Today on “The Community Corner” we’re going back 50 years in time. Why? Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s at least 20 different Jesuit colleges and universities began to admit female students in what became known as the coeducational movement.
In this episode, hear from Susan Ross, professor of theology at Loyola University Chicago, about the history of Jesuit coeducation as well as from Georgetown University professor of history Katherine Benton-Cohen and CC Borzilleri (COL ’19), a former fellow for the Georgetown Women’s Alliance, about where Georgetown fits into this story.
Listen to today’s episode to learn more about everything from the importance of Vatican II, the 21st council of the Roman Catholic Church in 1962, to the possibility of renaming buildings on Georgetown’s campus after influential female students.
SR: Right so Vatican II kind of cracked open the whole idea of lady being full participants in the church.
GB: From The Hoya, I’m Grace Buono (COL ’23), this is The Community Corner, a weekly show about the lives and stories of Hoyas near and far from the Hilltop. Today we’re taking a step back in time. Fifty years ago, a movement began among Jesuit institutions. It had to do with the question of women. Until then, very few women were accepted into Jesuit universities as students. At Georgetown, the first female student wasn’t accepted into the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences until 1953. One year prior to that, in 1952, the first female undergraduate students enrolled at Boston College in the School of Education. In fact, throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, at least 20 different Jesuit colleges and universities began to admit women, officially moving to what is known as “coeducation.” So we began to wonder, over half a century later since this movement among Jesuit schools really took off, where does Georgetown stand? For more, here’s Multimedia Staffer Amna Shamim (COL ’25).
AS: About 50 years ago, there was a push by Jesuit institutions, and an awakening in the Catholic Church one might add, to go coeducational. First, why go coeducational? Of course, there was a cultural shift in examining what women could or could not do. There was the Second Vatican Council, also known as Vatican II, which helped declare equal acknowledgement of women in the Church.
GB: To begin her reporting, Shamim reached out to Susan Ross, professor of theology at Loyola University Chicago, who wrote an article about the coeducational movement among Jesuit colleges and universities for American Magazine earlier this fall.
SR: The other thing about Vatican II that I think is significant is the fact that the ladies were finally considered to be equally members of the church as were the clergy. So the famous constitution of the Church, the Lumen Gentium, light of the world, basically argued that the Church was community of people, that it wasn’t first and foremost a hierarchy. Now these may seem like really small, very minor sort of wordsmithing, but in fact they kind of opened doors. And so after Vatican II, you began to see women serve as readers at church, which still happens. It took until the early 90s before girls were allowed to serve the altar, as altar-servers. So Vatican II, I think, without specifically focusing on women’s issues, by talking about the laity and the fact that the Church itself is a community, not necessarily a hierarchy, that I think that that had a powerful effect.
AS: Another, and very important aspect, was money. Women’s education is a lucrative business, and universities needed to make more money to stay afloat. This provides an interesting opportunity to discuss, as Ross so eloquently stated, whether or not Jesuit institutions like Georegtown have embraced women — in their curricula, in their student life, and their treatment overall. The answer is both yes and no. Yes, things have been better than before. When women were first admitted, they were not accepted by the student body. Dr. Ross outlines some absurd responses. Like Fordham University ended the practice of nude swimming. University of San Francisco’s front page said, “Women Invade USF.” And even Georgetown University instituted twice a week room checks for women — not male students, though. I was invited by professor Katherine Benton-Cohen to her first-year Ignatius Seminar class on the history of women at Georgetown, where I listened to CC Borzilleri (COL ’19), a former fellow for the Georgetown Women’s Alliance, and Dr. Susan Ross, the retired professor and author of the aforementioned article. For Borzilleri’s fellowship with the Georgetown Women’s Alliance, she created an exhibit to memorialize women who had significant impacts at Georgetown. You may have seen the wall of pictures outside Chick-Fil-A in the Leavey Center, or you may be like me and so poetically not have noticed it was there.
GB: From here Shamim sat into Benton-Cohen’s classroom. You’ll hear from Borzilleri next.
CB: My mindset was really in the historical space and how to make history accessible to the greater community. And a lot of what I wanted to do at Georgetown was make women more physically memorialized than they are. Many of the buildings on campus are named after Jesuits who contributed significantly to the development of the university and so I wanted to point out that there are actually many, many women who similarly contributed to the development of the wonderful university that has taken shape. And so I figured rather than building a whole new building and naming it after women, I’d start smaller and do an exhibit that features some women from all walks of the university. There are faculty, students, and staff represented in that exhibit, many of whom were pioneers in their various fields, first woman to do this, that, and the other. And so I think it’s really interesting to get to see women who have contributed to Georgetown in those ways next to each other and in a very central location so that people including visitors to campus, not just students, are able to see on whose shoulders we stand.
AS: It’s true that Georgetown needs to honor the women that helped shape this institution for the better. But what about women here currently? Professor Benton-Cohen was a member of the faculty Gender Equity Task Force that President John DeGioia (CAS ’79, GRD ’95) commissioned in 2018.
KBC: And we’re historians here and theologians are historians. There have been times at this campus, and I know that professor Ross knows this teaching at one of our fellow Jesuit institutions. We’ve had very prominent female leadership. We had Dorothy Brown as provost. We had Jane McAuliffe, the dean of the College, who went on to be the president of, I think, Mount Holyoke. We have had a lot of prominent female leadership but then when it goes away it’s like no one’s writing the story about it and I think it does have consequences. We’re going to look at female leadership on campus as well and students noted from a reading this week that fairly quickly women took leadership positions at Georgetown, but then there were some, especially in the student government, that took a long, long time before women reached those. It’s not a story of ‘69 and then everything gets better and now it’s 2019 or something great. That’s not how it works.
AS: Dr. Ross discussed something significant she encountered during her time at Loyola University Chicago. During the 2008 financial crisis, universities were scrambling to save money. Ross notes how the position for the director of the Women and Gender Studies program there was one of the first to go. That the university administration did not exercise the same care to the Women and Gender Studies department than they did renovating the Joseph J. Gentile basketball arena.
SR: So when I was director of the Women’s Studies program in the early 90s, and so I was director from ‘92 to ‘95, I was very well compensated. And then, that kind of continued. But then a couple of things happened, one of them was the recession in 2008. So, by the time I’d left the directorship there were a couple of other people behind me, but the recession really affected things at Loyola. And it turned out that in 2007, this was by the time I was the director for the Center for Women and Leadership, they were looking for a new director, but they cut the compensation and they cut the course release time and they cut the administrative side of it so that the special office, the administrative support, and the salary and the course release support were all cut. And it turned out that the only person who was willing to take on the position of the Director of Women’s Studies was someone who was hired as — what would you call it — a trailing spouse. They hired her husband for the medical center, so they offered her a job. But it was a non-tenure track with a higher course load. And so she was hired at a much higher course load, a lower compensation, and much less support in terms of administrative assistants. And so, at the same time the university is building this enormous gym-rec-center-place for the basketball team to have its own stadium on campus, which we hadn’t had before. And so for me it was the kind of juxtaposition of building this big arena that would seat, you know, x-thousand people to watch the basketball games and on the other hand cutting the support for the Women’s and Gender Studies program. And so it was kind of a sad story then. I mean, the Women’s Studies program is still thriving, but it has to work through the same amount of good stuff with fewer resources to support it.
AS: This is something that can be changed, though. Borzilleri mentioned how enough of the buildings around Georgetown’s campus are named after men — from Mark Lauinger, Patrick Healy, Fr. Copley, Fr. White, Fr. Gravenor, the list could go on. She wants the new medical building, the one currently being built, to be named after a woman.
CB: I started an effort that ended up fizzling in the pandemic, I’m hoping it gets started back up, to name the medical and surgical pavilion that’s being put up right now on the other side of Leavey, after a Georgetown Medical graduate, Sister Dr. Eileen Niedfield (MED ’51) who was in the first coed class of medical graduates, ended up, she was the valedictorian of the first class that included women. And then she ended up serving for several decades in India in a hospital that did not have an X-ray machine or adequate, hygienic medical tools, but would often, did what she could and did as much as she possibly could for people in need, up to and including drawing her own blood during surgery to transfuse into her patients. She did that on several occasions. And, so in terms of caring for others, and really putting service into action, she is just an unbelievable example of someone who we can all aspire to emulate in even just the slightest way.
KBC: And so I’m going to let our speakers go. I want to thank you both so much. It was just so wonderful to come across professor Ross and so much fun to work with CC increasingly as a peer rather than a student. So thank you so much and you may hear from us again, I’m sure we might have our quieres. And have a great afternoon.
AS: This podcast was recorded and edited by Amna Shamim and produced by Grace Buono. Special thanks to professor Katherine Benton-Cohen and her class, Dr. Susan Ross and CC Borzilleri for taking the time to speak with The Hoya.
GB: That’s all we have for today. Tune in for more soon.