Cal Poly Women: How They've Changed Since 1901

Women Hanging Out in Yosemite

From its establishment in 1901, women have always had an important role at Cal Poly. Today, women make up 46% of the student population, 14 sororities exist on campus and we have a multitude of women’s athletic teams. Furthermore, the largest academic club on campus is the Society of Women Engineers. But the Cal Poly of yesteryear was a vastly different place. What campus life was like for the women of turn of the 20th century and beyond?

The Early Days (1901-1929):

Women were allowed to enroll in Cal Poly from the very start. The first graduating class in 1906 was composed of just four men and four women! In these formative years, the female students were required to sew their graduation dresses as a way to showcase their accomplishments; sort of a predecessor to the senior project.

The women’s basketball team, organized in 1909, was founded years before the men’s team. Though there were no fraternities or sororities in the early days, a society for women called the Amapola Club was established in 1910. The Amapola Club hosted parties, afternoon teas and other activities with the goal of “promoting good fellowship and cooperation” between Cal Poly students.

Amapola Club Circa 1914

The main majors for women were Domestic Sciences, Printing and Journalism. The Domestic Sciences curriculum included cooking classes and food prepared in class was served to the student body. As astonishing as it seems, Cal Poly food was once so popular, locals often came onto campus to eat a meal. But as the Great Depression loomed and female enrollment dwindled, big changes were made on campus.

No Women Allowed (1929-1955):

It’s appalling to learn that for over 25 years of our school’s history, women were not allowed to enroll. During the beginnings of the Great Depression, Cal Poly could not afford to maintain academics and facilities for the size of the student population. At one point, the state of California even threatened to cut funding entirely. As a response, legislation was passed to prevent women from enrolling. Unfortunately, even with the repealing of the ban in 1937, women were not officially welcomed back to campus until 1956.

In 1935, the famed aviator Amelia Earhart visited campus to have her plane repaired by Aeronautical Engineering students. In a comment to the San Luis Tribune, she said: “One thing this school and other schools of its kind lack is the fact they have no enrollment of girls…and I believe there should be no restriction on aeronautics or any kind of education”.

During World War II, most Americans, women included, were encouraged to aid the war effort. At Cal Poly, this meant that the Faculty Wives’ Club expanded their influence and were able to take courses in Home Economics, Sewing, and First Aid. In addition, women in the community were invited on campus to learn welding and the handling of aircraft metal.

Though women were prohibited from enrolling in classes, this did not stop them from earning a Cal Poly degree. Yes, the oh-so-patronizing PhT (Pushing Hubby Through) degrees were awarded to wives of Cal Poly graduates. I wish I was kidding.

Welcome Back, Coeds (1956-1960s):

Women were finally allowed back on campus for the 1956 school year! In preparation, three men’s halls were renovated and the administration released a welcome pamphlet called Cues for Coeds to help the new female students adjust to college life. The etiquette and school rules of the time were remarkably different from what we have today. The handbook described proper attire and accessories for 14 separate occasions with the added advice that “dresses that are extreme will get you stares but few dates on the Poly campus”. In the women’s resident halls, smoking was perfectly acceptable, but leaving the building after 7 pm without explicit permission was a no go. The number of late night exemptions, or “specials” as they were called, was entirely dependent on a woman student’s academic performance. Men were not subject to any curfews or regulations of these kinds.

As of 1960, 662 of the 1,425 Arts and Science students were women, 67 of the 1,192 Agriculture students were women, and only 13 of 1,880 Engineering students were women. Home Economics was still the number one major for women at the time.

The strict rules regarding women students were challenged in 1963 when three women were suspended for attending fraternity events without a chaperone present. There was an outcry from both male and female Cal Poly students which lead to a petition and protest. Though the university upheld the decision, the traditional rules would slowly become more modern as the decade wore on.

The inclusivity of women on campus has significantly improved in the last century. Despite being prohibited from enrolling for nearly a quarter of Cal Poly’s history, women today can enroll in any major, join any club, and even become ASI President. Keep on pushing the limits, Lady Mustangs!

I would like to give a big thanks to the Cal Poly Special Collections and Archives! Located on the 4th floor of the library, the Special Collections is a wealth of historical knowledge and the staff is extremely helpful. If you have a project or are just interested in more Cal Poly history, make an appointment and drop by.