Fifty years ago, in the fall of 1961, the University of Santa Clara admitted women as undergraduate students for the first time. Quietly forging the way ahead of them were student nurses, in training at O’Connor Hospital and taking classes on the Mission Campus in the late 1950s. My older sister, Vera, was one of them. That she studied here also gave me courage when the good and forwardthinking Jesuits, led by President Patrick Donohoe, S.J., announced they would admit the tradition-shattering freshman class of 1961.
This class would include 70 freshmen coeds, several sophomore and junior coeds, and one lone senior transfer student, Mary Somers Edmunds ’62, who became the first woman to earn a bachelor’s degree from Santa Clara. And there were 1,500 male students.
I was delighted to have the chance to be one of these women. Most lived in an apartment complex rechristened the Villa Maria and made part of campus. Because my parents couldn’t afford that, I lived at home. The first day of class, the bus from Mountain View to Santa Clara seemed to take an eternity. On campus, I and the rest of the women faced the hazing all freshman did, including having to wear red-and-white beanies. We were also on the receiving end of some especially obnoxious behavior that first year. There were actually boys who threw food at us in the cafeteria.
|First undergraduate women register at Santa
Clara, Sept. 11, 1961. Patrick Twomey ’64 aids
three freshmen, left to right, Linda Biber ’65,
Kathleen Regan ’65, and Mary Sue Jertson ’65.
Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library.
Some professors had a niece or cousin in class. Some had never taught a female before. Most were not accustomed to perfect penmanship, illuminated reports—or tears from a student when there was disagreement over a grade. Some were reluctant to call on a coed to answer a question or solve a problem; I learned that firsthand. I used to spell my first name with a “y,” and one day one of the Jesuits saw my name on his attendance sheet and said, “Gerry Ferrara, would you tell us the first cause of being?” I stood up. And he said, “Oh, not you. Thought you were a guy.” So I changed the spelling of my name to Gerri.
Other professors were won over quickly by young women who were eager to learn and forceful in their convictions; and some of the professors recognized the historic change for what it was. To be one of those women, you had to be someone who wanted to be a pioneer. You may have been encouraged by your grandfather who went here, or a great-uncle. But most women were going to be strong from the beginning. And they probably became more assertive.
Santa Clara made me a stronger person spiritually, academically, and socially. Certainly as I raised four children and saw their educational and other opportunities, I could encourage them to press into areas that other people hadn’t gone before. In my professional career, too, I had no qualms about walking into a room filled with male doctors and telling them to put out their cigarettes and pay attention so we could get to work planning the next medical conference.
In 1962, the number of women enrolled at Santa Clara grew to 400. And other Jesuit, Catholic all-male schools began to become more inclusive as well—of women and many other groups. But for us, only once we were out of Santa Clara did we truly realize what we were doing, and how things were changing for women in society.
Those of us who were lucky enough to have been among the first women on campus celebrate all of you who are now among the best that Santa Clara has prepared for the world. We have honored and will continue the mission of the Jesuits: to be competent, conscientious, and compassionate women, mindful of the rich history and tradition of our great University. Being engaged as alumnae has also been a privilege—and tremendously rewarding over the decades.
I am honored to be the first of three generations of Bronco women, followed by our daughter, Betsy ’87, and our granddaughter, Megan McIntosh ’10. All of us—including my husband, Bill ’62, and our son Bart ’90—hope that the tradition will continue.
Gerri Beasley ’65
Immediate Past President of the
National Alumni Association