A History of Gender at Centre College

Centre College - Women's Department

Gender has been a central component of the student experience at Centre College. As a residential liberal arts institution, gender directly structured spaces for academics, socializing, and living. It also determined what kind of institution Centre was. It was not until 1926 that the College officially allowed women to enroll, and only in 1962 did women live on campus. During that almost forty-year period, women lived on the former campus of the Kentucky College for Women (KCW), the present-day location of Danville High School. Even after 1962, women lived in residence halls separated from the main campus by Main Street. Gender integration was therefore a decades-long process. Over the years, spatial transformations, including co-residential living, new athletic facilities, and the construction of Greek Row, have restructured gender dynamics, sometimes but not always for the better.   

This digital history exhibit explores the history of gender at Centre College, with specific attention to the period of gender integration from the 1960s through the 1980s. The exhibit relies on extensive use of the archival records housed in Grace Doherty Library’s Special Collections and Archives as well as over sixty (and counting) oral history interviews. Each student enrolled in a course on Gender in US History contributed a page to this digital history exhibit, which uncovers an untold history about the instrumental role gender played in the lives of students at Centre.  

Carnival King and Queen, 1954

While the merger between KCW and Centre is essential to understanding this history, we know less about how gender segregation shaped the lives of students who occupied these spaces. Two different sets of rituals, rules, policies, and institutional cultures collided when Centre absorbed KCW. Until the late 1960s, rules for women were numerous and strict, enforcing specific regulations regarding curfews, dress, and etiquette at meals. There were also rules for men, but they were more liberal. In addition, without sororities on campus until the 1980s, men had access to a Greek Life system that gave them autonomous places where they could socialize outside the administration’s gaze. Residence halls, and the supervision that came with them, became the focus of community for women students, but in them they established deep and lasting friendships. Almost everyone we interviewed noted how meaningful their Centre friendships were even many years after graduation.  

Many students also cherished their time in the classroom, finding unparalleled support among faculty and staff mentors. Most students felt little pressure to pursue certain majors or avoid others based on their gender identity. However, familial, societal, or other expectations were influential, and more women than men graduated with English and Education degrees, for example, than they did in Biology or Physics.  

Gender norms shaped Centre’s institutional culture. The careful attention administrators gave to even the smallest details revealed an institution concerned with “protecting” women from sexual impropriety. At the same time, Centre’s national reputation grew, and the College placed the burden of upholding this emerging national prestige on the perceived respectability and modesty of its students. These gender norms helped to cultivate a culture that prized respectable deliberation and polite discussions over direct protests. 

By the 1970s, the relationship between the College and its students became more complex as liberation movements among women and the LGBTQ community reshaped student expectations. Students demanded the end to policies that “protected” students, arguing for policies that upheld gender equity and created more student autonomy. By the 1970s and 1980s, new institutional structures, such as those required by Title IX, as well as the arrival of sororities on campus, revised gender expectations. Powerful student-led initiatives related to residence life, athletics, and Greek Life, among others, changed the kind of institution Centre was.  

Finally, there was no single experience of gender Centre. Other backgrounds and identities, including but not limited to politics, race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, region, and class, intersected to create multiple and overlapping experiences. The pages of this exhibit reveal the complexities of the Centre experience for people at different times and with distinct identities. 

We invite you to explore the history of gender at Centre College, discovering unknown details and considering how the past still resonates today.  

Acknowledgements

Several people have given a great deal of time and effort on this project, and we are truly grateful for all their work and support. Mary Girard, Digital Scholarship Librarian, offered her unparalleled expertise in creating this digital history exhibit, going above and beyond. Beth Morgan, Technical Services Librarian, welcomed students into the archives, both in-person and virtually, finding resources and offering critical help. Vati Pham, student assistant in the library, conducted a significant number of wonderful interviews for the project. We also want to thank Carrie Frey for her leadership of the Grace Doherty Library and for supporting this work. Kathe Andrews, Sponsored Research Specialist, also provided help and guidance for the oral history interviews.  

This exhibit is the product of a grant from the Associated Colleges of the South. We thank the ACS for their support of research into the history of women in higher education before the #MeToo movement. 

Certain parts of this exhibit contain historical language and content that some may consider offensive. Items in the exhibit reflect the time period when they were created and the view of their creator. The items are retained to ensure that attitudes and viewpoints are not erased from the historical record.

Spring 2021, HIS 375, Dr. Sara Egge