Testing Coeducation: Five Women Who ‘Tried It Out’

The women at reunion weekend

The women gathered at Reunion Weekend in June. Front l-r:  Finley Taylor Sutton, Gardner Roller Ligo, Jane Farrar Cranshaw  Back l-r: Jennet Robinson Alterman, Sandra May O’Donnell   

In November, Davidson celebrated 50+ Years of Coeducation. Many women paved the way for this milestone in the college’s history, including the exchange students who gave it a try in advance.

A cohort of women stepped foot on the Davidson College campus to conduct an experiment, unbeknownst to them – the campus was the laboratory, and the women a new variable introduced into a control population made up entirely of men.

They stayed at Davidson for one year only, but these Wildcat Women are every bit a part of the Davidson College Class of 1973 as their male classmates. Five of the cohort — Jennet Robinson Alterman, Jane Farrar Cranshaw, Gardner Roller Ligo, Sandra May O’Donnell and Finley Taylor Sutton — returned to campus over the summer for their 50th Reunion. They were surprised by the classmates — many whom they never met as students — who thanked them for coming to Davidson and for “sticking it out.”

Each had her own reasons for participating in the exchange program — some were interested in academics, some were in search of an adventure, some were looking for a new challenge — but all came to campus with a sense of excitement and curiosity. 

In 1970, President Sam Spencer ’40 and the Board of Trustees approved the exchange program. It was a plan launched by the presidents of several Virginia and North Carolina-based single sex colleges. The idea was to allow students to spend one year on another campus to help that campus imagine life with two genders. As a result, a small number of women from colleges across the Southeast enrolled during the 1970-71, 1971-72 and 1972-73 academic years. The unusual experience created lifelong bonds and memories for the intrepid women, all of whom paved the way for the eventual admission of women as full-time, degree-seeking students to Davidson College.

O’Donnell, who was studying at Mary Baldwin College (now University), was simply interested in trying something different. 

“I was ready for an adventure,” she said. “I didn’t know much about Davidson, so there was this blissful ignorance. A friend of mine did the exchange program at Washington & Lee [University], so it fueled me, and I’m so glad I did it. There were only 12 women our year, out of the 900 student population, and I remember being the only woman in my music appreciation class — a reminder of the uniqueness of this opportunity.” 

Cranshaw’s desired change. Her brother-in-law had graduated from Davidson the previous spring, and she thought it would probably be a good experience, so she headed south from Randolph Macon Women’s College in Virginia. 

“I didn’t give it a ton of thought,” she said. “All my friends were studying abroad or transferring because so many places were going coed, and the whole thing came together in about two weeks. I didn’t know until August that year that I was going. It was a wonderful opportunity the universe had thrown out there, and it turned out to be great. Right at the top of the list of life-changing experiences.” 

Aside from the social interest in trying out a year at Davidson, academic pursuits were high on the list for some — and they quickly moved up the list for others. 

“The college’s academic reputation is what got me interested,” Alterman said. “I knew men who had gone to Davidson, and they were the most interesting. And there was the allure of the history department. Davidson checked a lot of boxes for me.” 

In addition to history, Alterman had an interest in theatre. At Mary Baldwin College, women had to fill the male roles, too, so that’s usually where she wound up. At Davidson, she landed the leading female role in every production … of course.

Some unexpected, long-term lessons have served them well in their lives and careers. Sutton remembers the men on campus being very accepting, and her experiences unknowingly set her up for the path she would later take. 

“My husband is a Presbyterian minister, and I’m a Christian educator,” she said. “Sometimes at churches I will run into women who are uncomfortable around a group of men. They might not speak up. I think it’s because of my experience at Davidson that it was never an issue for me. I learned how to hold my own in that kind of situation, and it has served me well.” 

The Good and the Bad

Of the 12 female students, 10 lived in Grey House, one was the spouse of a senior student and one was an exchange student from Germany who lived in faculty housing with a faculty family.

As Ligo says with a smile, her “year as a broad, instead of a year abroad” brought with it great lessons, great friends and lots of growth. That doesn’t mean it was without struggles and strife. Between overheard comments around campus and editorial choices in the student newspaper, the women students dealt with their fair share of wisecracks and criticism from students and faculty.

On the other hand, many of the men on campus were fully supportive of their women classmates. Alterman remembers a class where the professor made it abundantly clear he did not think women belonged on campus. Her classmates had her back. 

“He asked me a question, and I said I didn’t know the answer,” she said. “He then asked the student sitting next to me, and he said he didn’t know the answer either. He then threw it open to the class, and not one person spoke up. Later, I found out they all knew the answer. I knew Davidson men out in the world were exceptional, and I really saw it that day.” 

At times, the women were acutely aware that they lived under a sort of spotlight. 

“You’d go into class, and it was an unbelievable fish bowl,” said Cranshaw. “Everyone knew what the girls were doing. I became very guarded in my interactions with the students but I felt the men were very accepting, all in all.” 

The physical campus and available resources were interesting components of the experience, too. Their house had recently been refitted as a Trustee guest house: damask curtains, shag carpet, laundry facilities and the only color TV on campus. There was only one women’s restroom in Chambers Building, and they were assigned to one female mentor on campus, who was available if they wanted to talk.

While the friends agree some of the male students didn’t pay much attention to them, the ones who did, really did. 

“We closed the house every Monday,” said Ligo, the unofficial house mother, according to her classmates. “Otherwise it was draped with boys.” 

As the year wound down, several students went to President Sam Spencer and asked if there was any way they could stay longer, but the agreement among schools was for only one year. Some were ready to go back to their schools, taking with them new friends and, in many cases, amped up academic standards. Some wish they could have stayed for good. In all instances, they were very glad the year at Davidson brought them together.

Reunion Reflections

The five friends have reunited many times in the 50 years since their “guinea pig year” at Davidson, but this past summer’s Reunion Weekend felt particularly special. As part of the celebration, the 50th Reunion class publishes a Quips & Cranks where each member offers life updates, memories and more. 

Here are excerpts from five Grey House residents:

“Favorite memories: Acting in several plays in the Drama Department. Professors who had the most impact: Dr. Tony Abbott and Dr. Rupert Barber. A 40-year career in media, government, international development and nonprofit management. Retirement has focused on women’s rights advocacy and creating an organization that has become a voice for women, girls and their families in South Carolina.”

-Jennet Robinson Alterman ’73 

“Best memories are of Grey House and the new friends that I made there. Being selected to participate in a couple of plays was very different and empowering. A significant lesson for me was how very different men and women can be and yet how very much we are the same. With encouragement from Professor Randy Kincaid, after graduating from Randolph Macon Women's College, I applied to graduate programs in business administration. It was not the typical career path for someone with an art history degree! After receiving an MBA from the University of Southern California I began a career in systems consulting, first with a large multinational firm and then a small healthcare tech startup. After I had children I started my own health care systems consulting firm based in Atlanta and just recently retired.”

-Jane Farrar Cranshaw ’73

“Stark realization that the ‘coeds’ were coeducation guinea pigs and our subsequent commitment to be/do everything we could to ensure old guard Trustees, faculty & students could not use us as fodder in their anti-female rhetoric. Finding and treasuring (to this day) the ‘good guys’ among the male students—in all classes—who supported/protected us. The all staff and faculty Christmas party we held at Grey House to which dozens of folks came. Sitting with freshman boys in Belk lounge while they watched and wept as their draft numbers were pulled.” 

-Gardner Roller Ligo ’73, enjoyed a nearly 40-year career at Davidson in the Office of Admission and Financial Aid

“There are so many wonderful memories, but the ones that have meant the most: friendship and camaraderie among the co-eds; getting to know intelligent, talented, athletic and fun-loving students; and having great professors who took the time to get to know and mentor students. Also, sailing on Lake Norman, enjoying the 1972 Spring Fling and living on a beautiful campus.”  

-Sandra May O’Donnell ’73, worked as a U.S. Congressional aide and in government relations; became a nurse, joined the UNCW School of Nursing faculty and co-authored a book on clinical reasoning for nurses

“My favorite memories of being a coed at Davidson are living in Grey House; taking Art History with Larry Ligo and Studio Art classes with Herb Jackson; and being in theatre productions under the direction of Rupert Barber. The Art History and Theatre trips to NYC that spring were fantastic.”

-Finley Taylor Sutton ’73, has served in churches, schools and Thornwell Home for Children as both volunteer and paid staff since 1977