The month of March is Women’s History Month, a time to celebrate and honor women who have paved the way towards a society built on gender equality. During the month also we celebrate International Women’s Day, a day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women.
International Women’s Day takes place annually on March 8 and has been observed since the early 1900s. There is no single entity that can take the credit for this holiday, but rather a collective group of people who care about women’s rights have made this holiday possible.
As we reflect and honor women throughout the world that have influenced society, we also want to look at the history of women’s rights at Penn State which has led to the progression of equality in all departments of Penn State, from administration to faculty to staff.
Penn State did not have coeducation until 1871 and during that time, women conducted lives similar to the men on campus. Just like the males, all of the women lived in Old Main, which back then was a co-ed dorm.
From there, Penn State saw an enrollment of 30% women in the coming years which the then Pennsylvania State College tried to deter by creating an engineering school which was not of appeal for most females during the time period.
Almost 20 years later, the university introduced the Ladies’ Cottage in 1889 where women were subject to a more isolated campus life.
Women were almost completely separated from their male counterparts and forced to abide by strict customs and restrictions.
However, life at Penn State for women started to look up in the 20th century and after advocacy from within, Penn State approved the construction of the Mary Beaver White Building, which was completed in 1938 and served as a building for women’s athletics.
Decades later, women at Penn State made even bigger progress as former Penn State President John Oswald ruled that in 1971 women would be admitted into Penn State on the same basis as men.
From there the university made great strides, with the women’s, gender, and sexuality studies department opening its doors in 1979 and the creation of the Penn State Commission for Women in 1981 which ensured professional equality for faculty and staff.
Today, Penn State boasts a population of 46% women at the University Park campus and 45% across all commonwealth, special mission, and world campuses.
This would not be possible had it not been for women throughout history at Penn State who fought for their right to have an equal education.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day, let us not forget that We Are, because they were.
For more stories of remarkable women at Penn State, be sure to check out articles from our WE ARE women column.