When Women Came to Campus: The Incredible Women of MC’s First Female Classes

One of the first photos of women on MC's campus. Courtesy of the MC Archives.
One of the first photos of women on MC’s campus. Courtesy of the MC Archives.

1973. Though MC students won’t have fond memories of the year themselves (but their parents probably will), it actually marked a huge milestone for about 50 percent of the current undergrad population.

First, though, a little background. In the year 1973 Richard Nixon was president. “The Godfather” won the Oscar for Best Picture, and the Oakland A’s beat The Mets in the World Series. The cost of a gallon of gas was 40 cents and the World Trade Center was named the tallest building in the world.

It was also the year that MC became co-ed and finally allowed women onto its campus.

There were many formally all-male schools that were slowly opening their doors to women around this time. Princeton and Yale became co-ed in 1969, Brown and Lehigh in 1971, and Dartmouth and Duke in 1972 (all according to collegeexpress.com), but MC officials weren’t just hopping on the bandwagon when they made their decision. Instead of the change being for social reasons, it was primarily financial.

MC Archivist Amy Surak has been compiling research on the school’s co-ed history, and the following three paragraphs reflect that.

New York City itself was in a severe financial crisis in the early ‘70s due to the recession from the Vietnam War, the oil crisis and inflation, and therefore many institutes of higher education experienced budgetary issues, including MC. At this time, the school depended on tuition for the majority of its finances, and with the city’s economic problems, numbers of high school graduates (and therefore incoming college students) were slowly dwindling.

In an effort to raise enrollment, administrators decided to try and recruit more “non-traditional students” to add to the student population. “Mon-traditional” meant older students, minorities, the handicapped, and of course, women. The idea of co-education was first suggested to the board of trustees in May of 1971 by Brother Gregory, the President of MC. At this time the college had a cooperative agreement with The College of Mount Saint Vincent (which was all women) that allowed men from Manhattan to take classes at the “Mount” and vice-versa. The trustees thought that going co-ed could ruin their cooperative agreement, and so the idea was at first turned down.

A year later, in May of 1972, the school was still running out of money, and so the issue was brought up once again. In November of that year the Senate voted and approved the decision with a vote of 45-2, agreeing that the college would go co-ed and continue its co-op agreement with Mount Saint Vincent. Legal, financial and educational matters were addressed, and in August of 1973, women were finally welcomed onto campus.

Although the first class of women entered in 1973, there was actually one woman who was a student before that, who graduated in 1969, when the school was still entirely male. This woman was Patricia Kehrberger, the first woman engineer at MC.

Kehrberger was valedictorian of her private Catholic high school, John S. Burke, and wanted to go to college to be an engineer. Many male students from her school who wanted to pursue engineering went to MC, but since it was single-sex, it was not an option for her. Kehrberger decided to go to Catholic University, but then, right before graduation, the principal of her school approached her. She was a nun and she told Kehrberger her about how she had been speaking with the new President of MC, Brother Stephen.

The principal said she told Brother Stephen, “it’s about time you start letting women into your school.” She explained Kehrberger’s situation, and Brother Stephen was very compliant. The school worked out a deal that Kehrberger would dorm at Mount Saint Vincent but be a full-time student at MC.

“It’s interesting because it all happened so quietly…and there I was,” Kehrberger explained. “So I go into my first calculus class with 30 other young men thinking that they were going to an all-men school. I was never announced or anything…I was just there. So I was the only woman in any of my classes every year.”

“I felt very welcomed, very accepted, certainly by students. Faculty…I don’t know if they even knew I was coming. I remember my chemistry teacher walked in, and that was a big lecture class of about 70, and he spots me and kind of did a double-take. I just eased in, and everything kind of worked fine from then on.”

Though Kehrbeger was the clear minority at the school, she said that she never felt she was at a disadvantage or treated unfairly. In fact, she felt quite the opposite.

“I think back because it was a time when I think women were trying to figure out where they fit in, and that they wanted more out of life than just being second-class citizens,” Kehrberger explained. “There was no reason why they shouldn’t have equal pay and equal opportunities, and there were lots of women that had to fight for that, that had to battle and protest. And I was given that opportunity very generously and very welcomingly and it was a wonderful experience.”

Though Kehrberger didn’t feel discouraged being the only woman at an all-male school, she did receive some criticism before she even left home.

“It was hard enough just deciding to be an engineer,” she said. “I did find some resistance from family members and from my high school girlfriends’ dads. A couple of their dads were engineers and I got a lot of, ‘Why do you want to be an engineer? That’s a waste of an education because you’re just going to get married and end up not working anyway.’

“I heard ‘it’s a waste, it’s a man’s field,’ and I’d come home with one of those stories and my mother would say ‘don’t you listen to them!’ ‘You should be able to do what you want to do.’ So she was very forward-thinking as well.”

Kehrberger majored in civil engineering, graduated from MC (the graduation ceremony that year was at Madison Square Garden) and went on to get her masters at the University of Michigan because although “[she] loved this place, [she] felt that [she] needed to move somewhere else where being a female engineer was not unusual.” She ended up working at Hydro Science (now Hydro Qual) where she met her husband, who was also an MC graduate.

Courtesy of the MC Archives.
Courtesy of the MC Archives.

Another woman who also started something that is now a norm at MC is Lisa Toscano. Students will recognize her name because she is a kinesiology (physical education) professor here at MC. Toscano was in the third women’s class, entering MC in 1975, and is one of the main reasons the women’s basketball team exists today.

Toscano said that when she arrived at school there were hardly any women on campus.  Her major was physical education and she entered with five other females in a class of about 30 male freshmen (with physical education majors).  She said that most of the classes had that kind of ratio, but that the faculty treated them just like “one of the guys.”

“If they were confused about teaching women from their all-male past classes they didn’t show it,” she said.

Though the faculty seemed ready for the change in student population, Toscano said that they facilities were not as prepared.

“There were not many bathrooms on campus and when we had class in the gym we would have to run down all the way from the gym [now Alumni Hall] to Manhattan Hall [now Miguel Hall] to the bottom floor to go to the bathroom before returning to class. Our locker room was in a closet with one large window and no curtains.  We had to cover it with a towel while we changed.”

When Toscano got to school there were no other women’s teams on campus. Kathy McCarrick Weidan, who went to a different high school than Toscano but played in the Bronx also, found her and together they walked around campus asking any woman they saw if they played basketball. Some said only intramural or JV, but anyone was good enough for them.

“The first year we were just a collection of whatever,” she said, chuckling. “We had to prove ourselves, and we played high schools in the area and we lost; we played three games that season and lost two of them.

“The last game was against Mount Saint Vincent, who already had an established team, and we won at the buzzer by one point.  You would have thought we won a gold medal in the Olympics. The second year, we had a few more and got a lot better, and by the third year, we won the Hudson Valley Tournament. Then the fourth year they let us play varsity.”

Toscano said that although the men’s coach may have gotten annoyed as the girls waited outside the gym windows for the men’s team to finish so they could have practice time, they still received a lot of support from the school. Their male friends always came to watch them play, and the chair of the physical education department, John Sich, became their moderator.

“You know when you don’t get something easy, when you have to really work for it, you have a connection with everyone involved,” she added. “Those girls on the team are my closest friends to this day. To build something from the start is pretty big.”

Lydia Gray, who also entered in 1975 and still works at the school as the Executive Director of Marketing and Communication, said that she had a similarly “accepting” experience.

“It wasn’t an uncomfortable situation to come into,” she explained. “They were ready for us by and large…facilities-wise it took a little time for them to catch up…but that’s so very typical of transitions. But once a need was brought to the administration, then they tried to meet our needs in any way.”

Though she was a psychology major in the School of Arts and said she probably encountered more females in her classes than say, the female engineering students would, she did recall one religion class that was predominantly male.

“I was probably the only woman in that class and it was fine. I never thought to myself, ‘oh I’m in an uncomfortable situation,’ I never felt that at all. Some of my best friends came out of that class. I think that for the Brothers it was a little bit more transitional…it was different I guess for them to be standing in front of a class with female students, but they were very welcoming.

“Also, there was a lot of female faculty, so you had your role models, and they were very embracing of the women on campus.”

Currently a partner at the law firm Hahn & Hessin LLP, Rosanne Matzat entered a few years later in 1978. She said that at this time the student population was about 20 percent women, so she never felt horribly outnumbered in a class, but that there was a kind of kinship between the women on campus.

“There was a camaraderie such that, especially with respect to residents, just about every woman got to know the name, face and dorm of every other woman,” she explained. “Rarely would there be a resident woman who you could not identify to her friend-set and dorm.”

As for clubs, Matzat said that she was very involved in Student Government, and in the board she did notice slight gender discrepancies.

“I would say that while for the most part, the ‘top jobs’ went to men, the women held a fairly high percentage of the positions,” she said. “For example, I remember our winning a ticket for Freshmen Class Officers: the President and Vice President were men and the Secretary and Treasurer were women.

“Considering that women were only 20 percent of the class, 50 percent representation among the officers was a high percentage – but they were not the senior positions.  With that said, by 1981, one of my roommates was Senior Class President so obviously, attitudes progressed quickly.”

When asked what the biggest challenge she faced or had to overcome while being at school, Matzat finished with these choice words.

“The biggest challenge became the biggest value derived from being part of that early period.  You needed to develop the confidence to walk into a room that was predominantly male (whether the classroom or Plato’s Cave), and be yourself, state your position, and/or air your thoughts, and be taken seriously and present professionally while doing so.  It was a skill set we all learned without even knowing we were developing it.

“It is one of the greatest gifts I have from my Manhattan experience and it translates daily in my work place (where I am one of four women out of 24 partners), or in an often predominantly male bankruptcy courtroom or even as I am honored to sit on Manhattan’s Board of Trustees. It also translated to my having a large circle of male friends, who, then and now, I treated as my brothers and who, then and now, helped me to develop a thick skin, a quick sense of humor and a keen sense of the absurd.”

Courtesy of the MC Archives.
Courtesy of the MC Archives.