Fifty-five years ago, Cal Poly was not entirely different from how it is now. It was still known primarily as an agricultural and engineering school. Even then, students were constantly finding ways to get around the rules set out for them by their residence advisers. And in 1956, young men and women lined the hallways of campus, ready to study via the “Learn By Doing” philosophy.
Turn back one more year and Cal Poly was a fundamentally different university. From 1939 until 1956, women were not allowed to attend school at Cal Poly as part of educational budget cuts.
And like many civil rights movements of the 20th century, change started small. In the fall of 1956, approximately 200 women came to Cal Poly. Mostly studying specialized majors, such as home economics or agricultural journalism (the current journalism department was not founded until later), they found challenges adapting to the primarily male campus.
Under the microscope
Cal Poly’s academic program had a special draw to women interested in studying majors not available elsewhere, agricultural journalism 1960 alumna Karen White said. She said she remembered integrating women into all-male classes proved to be a difficult feat.
“It was mandated that (the university) had to be co-ed; Cal Poly didn’t have much say in the matter,” White said. “So now you have 200 girls and 5,000 men, and they asked, ‘What the hell are we going to do with them?’”
Not all men received the idea of having women in their classes well, White said. Men were used to owning the campus: being able to do what they want, go where they wanted. They came here to get an education, White said, not fraternize with women.
“We joked about the fact that out of 5,000 men, there were not 200 that we could bring home to Mama,” White said.
Even things such as finding a bathroom were difficult for the new female students of 1956. Nearly all restrooms on campus were previously men’s rooms, and White recalls lines of women waiting to use a single stall, while the three urinals in the restroom were obviously unoccupied.
White also remembers difficulties in class, sitting in the back when there were no other women in the lesson. She said she didn’t know anyone, and it seemed like no one wanted to know her.
“It was really fun having another girl in there, because otherwise, you stuck out like a sore thumb,” she said. “If there was another girl in there, you sat together, studied together (and) walked to class together.”
Having women attend classes created more than just social problems, White said. Challenges also came in the form of class curriculum. White said she remembers an animal husbandry class offered when she was at Cal Poly that drastically changed the way it was taught when the women arrived in 1956.
“This was the ’50s,” she said. “You just couldn’t talk about artificial insemination of bulls the same way in front of women like you do now.”
Pauline Abney, a fellow agricultural journalism alumna who graduated in 1959, worked with White during her time at Cal Poly. She said the girls felt a certain camaraderie because of their unique position.
“We didn’t feel entitled because a lot of women before us weren’t able to go off to college,” Abney said. “We knew if we didn’t work hard, we would be letting ourselves down and our parents, too. We were kind of under this microscope that we wouldn’t make it.”
During their early years at the university, Cal Poly placed requirements on women that, according to White, dictated the style of their lives.
For example, administrators required the women to wear skirts or dresses at all times, unless they were in an agricultural lab. And even if they had a lecture immediately following such a lab, they had to receive special permission from the professor to show up in their work clothes.
“These are rules you couldn’t believe now,” White said. “They were absolutely archaic.”
Living in the dorms with her roommate, agricultural journalism 1959 alumna Pat Keeble, White faced a whole separate set of challenges.
White and Keeble were involved in several branches of the Cal Poly journalism program, including shooting pictures at sports games that would be published in the El Mustang (the precursor to the Mustang Daily), the San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune and the El Rodeo yearbook which Keeble was editor of her senior year. These activities kept the pair out at night, working to meet deadlines and cover events as they happened.
The residence halls, however, had a strict policy regarding curfew for women. On weekdays, all of the residents had to be back in the residence hall by 10 p.m. On weekends, they could be out until 11 p.m.
If the women did not return by curfew, an alarm would sound as they entered the hall. They would then have to meet with the housemistress, who would “campus” them. Women who were campussed were required to return straight to the hall after dinner for a certain number of days and could not leave until the next morning.
Keeble remembered one instance where she and her yearbook staff were working late finishing a package to go to print. They risked being campussed if they stayed in their offices to complete it on deadline.
“At least half of us working on the yearbook were women,” she said. “We were finishing up the final pages, and they had to be in the mail the next day. We couldn’t finish before the 10 p.m. deadline (to get back to the dorms), so the instructor had to call the dean of women. After a lot of runaround, she approved letting us stay out to finish the yearbook.”
For Abney, these rules were just part of life as a woman at Cal Poly.
“That’s the way I was raised,” she said. “So I didn’t think anything of it at the time. I was just 18 or 19 at the time I lived there.”
But the residents in the two halls that housed women were able to bend, if not completely break, the rules. White said they did this by finding a surprising weakness in the housemistresses.
“We discovered these prissy ladies — excuse me, very nice ladies — didn’t know the difference between someone coming back drunk and coming back sober,” White said. “So we partied earlier in the evening, then told them we were at the library. As long as you weren’t stumbling in, they would completely believe you.”
In the days where it was completely unacceptable for female students to consume alcohol under the age of 21, any violation of this code could have a student expelled from Cal Poly. Keeble said she remembers an “aggie barn dance” in the agricultural unit the night after a football game that proved to have consequences for the girls there. White was in attendance at the dance.
“I was scared to death (that) I was going to get caught,” she said. “The only thing that kept me from getting thrown out was two guys I was partying with drove me home that night.”
But not everyone was so lucky. When classes started up the next week, Cal Poly had six less women enrolled at the university.
‘Just tickled to see it’
Due to their involvement in journalism, Keeble and White said they had the opportunity to view Cal Poly from a unique perspective.
The pair was the official photographers for several sports, including football. Though the women had no formal training, the graduation of several members of the Cal Poly photo bureau forced White to step up and take the position. White then asked Keeble to join her. The two worked in tandem on the field, with one holding a camera and the other holding a flash. Between the two instruments was a fragile cord.
“What we didn’t know about football we had to learn real fast because, when a couple 250-plus pound tacklers came near us, we got down on the ground real quick so the cord didn’t break,” Keeble said.
White’s father taught the two nearly everything about football when they told him they got the job on the field. They needed to know almost as much as the team, White said, to get the perfect shot.
“The lights were even worse then than they are now,” she said. “So you had to have the players right next to you to get a picture. So you had to watch it and know how the plays were coming, so you could know when to get a picture.”
Due to their work on the field, the two women were soon mini-celebrities, Keeble said. People would recognize them around San Luis Obispo as the girls who took pictures at the Cal Poly games.
“The students were just tickled to see it,” Keeble said. “For many of the people coming, they had never seen girls there before.”
During their time as photographers, Keeble and White shot two future sporting world champions: football star John Madden and ProRodeo Hall of Fame member Jack Roddy.
Though Abney did not shoot pictures of him, she took general education classes with Madden.
“He was kind of a loud guy,” she said. “Typical athlete, he was always all pumped up for football.”
A queen arrives
Another difference between Keeble’s time at Cal Poly and current students was the yearly tradition of homecoming.
Homecoming was not as popular in the late 1950s as it is now, Keeble said.
“There were a lot of people who just went there to get an education and couldn’t be less interested in going to homecoming or football games,” White said.
The Student Press Club, which Keeble was part of, raised money by selling programs at the first homecoming game. The girls then all went and sat together in the stands, since they didn’t know many people other than each other at that point in the school year.
“Homecoming, we didn’t always participate with some of the other people,” Abney said. “It was mainly male students, because that’s the way it had always been.”
Perhaps the biggest change to homecoming when the women arrived in 1956 was the addition of a Homecoming Queen.
“I remember what they called the first “Homegrown Queen” candidate, because she was coming from Cal Poly,” Abney said.
That “Homegrown Queen” was Barbara Foley, who, in the El Rodeo yearbook, had the honor of being known as “Her Majesty Barbara Foley.”
“(Foley) had a very independent attitude, even though most people didn’t think she knew what she was talking about,” Abney said. “She ended up running for homecoming queen and obviously won.”
Now and then
Fifty years after that first homecoming, the first women to attend Cal Poly after World War II returned to the campus they once called home. As one might expect, much has changed since the late 1950s.
“San Luis Obispo was a sleepy little town (then),” Abney said. “A lot of people thought it was boring, but parents were sure happy their kids were going there.”
Though the women, now all approximately 73-years-old, did not get the chance to see Hathaway Avenue and Foothill Boulevard at night, or sit through an intensive lecture in computer engineering, one can only assume the reaction would have been one of surprise.
Or, maybe not.
White’s close call at the barn dance is one that students can relate to. And the girls’ experience in classes exemplifies the “Learn By Doing” philosophy that still is a constant topic of discussion today.
No matter how different campus is, how many more majors exist or how many more women attend school at Cal Poly, some things just haven’t changed.