Social Life and Fraternities

Coeducation complicated Bowdoin’s social scene, which had been dominated by all-male fraternities. Learn more about the particular social challenges and triumphs that women encountered at the College.

Coeducation presented particular challenges for Bowdoin’s social life, which had been dominated by fraternities for much of the College’s history. Women in the first coeducational classes were presented with the task of creating spaces for themselves within an already-established social scene—and the very word “fraternity” suggests that this social scene was not entirely compatible with a coeducational student body.

Some women students—like their male peers—readily joined the fraternities as brothers, while others chose to remain independent. The social experience for women was, naturally, varied. Different fraternities treated women students with varying levels of warmth and excitement during rotational dining, Bowdoin’s version of traditional fraternity rush. Although many women had positive experiences with Greek societies, there were some allegations of gender-based harassment and hazing, and at least one fraternity clung proudly to its reputation as raucous—and all-male—“Animal House.”

At first, many fraternities limited women to social, non-voting memberships because of the national organizations’ restrictions; later, several decided to become local chapters, to allow women to join as full members. Notably, Psi Upsilon clashed with the national organization in 1972, when Patricia “Barney” Gellar was elected the fraternity’s president and caused a stir at the national convention, whose organizers had not realized that Barney was, in fact, a nickname. In 1983, Bowdoin’s only sorority, Alpha Beta Phi, was founded.

The fraternities were an integral (albeit occasionally problematic) part of Bowdoin’s social scene, but the Board of Trustees’ 1997 decision to phase them out was, in part, because of their incompatibility with coeducation.

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