This college football season, West Virginia University’s marching band is recognizing 50 years since women entered their ranks.
The Mountaineer Marching Band started as a males-only military band in 1901. Back then, every man attending WVU was required to take at least one course in Military Science, and joining the band was a way to fulfill that requirement while continuing their interest in music.
Fast-forward to the early 1970s, and female students are participating in their high school marching bands across the country. But aside from a period during World War II, many collegiate marching bands still excluded women.
It was a point of contention for students like Joyce Dawley. She says pushing for opportunities for women to join collegiate marching bands was important to her as a music education major.
“That limited the scope of applying for jobs, you know, you couldn’t apply to high school, etcetera, if you had no marching band experience,” Dawley said.
Fellow student and eventual bandmate Angie Bowman says Dawley started a petition to allow women to join.
“They said that Penn State just allowed females in their band, marching band, and so we should be able to be in, so I signed the petition. And then soon after I received the letter about band camp,” Bowman said.
Dawley says she doesn’t remember exactly if she was the one who created the petition or not – but she also doesn’t doubt it.
The addition of women in the band coincided with the creation of Title IX, the famous law that banned gender discrimination at federally funded universities. But one of the first women in the band, Jill Cochran, says it also came from a push from the band’s then-new director, Don Wilcox.
“He’s the one who said ‘Let’s do it.’ The Dean of Women was not happy about this whole idea, especially the idea that we would go off to band camp at Camp Dawson in Preston County, with all of those… men,” Cochran said, adding a sarcastic gasp.
Wilcox entered the position in 1971 and is credited with making much of the band’s style and presentation the way it is today. He’s now celebrated as the Director of Bands Emeritus by the WVU School of Music.
After sign-ups took place and acceptance letters were sent out, Cochran, Dawley, Bowman and nine other women made the trip to Camp Dawson for band camp. This inaugural class became known as the “Dirty Dozen,” a moniker the group took in stride. Dawley remembers excitement, not fear, at the opportunity.
“I wasn’t scared,” Dawley said. “I don’t know if any of us were afraid. We were like, empowered. Like, yeah, this is no big deal. We can do this. We’d done it in high school.”
Dawley says a lot of the men initially thought the new members wouldn’t be able to keep up – but that assumption changed quickly.
“It was an awareness of, oh, they’re not going to screw us up. So we’re okay. They’re going to add to it, they’re not falling down and fainting or whatever they expected,” Dawley said.
A page on the band’s website detailing its history says the 1971 season fielded an all-male band of only 88 members. But by the end of the decade, the band ballooned to around 280.
Eileen Smith Dallabrida, who joined the band during the ‘72 season but after that first band camp, says she thinks the addition to add women was also a matter of practicality.
“Having women in the band vastly expanded the pool of musicians of candidates. And by 1975, the fall of 1975, there were more people who wanted to be in the band than there were positions for them,” Dallabrida said.
For those original alumni, joining the marching band ended up giving them lifelong memories. Dallabrida says she remembers her first game and how proud she felt to be on the field.
“I remember the first game that we were all encouraged to literally let down our hair, so that people in the stands could see that there were some women – even though there weren’t very many of us – that there were women out on the field,” Dallabrida said.
In Angie Bowman’s case, she found her husband of nearly 50 years. She and her then-boyfriend Dale started dating after the ‘72 band camp and got married in the winter of 1974.
“Mr. Wilcox always likes to remind my husband and I that we started something because we may have been the first marriage out of the band. But there have been many, many
matches since that,” Bowman said.
Today, the WVU marching band consistently hovers around the 300-member mark, and half of its members are women. Heather Miller, a fifth-year member of today’s band, says her interest in joining a big marching band was something passed down from her mother.
“It was one of the major reasons I wanted to go to a university when I was looking at education after high school,” Miller said. “When she marched in the early 90s, she was given that opportunity, which inspired me.”
Cochran says she’s in the middle of an Internet-wide search for the “Dirty Dozen” so they can meet and have dinner after this year’s Homecoming game.
“I’ve turned into Sherlock Holmes, sort of a modern day Sherlock Holmes, trying to chase people down through the Internet,” Cochran said. “When I get them on the phone, it’s as if, oh gosh, we haven’t talked for a month or two.”
Scott Tobias, Director of Bands at WVU, says that this year, the band is recognizing the anniversary during their Homecoming halftime show at the end of October, inviting those original alumni to be honored on the field.
“Sometimes you look at it as a historical event, and don’t think about what the ramifications of that event actually were or are,” Tobias said. “We’re acknowledging it, and we’re celebrating it, but we’re also looking at what that means today.”
Cochran says every time she visits Morgantown for Homecoming, she’s pointed out to the current members as one of the first women in the band. She appreciates this year’s celebration, but she just hopes the recognition inspires young women to continue to pave the way forward.
“They don’t believe that there could ever have been a time when women weren’t in the band,” Cochran said. “I don’t need to be on the Jumbotron and have somebody call out my name but I would like people to know that we did something, we tried to make the world a little bit better for you.”
Editor’s Note: Shepherd Snyder is a former member of the WVU marching band.