Women’s History Month: The Women of Manhattan College, Then and Now

by Kyla Guilfoil & Adrianne Hutto, Asst. News Editor & Asst. Production Editor

Women first joined the ranks of Manhattan College’s undergraduate student body in the fall of 1973, making this the 47th Women’s History Month spent by female students at MC. In honor of the women who broke the glass ceiling in those first decades, and those who continue that legacy at Manhattan today, The Quadrangle will reflect on the women of MC, then and now.

According to manhattan. edu, the college’s student population today is 46 percent female, remarkably closer to the 50-50 mark than the 13 percent of female students at the college in 1986, which is even higher than the handful of women who were accepted in 1973.

Even though the president of the college, Brother Gregory Nugent, F.S.C., signed the college’s “Equal Opportunity Manual and Affirmative Action Program” in the fall of 1973 that outlined the commitment of the college to have equal opportunity for female faculty, students and staff, and would perform self-analysis and reporting to ensure that these actions were carried out, women still reported slews of harassing comments. According to documents in the college’s archives, it took decades for women at MC to be respected and equally treated as men were. Powerful work was done to achieve improved conditions for women through a series of committees led by women faculty members.

Marie McGovern, elected in 1971 as the first woman on the Board of Trustees MANHATTAN.EDU / COURTESY

In September 1976, an impressive coalition of women met as the Women’s Organizational Committee to raise ideas regarding sponsorship of women’s events, fundraising, leading lectures on women’s issues, dance groups and lectures on different types of mind control currently being experimented with. Soon after, the Women’s Committee met in November to perform a lecture on rape, and a possible health care center for women at the college. The following spring, the college conducted an event entitled, “Options for Women.”

Flyers from the college’s archives read, “The choices available to women in the areas of career, marriage and family will be examined by four outstanding speakers in a conference on ‘Options for Women,’ to be presented next Wednesday from noon to 3 p.m. in Smith Auditorium, Manhattan College, Riverdale. Meant to cover ‘the impact of the women’s movement upon marriage to the consequences of having a career while raising a family, will relate their own experiences and discuss changing lifestyles.’”

The Quadrangle staff of 1977 covered this event in Vol. 60 No. 25, quoting the Coordinator for Women’s Programs, Dale Esposito, to say that she hopes “everyone, not just women, will attend the conference because a lot of work went into it.”

The committees of women at Manhattan were successful in performing many programs and lectures, and in communicating with the administration to ensure equal opportunities for women. Committee W, an active chapter that addressed “policy issues [such] as anti-nepotism regarding full time and part-time faculty, leave policies for child-bearing and child-rearing, and grievance procedures for complaints involving allegations of discrimination,” according to the archives.

According to a letter written by Rosita Marcello on Sep 1, 1987, Committee W was active in the early and mid-seventies, and she was in motion to restart the organization. Letters and correspondence of Committee W from 1987 until the early 90s can be found in the college’s archives, illustrating the committee’s efforts to ensure affirmative action, equal salary, and adherence to Title IX in the college’s sports teams.

In addition to their consistent correspondence with the administration, Committee W led a series of lectures and meetings that discussed men and women in business, education, the sociology of working mothers and familial roles, religious roles and women and men in politics. The committee’s work underscored the college’s slow transition to fully respecting and accepting women’s presence in the MC community.

In a June 22, 1988 letter, June Dwyer, a professor of English and the chair of Committee W in the late 80s, wrote to Provost Dr. Walter Emge, “There is a lack of awareness about affirmative action in several of the College’s academic departments and perhaps some unwillingness to embrace the concept as well. A set of procedures–even interim procedures–issued by your office would carry a great deal of authority and would provide all departments with a much-needed framework for hiring.”

This unwillingness can be seen through the ‘climate surveys’ performed in the late 80s and early 90s, which inquired both male and female members of the MC community about the climate which women faced at the school. In the April 1986 report, 65-75 percent of women (faculty, administrators, students and support staff) did not believe that they have the same access to a leadership role as men do. Meanwhile, 60-80 percent of the college’s male population reported that they believe women do.

Additionally, this survey found 55-70 percent of women faculty, administrators and support staff held the belief that male faculty and staff are regarded with more respect and recognition than that of the women, but all male respondents and female students did not believe this as seen by a 45-65 percent majority. When asked the most sexist statement that women had experienced at the college, responses included, “girls shouldn’t be engineers” by 10 women, and six women reported hearing some variant of “women will just get married and no longer work.” For comments heard towards someone else, seven said “Some male teachers in engineering feel women do not belong and try to discourage them.” The pages continued on in the archives, with these being the most common variants of statements.

In the 1987 climate survey results, the college found that on average, men earn $1,232 ($2,852.41 today) more than women faculty at MC. This statistic was found by also taking into account degree, school, rank, experience, and whether or not the individual was a Brother (which makes a significant difference). Further, there were reports of a “male faculty member [that] made overt sexual advances,” a male student refusing to be taught by a female professor and a male professor who answered a question regarding the length of an assignment by saying, “It should be like a woman’s skirt, long enough to cover everything but short enough to be interesting.”

Women had reported men forcefully entering their room while they slept, and harassment in dorms and the dining hall. As women in engineering seemed to have faced the worst harassment, one comment was attributed to a male student saying, “An ideal girl is like an ideal conductor— there’s no resistance.” There are too many comments to include from even just this 1987 report, but multitudes of women reported chauvinistic and sexual comments.

Two women faculty members in Committee W still teach at Manhattan today. This includes Nevart Wanger, professor of Italian and French, and Winsome Downie, Ph.D, professor of political science. Their names can be seen throughout the archive’s women faculty lists and letters to administrators from Committee W. In particular, their names were among those in the Committee who wrote to administrators on Oct 11, 1988, expressing concern over the fulfillment of the college’s Affirmative Action Plan.

In the 1988-89 academic year, only 12.9 percent of the college’s faculty were women, with that number rising only to 19 percent in the 1991-92 school year. However, this marks a great achievement, as women in 1968 only represented four percent of the faculty, and in 2021 they make up 45.4 percent of faculty. According to manhattan.edu, this places Manhattan College slightly above the national average in gender diversity.

Downie joined the MC community in the fall of 1987, and again in the spring of 1979, both times as an adjunct professor.

“I was a graduate student in political science at Columbia University in the 1970s when I saw an advertisement in The New York Times for an adjunct professor in political science, someone who could teach Caribbean and Latin American politics,” Downie said.

Downie joined the full-time staff in 1980 as a political science professor, after Eleanor Ostrau, Ph.D, hired her. Ostrau was the only other woman in the political science department when Downie joined and was the Government Department Chair from 1978-1983. Ostrau was also a member of Committee W, according to the archives.

“At a time when there were very few women on campus, Eleanor was very vocal, and we worked together, for example, to get Manhattan to join Phi Sigma Alpha, the political science national honor society, and do a couple of other things,” Downie said.

At the time, there was very little diversity in both gender and race among faculty, Downie said. She recalled two other women of color during those early years, who worked in the economics department, which Downie dubbed as “progressive” for their representation.

Downie recalls an evening in the early 80s when a security guard stopped her on campus, telling her she could not park in that lot because it was for faculty. She was allowed to park, but he had responded with surprise and judgment when Downie explained that she was in fact faculty.

“These little kinds of, I suppose, micro-aggressions, I guess I didn’t fit the stereotype at the time because at that point, a disproportionate number of our faculty were Brothers, or they were male,” Downie said.

In addition to these micro-aggressions, Downie recalls how noticeable the number of women’s facilities were in respect to the men’s. According to documents in the archives, women could not dorm on campus in the first year of coeducation, and bathrooms were slowly converted to women’s. In addition to updating facilities, women’s presence at MC also led to updated coursework.

The college’s archives included much correspondence regarding the introduction of women and gender studies at the college.

“Professor Dwyer and Plasko [faculty members and chairs of Committee W] noted that the present courses offer nothing on feminist theory per se,” read archives documents. “It was agreed that all of the courses that address the topic at the start of the semester and that perhaps a capstone course on theory could be considered eventually. There was some discussion of ‘gender’ versus ‘women’ with the consensus being for the latter.”

In a separate letter found in the college’s archives, Dwyer emphasized the women’s studies courses at Manhattan were developed largely as a result of individual faculty member’s commitments in particular departments.

Downie was one of these individuals and created two courses while teaching in the 80s. “I think that it is essential that we remember,” Downie said. “We need to remember the women’s struggle. I remember that we had no courses back then that dealt with anything that resembled diversity, so I decided the first course in women in politics, is what I called it. So I designed a women in politics course for the department, as I did a course in race, ethnicity and class in American politics.”

And while women struggled to establish their narrative, they still flourished at MC, despite all odds. According to documentation in the college’s archives, women were recorded to enter many graduate schools and companies, in the law, medical, political and science fields.

“I think most of our institutions were designed for men, and women have weaseled their way in, and of course as we know, they’ve excelled academically, ahead of many of our male students, if we look nationally at grade point averages, and so on, we can see women are getting higher test scores and grade point averages that many of the male students are getting. And I think it engenders some resentment, but women need to be strong and they need to push back,” Downie said.

In addition to the classroom, Manhattan’s female athletes quickly made a name for themselves after a handful of dedicated women established the first women’s athletic teams at MC in 1975.

This was in large part due to the efforts of a freshman business administration major, Kathleen McCarrick, now Kathleen McCarrick Weiden. Weiden helped create Manhattan College’s all-women’s basketball team with the assistance of administrators on campus and had no difficulty finding interested players. In February of the same year, The Quadrangle finally shone a light on the team with the headline “Girls’ Basketball Arrives at Manhattan.”

The team won the Hudson Valley League within three years of its inception as the only non-scholarship team in the league competing against varsity squads. This win secured them varsity status for the next season. In an article from June of 1997 Manhattan College’s women’s athletic program was praised for its incorporation of women’s sports into its athletic programs, even receiving an ‘A’ from the Women’s Sports Foundation in East Meadow.

“The study was released days before the 25th anniversary of a federal law known as Title IX which mandated equal educational opportunities for women. The law later applied to sports as well,” the article states.

The founding of MC’s varsity swim team was much more difficult. Despite numerous submissions to the Athletic Department, the team’s status was failed to be ratified. In the Fall of 1985, without the knowledge of the Athletic Committee, the Athletic Department approved the establishment of the women’s varsity tennis team, ignoring status requests for the women’s swimming team. This was done as an emergency response to NCAA requirements for six women’s varsity teams. In an “Analysis of the Draft Report on the Women’s Varsity Swim Team,” a member of the Title IX sub-committee stated that the response to the status request by the women’s varsity swim team was “the worst form of discrimination possible. What we have been asked to do is put Manhattan College uniforms on the backs of women and send them out as Division I, without separate coaches, without adequate recruitment and without college support.”

Today, women continue the legacy at MC. Christina Trichilo, a junior psychology major, has been working towards empowering women through her work as an intern at the Lasallian Women and Gender Resource Center.

“I’m currently co-running ‘Me Too Mondays’ which is a support group for survivors of sexual assault, so we journal and discuss what we write about,” Trichilo said. “So each Monday we have a different prompt. I am also currently working on a consent guide which has the definitions of consent, what is consent and is not consent. I am also a committee leader for ‘Take Back the Night,’ which is an event also for sexual assault survivors just to stand in solidarity with them.”

Dayna Lee McGinley, a junior accounting and marketing major, emphasized a need for education and exposure to different topics and people, as that allows greater understanding of others. She uses this mindset as the President of the Women in Business club here on campus.

“I think that the more everyone is educated in different topics, it’s easier to have those discussions,” McGinley said. There are certain things that I’m not fully educated on, but the more people I surround myself with, and the more diversity that I have around me, then the more I learn and I’m able to open my eyes to different things.”

McGinley added that Women’s History Month is important, as it draws people to learn and be exposed to women’s issues, and all that women can bring to the table.

Michele Saracino, Ph.D., professor of religious studies, underscored the complexity and importance of representation, especially in the conversation of Women’s History Month.

“It’s very important for all identities to be in the classroom, and in front of the classroom,” Saracino said. “There’s something really powerful in terms of having your professor be a female when you’re a female, because I think there’s an unconscious identification that goes on, not that anybody in the class necessarily wants to become a professor, but to know that they have an authoritative voice in the classroom, and can manage the classroom, and that they have a professional identity that is different from their family identity and their personal identity, and I think it’s really important for students to see that, that it’s possible, and more than that it’s possible, but that it’s life-giving.”

Sydney Waitt, a junior peace and justice studies and political science major, shared how she has been able to embrace her identity as a woman through her work as an intern for the Lasallian Women and Gender Resource Center. She references the center’s advisors, Ashley Cross, Ph.D, and Jordan Pascoe, Ph.D, as well as the graduate assistant, Rabea Ali, for their commitment to women’s work at the center. According to Waitt, the center is a key part of the college’s plight towards gender equality. However, Waitt believes that more could be done overall at the college.

“I think that Manhattan College has definitely allowed spaces where women, like the LWGRC is a perfect example, can be made a priority, but the fact that we even need a space where women and those who identify as women can be a priority is kind of like telling to an issue in it of itself,” Waitt said. “You know the fact that you need a women’s resource center to go to problems that you should probably just go to the health administrator for I feel like is a little bit of an issue itself.”

While Women’s History Month is a celebration of the women who have paved the way for future generations to receive equality and opportunity, it is also a reminder that there is still work to be done.

“We’re not there yet, and we’re in a situation where rights could literally be taken back,” Downie said. “So young women coming along should not assume that all these rights are going to be permanent, history can be cyclical in terms of rights, you always have to be amending those rights, and it’s still a male-dominated system, as such, women need to be careful and certainly need to be aware of realities around them and that their rights are not guaranteed, they’re not ensured, and you’ve got to keep fighting for them.”