was an undergrad, and there's no way that can be normal. Looking back, it was a very hard way to get an undergraduate education," she said.

Killian said that increased numbers of women here have made a direct impact on student life. "The fact that there are more women here has enhanced life at MIT for everyone. It's a kinder, gentler MIT," she said.

Kellermann cited the importance of coeducational housing in helping men and women to understand each other. "Coed living groups have made a major change. The opportunity for men and women to be living together has helped break down a lot of sexual stereotypes. It's a positive opportunity for women and men to better understand each other," she said.

Women "more comfortable"

Mary P. Rowe, special assistant to the president and adjunct professor of management, has been listening to women's concerns on campus in her role as Institute ombudsman for almost 20 years. "Women are far more comfortable here than they used to be," she said.

Rowe said that since 1973, her office has consistently received questions from women concerning their careers. "They want to know if it's possible for a professional woman and be happily married and have kids. We get lots of equal treatment questions -- people want to know if their work will be seen the same as a man's," she said.

Another perpetual concern, Rowe said, is the availability of women's support groups and housing options. "It was clearly a source of satisfaction to women students here when the sororities started up and when [the Women's Independent Living Group] began. There was some hope that finally we'd be able to meet the interest in single-sex housing that many women share," she said.

The number of reports of sexual harassment to Rowe's office increased during the 1980's, but the number of reports from students has dropped sharply since 1989, she said. But there has been a rise in the number of calls from faculty members who are dealing with harassment complaints in their laboratories or classrooms, she said.

In the past 20 years, the Campus Police have become more attuned to having women at MIT, Rowe said. "When I came here, there was no rape protocol. Now, if a woman is raped, there is a certain way the Institute can respond to support her."

Other changes in the past 20 years that Rowe said have enhanced student life for women are the availability of a women's studies major, the Women's Health Educational Network and the improvement in athletic facilities for women.