The Techettes of 1968
For much of the 20th century, Clarkson had been considered a “men’s college,” even though women had been a part of it since its inception in 1896. In fact, it was Thomas S. Clarkson’s three sisters, Lavinia, Frederica and Elizabeth, and his niece, Annie, who named and endowed a building in his honor that was to become the Thomas S. Clarkson Memorial School of Technology. Clarkson was later known as Clarkson College of Technology; in 1984, it became Clarkson University, although the rallying cry remains “Let’s go, Tech!”
Clarkson admitted 17 men and women in its first year. The women were to study domestic science. Ethel Vance, however, did earn a certificate in mechanical drawing in 1897. In the 10 years that followed, 45 women enrolled in the Department of Domestic Sciences in order to qualify for teaching positions. The first Clarkson catalog proclaimed, “Both sexes are admitted on equal footing to the privileges of the school.”
That would change in 1907 when Potsdam State Normal School (later SUNY-Potsdam) offered a similar curriculum. Women were drawn there and would no longer be a part of the Clarkson student body for more than a half century.
The early 1960s were tumultuous times for colleges and the world. The space race was on, a president had been assassinated, single-sex college enrollment suffered its biggest decline and the war in Vietnam was ramping up.
Times were changing, and Clarkson was changing with them. In 1963, Norma Wagner ’65 would be the first woman to return to Clarkson since 1907, transferring from Mohawk Valley Community College in Utica. She graduated from Clarkson with a degree in mathematics on June 6, 1965. Norma would usher in a new era of coeducation at Clarkson.
Who Pushes the Button?
Friday, October 4, 1957, was a momentous day. Not only did Leave It to Beaver make its broadcast debut, but, at 10:29 p.m. Moscow time, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite into space. It was named Sputnik — Russian for “satellite.”
“Who pushes the button that launches the satellite?” fifth-grader Jill Schoof ’68 asked her teacher, Miss Oades, the following Monday.
“Electrical engineers,” Miss Oades replied.It was at this moment that Jill decided a future as an electrical engineer was the right path for her.
Jill was born with an interest in engineering and credits her grandfather, a self-taught inventor and entrepreneur, for igniting that spark. “Over early morning breakfasts, we would talk about physics and its practical applications to machinery and about the hard work required to turn ideas into useful things.”
After moving to New Jersey, Jill’s neighbors gave her access to their workshop, where they were “always inventing things.” It was here that they would experiment and build their inventions. “We always wanted to find better ways to do things,” Jill says. She was not yet 10 years old.
In high school, as Jill was searching for engineering colleges, the boys’ guidance counselor suggested Clarkson. She had considered Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), but taking classes there meant living on the campus of nearby Russell Sage College and “living by their rules,” as Jill tells it. She decided that Clarkson would be the better choice, as she could be part of the “mainstream.”
Grace (Canning) Pierce ’68 was also introduced to Clarkson by a guidance counselor and was advised she could major in mathematics and minor in engineering. “The full tuition scholarship sealed the deal for me,” Grace recalls.
College enrollment was down in the early 1960s, and the United States had fallen behind the Russians in technology. It was William L. Whitson (who wanted to clear the sidewalks of snow and ice by electrifying them), Clarkson’s president from 1963 to 1966, who would persuade the Clarkson board of trustees to take a bold step and officially recruit and admit women as part of the incoming class of 1968 to help America regain its edge by graduating bright, innovative male and female engineers. The female Clarkson students were known at that time as “Techettes,” as their male counterparts were known as “Techers.”
Of the 50 female applicants to Clarkson for the fall of 1964, nine were selected. Two left after the first semester; the seven who remained were Nancy (Texido) Faust ’68
(industrial distribution), Andrea Bridge ’68, MS’70 (management), Catherine (Fry) Buttermore ’68 (mathematics), Grace (Canning) Pierce (mathematics), Mary Ann (Schernau) Stiefvater ’68 (humanities), Karen (Politica) Miller ’68 (accounting) and Jill Schoof (engineering).
Jill was able to attend Clarkson and pursue an engineering degree thanks to a generous scholarship from General Motors and a Clarkson work-study program. Karen Miller recalls, “I began as a math major but switched to accounting, which seemed a more ‘marketable’ degree, even though I ended up as a math teacher after a brief stint as
The women lived in a Victorian house at 12 Lawrence Avenue. They were under the watchful eye of Florence Feistel, an older woman recruited from a St. Lawrence University sorority who advised them on their “social choices of men.”
The women would cycle through a few house mothers, including “Munzie,” a favorite; a dean’s wife, who lasted three days; and Mrs. Johnson, who took in stride a water bucket prank the girls played on each other, initiated by Joyce Bator. Nancy Faust remembers, “The bucket would tip over when the door was opened, and it spilled through the floorboards to Mrs. Johnson’s room below, right onto her bed!”
The admission of the women was considered such a newsworthy event that they were covered by The New York Times, and a Time magazine reporter lived nearby for a few weeks to chronicle their progress. Unfortunately, the story was preempted by renewed tensions in the Middle East.
Big Brother Is Watching
Rules were not applied equally to the male and female students, Jill and Karen recall. The women followed a curfew that had them home at 11 p.m. on weekdays and 1 a.m. on weekends, although this was lifted in their senior year. “We would be campused if we came in after curfew. When my future husband asked me out on a first date, I had to turn him down because I had been campused!” Karen remembers.
That first year, the women were also assigned “Big Brothers” who would protect them. Bill Beston ’66, MS’72, Bob Birrell ’65, Gary Bray ’65 and Paul Pinard ’67 were selected. “These were men of ‘substantial’ stature who had been chosen,” Jill remembers. The women were required to study with their Big Brothers, but Jill remembers them as “nice guys.”
The women had no female professors at that time, and they received mixed treatment from the male faculty.
“Professors either handled us with kid gloves or set about to prove that we weren’t worthy of being there. One or two treated us ‘normally,’ but that was rare,” Grace says.
Even going to the bathroom was a struggle. Nancy remembers that they had 10 minutes during labs to go to the bathroom, but, for the women, the bathroom was down three flights of stairs, around the corner and down the hall in a U-shaped building. “We ran like hell,” she says, to get back to class. “At first, I didn’t know what to do. One bathroom said ‘Faculty’ and the other said ‘Students.’ I went into ‘Students’ and was greeted by a bank of urinals!”
While the challenges — big and small — were real, the women made the most of their Clarkson experience,in and out of the classroom.
“My social life was very active,” recalls Grace. “In fact, my mother once accused me of majoring in social life. There were fraternity parties all the time. Remember that the legal drinking age at that time was 18, although I don’t remember anyone abusing alcohol.”
Grace helped found the bridge club, serving as president, and initiated the formation of a women’s student government organization. She was also very involved with the pep band and played the clarinet at all the hockey games. Nancy served as a member of the Freshmen Orientation Board, the Society for the Advancement of Management and Sigma Tau Iota (the Industrial Distribution Honor Society). She was also secretary for the Women’s Council.
Jill says her experience at Clarkson prepared her well for the workplace. She later continued her education at Northeastern University in Boston, where she earned an MSEE. She entered the workforce as a young female engineer in the late 1960s, a time when the business world did not fully accept women — or people of color — as equals.
Jill would later run her own engineering consulting company, Design for Science and Industry, a combination of instrument and controls design and design of experiments, using statistics to turn around factories. After teaching at the University of New Hampshire and the University of Maine, she became a marine systems engineering professor at the Maine Maritime Academy in Castine.
Karen credits Clarkson for providing a foundation for working in the “real world.” “When I entered accounting, I was the only woman accountant in my firm. At the office Christmas party, everyone assumed that I was a secretary.”
Grace went to work for GE Information Services the day after graduation, working with engineers using computers remotely with new time-sharing capabilities. She would later transfer to the aerospace division, advancing to senior manager, with responsibility for more than 500 engineers and dozens of classified projects.