Black and white photo of McPhee family in the Carrizo Plains

Written by on September 17, 2013

The coeducation file: More surprises in the McPhee Collection

Ben Simon is a student assistant in Special Collections & Archives. This summer he is working on a project to organize the papers of Cal Poly President Julian McPhee (1933-1966). This is the third in a series of posts in which he shares his experiences processing McPhee’s papers and learning more about the university’s history.

For decades, a rumor persisted among Cal Poly students and faculty that the university was established as a men’s-only college. I will finally debunk that myth: Cal Poly was established in 1901 as a coeducational vocational school. It was not until 1930 that the college banned women from admission, a ban which lasted nearly 27 years.

Gender equity

Black and white photo of Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo when women returned to campus, 1956.

Women return to campus as students, 1956.

While researching the tenure of former Cal Poly President Julian A. McPhee, I discovered that if it weren’t for university administrators’ conservative attitudes, this ban may have been lifted much sooner. Because I thankfully live in an era when even the noun “coed” seems antiquated and sexist, it can arguably be easy to take gender equality for granted.

Where will women live?

Cal Poly administrators resisted allowing women back on campus for a variety of reasons. “We don’t want Cal Poly to become just another liberal arts college,” remarked Roy E. Simpson, the San Luis Obispo County Superintendent.

Administrators repeatedly argued that they lacked facilities to house women, even when said facilities were made available. Local women argued that they could live at home,  an argument that was also ignored (McPhee mentioned in one of his letters that he had difficulty responding to this argument effectively).

McPhee’s opposition to coeducation is somewhat surprising, considering that his six daughters all attended coeducational universities, including UCLA.

The featured image at the very top shows Julian and Alma McPhee (center) and their six daughters (from left) Carol, Bernadette, Helen, Claire, Jean, and Judy, photographed on Thanksgiving 1951, at the Beck Ranch in the Carrizo Plain, east of San Luis Obispo. Julian A. McPhee Papers, University Archives, Cal Poly.

Unconstitutional ban

Ultimately, Senator Alan A. Erhart (the namesake of Cal Poly’s agriculture building) ruled that Cal Poly’s ban on women was unconstitutional.

Scan of letter from president Julian A. McPhee to State Associate Superintendent Dr. J. Burton Vasche, 1954, regarding the enrollment of women at Cal Poly. Julian A. McPhee Papers, University Archives, Cal Poly.

President Julian A. McPhee to State Associate Superintendent Dr. J. Burton Vasche, 1954, regarding the enrollment of women at Cal Poly. Julian A. McPhee Papers, Archives, Cal Poly.

After women were admitted, the college immediately created various majors they believed were suitable for women, including child development, home economics, and nursing (the latter two no longer exist).

Since women were deemed unfit for the polytechnic and scientific fields which defined the campus, the battle for gender equality still had a long way to go.


Read more on ben simon, cal poly history, julian mcphee, president mcphee, university archives, women at cal poly, and Women's History Month.

3 comments on “The coeducation file: More surprises in the McPhee Collection
  1. Mbb says:

    Wow, this is fascinating! Thanks for debunking the myth about the coed situation, Ben. Good work!

  2. Emily says:

    This is so interesting! I had always assumed the ban had been in place from the start — I had no idea it began in the 30’s.

    I concur with the previous poster — great work, Ben! =)

  3. Matt Brownlee says:

    I would like to add a few thoughts to your article. Roy Simpson was the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, not a SLO County Superintendent.

    Also, though it is thought that Julian McPhee was opposed to women attending Cal Poly, he was not. Julian McPhee did not allow women to attend because of of one main thing, money. Even though the state had authorized women to attend Cal Poly after banning them in 1930, he did not allow them until they came through with the money to pay for it.

    It is not surprising that his daughters all attended college. He felt education was important for everyone.

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