Having a Georgetown University education provided critical career opportunities and professional development, despite some obstacles encountered on the path to obtain it, four of the School of Foreign Service’s first female graduates said at an April 18 panel in Fisher Colloquium.
Barbara Berky Evans (SFS ’58), Barbara Hammes Sharood (SFS ’58), Helene Gettler Mallett (SFS ’59) and Paula Wiegert Tosini (SFS ’60) spoke at the panel hosted by the SFS and moderated by Ambassador Melanne Verveer (SLL ’66, GRD ’69). These four women were part of the university’s first integrated program to accept female applicants. Each year, enrollment was limited to 25 women in an overall SFS class of 250 students.
“There were no women,” Evans said. “It was a pretty lonely time, I’ll tell you that. Until some of these other ladies showed up.”
The first women enrolled in the School of Foreign Service in 1943, as male enrollment declined during the Second World War. However, these women were only allowed to take evening and Institute of Language and Linguistics classes until 1954, when six women were admitted to regular SFS courses, according to an SFS news release.
In response to the small community of undergraduate women in the SFS, the first women undergraduates formed the Foreign Service Women’s Association in 1955. The organization played a major role in improving living conditions for women on campus. It was in part thanks to FSWA that in 1970, the 25-women admissions quota was lifted, according to the SFS news release.
FSWA provided the women a space of their own, where they felt less isolated from one another, the alumnae said. Each of the women was paired with an “older sister,” a mentor figure for them at Georgetown.
“It was more of a sisterhood than anything,” Sharood said. “There are few women who don’t like to talk, and it gave you people to talk with, because we were all going through many of the same challenges.”
FSWA had a popular bake sale every week and used the money to improve living standards for female students. The only place for the women to live on campus at the time was with the nursing students.
Another project for FSWA was improving athletic access for women. The tennis courts were past the library, a far walk from the nursing school housing, Tosini said. Due to a strict dress code, women were told to cover their legs when wearing athletic shorts on the walk to athletic facilities.
“If we wanted to play tennis and wear pants — like Bermuda shorts — we had to wear a raincoat on top of our pants,” Tosini said.
They were allowed to remove the coat while playing, but the rule served as a reminder that women had to make concessions in order to access sports facilities.
Georgetown women experienced academic limitations as well. Women had to meet more challenging academic criteria to attend the university than their male counterparts because there were fewer spaces available for them than for men. At times, women were prevented from enrolling in courses in the College by professors who refused to teach female students.
Despite the downsides of being the first female students on a male-dominated campus, each woman recalled loving her Georgetown experience.
“I knew about Georgetown being a boys’ school,” Tosini said. “But that was kind of irrelevant.”
She was one of four Fulbright recipients in her class — all of them women. The first- and second-ranked students were women as well.
After graduating, the alumnae entered the workforce in different capacities, though they found increases in gender equality at Georgetown did not translate to the working world.
Mallett sat for the Foreign Service Officer Test after graduation; she remembered her interviewer saying that hiring a marriageable woman like her would be a poor fiscal move for the agency. She never heard back after the interview.
Evans, however, was able to find a job at a time when few people were hiring women because of her Georgetown education. She applied for a position at Proctor and Gamble and discovered her interviewer attended Georgetown night classes.
“I want to tell you ladies to really value your degree, because you never know what life holds for you,” Evans said.
Acknowledging the challenges they had faced in their careers, each of the panelists noted progress made for women since their time at Georgetown.
“When I think of these young women, there are no limits for them,” Evans said. “One of them could easily be our next president.”
“We’re rooting for you,” Gettler said.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro (SFS ’94), host of NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, delivered closing remarks. Navarro highlighted progress in the fight for women’s rights, but addressed barriers in the road ahead, discussing her experiences in the male-dominated journalism field.
However, Navarro expressed hope for the future, despite past challenges.
“I consider it a great thing, at this point in time, to be a woman. But that’s because of women like this,” Navarro said about the panelists. “That’s also because of women like you.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Navarro’s last name.