American University of Beirut

The long road to equality

​September 27, 2021​​

The centennial of coeducation at AUB can bring to mind an image of independent women streaming through Main Gate in 1921 to equalize the gender ratio. The reality, of course, was more halting and complex, a winding story of a movement that had germinated decades earlier, taken root in 1921, and has been evolving ever since. On campus in 2021-22, tributes to this bold step of coeducation hope to illuminate the movement and suggest how it might continue to grow.

“Women’s status and experiences at the university are not a finished work,” confirms Miriam Boulos (BA ’21), who is helping curate the centennial celebrations on campus. “This year of celebration is a reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we have to go.”

It is clear that AUB offered higher education to women in a region where it was almost unheard of, and decades before many western colleges and universities cracked open their doors. However, progress came in fits and starts. AUB first allowed women graduate students in the schools of medicine, pharmacy, and dentistry in 1921 as well as in the upper years of the School of Arts and Sciences. There had also been women students at the training school for nurses since 1905. But, it wasn’t until 1924 that women were allowed in undergraduate programs, not until 1952 that women were admitted as freshmen, and not until 1967 that the first two women enrolled in the engineering school at AUB. 

Initial challenges and questions were numerous. How would women be accepted in the classroom? Where would they live? Could they participate in anatomy dissections, for instance, with their male counterparts? The opening of the Junior College for Women at Beirut made it possible for women to obtain two years of education before moving to AUB. As Stephen BL Penrose wrote of the junior college in That They May Have Life, “The plan had the double advantage of providing better preparation for college entrance and at the same time a place for women students to live while at school.”

In spite of all concerns, women proved themselves ready for the opportunity, and the administration’s worst fears did not materialize. The leadership at the time expressed confidence that male students would be supportive of the change: “The Faculty relies upon the students thus to prove to skeptics and to critics that their misgivings and apprehensions were without foundation.”

The early decades of coeducation were punctuated by multiple firsts and pioneers. Poet and writer, May Ziadeh, was the first woman to lecture at AUB in 1925. In that same year, Sara Levy from Palestine became the first woman who had enrolled in a professional school (Pharmacy) to graduate. Another early graduate, Wadad Cortas, wrote, “One of my most unforgettable memories…was that of a delightful Moslem lady who came all the way from Egypt to join the School of Arts and Sciences.” Noting that Ihsan Shakir was married and had convinced her husband to come to college with her, Cortas was struck by her determination. “She came to class veiled, but this did not prevent her from leading many class discussions or from encouraging the rest of us.”

After the first five women registered in 1921-22, by 1947 AUB registered 127 female students. Throughout the next 50 years, the proportion of women to men at AUB continued to increase until it reached roughly equal numbers at the turn of the 21st century.

“Sometimes the big numbers don’t tell the story as much as the small details,” says Boulos. “Think of women relegated to the last two rows of chapel for at least twenty years before they were allowed to sit alphabetically.”

Boulos says many will contribute to marking the centennial of coeducation at AUB. Jafet Library’s Archives and Special Collections will host exhibitions, and different AUB publications will highlight stories of women at AUB and their subsequent careers. Student clubs will have their own take on current women at AUB, and the Neighborhood Initiative will celebrate AUB women living nearby. Panel discussions and interviews will seek to fill in the details of this hundred-year saga. 

“More than half of the student body is women now, and look how we’ve thrived,” Boulos says. “How far can we go?” The story continues.

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