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The Trailblazers

Forty years ago, Rutgers College began matriculating its first women, 600 intrepid students who encountered a measure of resistance, some confusion, lots of fun, and, ultimately, an affirmation of their place at the school.

By Cindy Cohen Paul RC’81

Marilyn Cosgrove Morgan, Moira Quinn Abraham, Margaret VanKleef, and Marian Calabro are alumnae of the first class of women to graduate from Rutgers College in 1976.
Reunited on Voorhees Mall in New Brunswick 40 years after matriculating (from left to right), Marilyn Cosgrove Morgan, Moira Quinn Abraham, Margaret VanKleef, and Marian Calabro are alumnae of the first class of women to graduate from Rutgers College in 1976. Photography by Nick Romanenko

In the spring of 1972, just three months before the inaugural issue of Ms. magazine hit newsstands, Mme. Carrière, a French teacher at River Dell Regional High School, in Oradell, New Jersey, inter­rupted her class. She asked the seniors who were heading to Rutgers in the fall to stand up. Four rose. Two were women, including Moira Quinn Abraham RC’76. The teacher noted that the women were the first to be accepted at Rutgers College. All the students stood and applauded. Elsewhere in New Jersey, at East Paterson (now Elmwood Park) Memorial High School, word was circulating that Margaret VanKleef RC’76 was Rutgers-bound. “One of the senior boys was annoyed because he didn’t get in,” says VanKleef. “The assumption was, ‘I guess she took a seat from me.’ He said, ‘Oh, you got into Rutgers?’ Well, I should have gotten in. I was the better student.”

In the fall of 1972—ushering in the 1972–1973 academic year 40 years ago—600 women entered Rutgers College as the first class of trailblazing females to live among and study with 4,800 men at the university’s largest college. It was a tumultuous, exciting year, with moments of confrontation, confusion, fun, and, overwhelmingly, affirmation regarding women’s rightful place receiving an education at Rutgers College. The last public all-male, nonmilitary American college to go coed, Rutgers College was embarking on a grand experiment—and had some serious catching up to do with Rutgers’ other colleges on the New Brunswick Campus, not to mention the coed campuses at Rutgers–Newark and Rutgers–Camden. The new arrangement—instituted by dint of a 1971 Board of Governors decision—posed challenges for women, from awkward living arrangements in the dorms, to confronting classrooms full of male students and instructors, to an administrative culture that had its share of chauvinism, which evaporated under the bright light of what adding women, both students and faculty, would do for Rutgers College.

The Class of 1976 attracted a certain kind of young woman, eager to gamble on newly coed Rutgers College. “Most of the gals I came across were pretty gutsy and risk-taking,” says Sheila Weinstein Fernekes RC’76. “That was one of the reasons we were in this class. It was going to be a new experience. If you were looking for something very secure, that wasn’t necessarily going to be the case.” Abraham was determined to be among the first women at Rutgers, where she “could be a leader and succeed.”

First-Year Orientation
Most women’s first taste of Rutgers was first-year orientation, which ran during the spring of 1972 and followed a series of protests on the New Brunswick Campus over the Vietnam War. Just days before orientation, the Army ROTC building had been set ablaze, an incident making national news. When she visited the campus with her parents on a rainy day, Abraham noticed that the ROTC building, next to Alexander Library, still smelled of smoke, its clapboards singed. “I said to myself,” recalls Abraham, “‘there are going to be some interesting things here: people have opinions.’ I was not afraid.”

The women’s mettle was tested early on as they encountered one all-male Rutgers College institution after another, including the Rutgers Marching Band. Responding to 1972’s Title IX legislation banning sex discrimination at federally funded schools and colleges, Rutgers mandated that all student organizations begin admitting women. When more than a dozen women showed up for summer band camp in Stokes State Forest in Sussex County, many men were surprised. “The band had been all male, a subculture,” says band member Bill Fernekes RC’74. “You had women come in, and you had to adjust not only daily practices, but attitudes as well. The women had a difficult road because they had to ‘prove themselves.’”

Alumni and former members of the Rutgers Marching Band, Bill Fernekes and his wife, Sheila Weinstein Fernekes
Alumni and former members of the Rutgers Marching Band, Bill Fernekes and his wife, Sheila Weinstein Fernekes, were photographed with the current band during homecoming in the fall. Photography by Nick Romanenko

Sheila Fernekes, who today is married to Bill—they met while practicing the ninth measure of Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”—always wanted to be in the marching band. “The band was very precise and tightly run, like the military. They were testing us. It was physically rigorous. You had to measure up.”

Ultimately, “the thrust of the band was ‘a band member is a band member,’” she says, a motto decreed by band director Scott Whitener GSE’74 that would gain great significance later in the year in an episode known as “The Rutgers Incident.”

For the most part, though, the women felt welcomed when they arrived in September. After all, women were not alien to the Rutgers College men. Some student organizations, like the Daily Targum newspaper, were already coed, and female students from other Rutgers–New Brunswick colleges did take some classes with Rutgers College men. “That first day I was greeted by a sophomore guy who was eager to help me move in. I thought, this is great!” recalls VanKleef. That evening, she was exhausted. “It was way past the regular mealtime. I came down the Brower Commons ramp alone and three guys said, ‘Come and sit over here; tell us about your day.’ It was just what I needed—a pond in the desert.”

Women acclimated more formally to college life through a “Big Brother” program established during the summer. It assigned male seniors to help incoming women navigate Rutgers’ complexities. Aside from showing women the ropes at Rutgers, the well-received program sparked its share of romances, with men and women dating, and even marrying, as a result of Big Brother.

Introducing women to student life, especially the residence halls, presented its challenges—and episodes of hilarity. Some dorms, like Hegeman, devoted entire sections to women. Others, like the River Dorms, had coed floors, men at one end and women at the other. And still others, like Mettler, had alternating male and female rooms. Articles appearing in the New York Times and the Targum about the women’s arrival quoted parents uneasy about coed living. During move-in day, Suzanne Braun Brown RC’76 had a talk with her father, who warned her that “it was not a good idea to be sexually promiscuous.” There were problems at Hegeman: water bugs, lack of dressers and mirrors, poor secur­ity, and women assigned to improvised living space in the lounge.

Bathrooms in Short Supply
The most immediate problem was the bathrooms. Shortly after arriving, the Hegeman women held a meeting in their preceptor’s tiny room. “The bathroom said ‘Men’ on it,” recalls Abraham. “So the first thing we did was get a marker and include ‘Wo’ in front of ‘Men.’” Marilyn Cosgrove Morgan RC’76 says that because of overcrowding, she landed in the only female room on the male side of her floor in Campbell. “We had to share the bathroom and they told us, ‘There’s going to be a sign on the bathroom. When the girls are in there, you put the sign up. And when you leave, take it down,’” says Morgan. “But the guys didn’t care. They’d say, ‘I can’t hold it anymore! Don’t worry, I’m not going to look!’ Growing up in a Catholic family where it was modesty, modesty, I couldn’t believe it! You would be in the shower, and they would be using the bathroom. I took the quickest shower you could imagine.” Morgan eventually got a room on the women’s side.

The guys and girls in the coed dorms, though, enjoyed the awkward arrangement, for the most part. “It was the best of both worlds,” says VanKleef. “We all hung out together in the common area, but then we had ‘girl time’ on the all-female side of Campbell.”

“There was attitude from some guys, but I wasn’t friends with them,” says Morgan. “Mostly, it was one big ball of fun.”

Marian Calabro RC’76 didn’t appreciate the attitude of two upperclassmen, premed students in Tinsley who routinely posted degrading stickers on their door. “You rape ’em; we scrape ’em” was one especially vulgar message. When Calabro and her roommate ripped down the stickers, the men were displeased. “Seems they are against our ripping them down,” Calabro wrote in her diary. “So they came up to ‘discuss it.’” Several confrontations were uncomfortable. Calabro wrote: “We are threatened ... I hate them. Acid-stomach time.” The dissolution of in loco parentis, Calabro feels, meant that “there was no recourse to college authorities,” a situation that was less than ideal when conflicts arose.

There were other contentious moments. An advertisement on campus promoted a “sex slave auction,” recalls Bennet Zurofsky RC’76. “It was a fundraiser for some ostensibly good cause. It was this very old-fashioned idea of the role of women, that you would bid and these women would perform various ser­vices—do your laundry, cook your dinner.” A group of men and women students, including Zurofsky, disrupted the event. “People were shouting. Some women were very angry with us. How dare we tell them what they should or shouldn’t do?”

Classes, too, were at times strained during that first semester. The women were aware that they were commonly outnumbered by men, 14 to 1; compounding this was the reality of classes taught primarily by male faculty and teaching assistants. Many women said that initially they sat together in support of one another and to endure some male professors’ chauvinistic remarks. Abraham sensed that the tide was changing, however, when she noticed something different in the demeanor of Frank Gorman, an administrative dean who taught her French class. At first, he did the roll call in a brusque voice, curtly announcing students by last name. Later in the marking period, informing the students that he was teaching men and women now, Gorman began addressing the students with the honorific “monsieur” and “mademoiselle.” “He was impressed by our scholarship,” says Abraham. “We had won his respect.”

Making Inroads Into the Faculty
Just as female students broke barriers that first year at Rutgers College, women began making inroads into the faculty. Edward Bloustein, the new president of Rutgers in 1971, made hiring women a priority. Barbara Callaway was the first female professor recruited by the Department of Political Science. Shortly after she arrived, the administration asked Callaway to draft a Plan for the Full Implementation of Coeducation at Rutgers College. Meeting with the director of athletics, she learned that there were no plans for women’s athletics at Rutgers College. If young women wanted to play sports, she was told, they needed to go to all-female Douglass College and play intramurals. Callaway also met with the director of student health, who said a gynecologist wouldn’t be hired. “‘If girl students have health problems,’” he said, “‘they need to talk to their mothers.’” Undaunted, Callaway presented the draft—with provisions for women’s athletics, health services, sex-blind admissions, and more—to a meeting of department chairs and deans.

“The chair of the Italian department said this was a disgusting discussion to have in a department chairs’ meeting: having a gynecologist in health services,” says Callaway. The chairs unanimously killed the plan. However, Callaway’s work was not in vain. The administration soon asked her to draft the college’s first affirmative action plan, which was ultimately adopted with many provisions from her original coeducation document.

Although the chairs, all of them men, had rejected Callaway’s plan, many male deans, administrators, faculty, and students championed the cause of coeducation in the years and months leading up to the Board of Governors’ 1971 vote to admit women. Arnold Grobman, dean of Rutgers College, and Richard P. McCormick RC’38, GSNB’40, chair of the Coeducation Subcommittee and future dean of Rutgers College, were major proponents of the movement, which began in earnest in 1968 following a near-unanimous vote of the faculty to go coed. Surveys of male students also showed a majority of them supporting coeducation. It was a female administrator—Margery Foster, the dean of Douglass College—who argued most fervently against coeducation at Rutgers College. The future of Douglass as a single-sex institution was at stake, she argued, believing women would be “second-class citizens” at predominantly male Rutgers College.

The Rutgers Alumni Association opposed coeducation, too. In October 1970, it narrowly approved a resolution in which the group “vehemently opposes any attempt at making Rutgers College a coeducational institution.” On October 9, 1970, the Board of Governors, after hearing arguments largely from Grobman and Foster, voted against coeducation. Less than a year later, on September 10, 1971, the board reversed course. The following Monday’s Targum banner headline screamed: “Rutgers College Goes Coed!”

An Abrupt About-Face
The threat of legal action and the potential loss of federal funding had a role in the board’s about-face. McCormick and Phyllis Boring, a professor of romance languages and later a dean of Rutgers College, reviewed the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawsuit that compelled the University of Virginia to go coed. Laying the groundwork for a similar ACLU action at Rutgers, McCormick and Boring enlisted the aid of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then a professor at Rutgers School of Law–Newark who today is a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. On April 13, 1971, Ginsburg wrote to acting president Richard Schlatter, advising that recent federal court actions, most notably the previous year’s hard-won battle for coeducation in Virginia, “renders Rutgers College vulnerable” to legal intervention if it failed to admit women. “If America were now a matriarchy (as some paranoid men seem to fear it is becoming),” she wrote, “we would regard women’s colleges as a menace.” The lawsuit never had to proceed.

With coeducation imminent, the question arose over how many women to admit. The Rutgers Alumni Association had griped in its October 1970 resolution that “a move to coeducation would further limit the admission of highly qualified male applicants.” Its complaint was well founded. For the first class of women to matriculate, 400 first-year and 75 transfer females were initially admitted before the number rose to 600. Geoffrey Gould RC’62, GSE’66, ’74, the director of admissions, said in a September 12, 1972, Targum article that “the quality of the women applicants was so high, we just couldn’t turn them down.” The average woman “was in the top 7 percent of her graduating class, the average man in the top 12.”

With that article—written by Calabro and headlined “Incoming Class Smarter Than Ever”—“word was out that we were giving our male counterparts great competition and that we deserved equal education,” says Abraham. By 1975, 37.5 percent of Rutgers College enrollment was female; by 1977, it was 44 percent. The presence of women was so pervasive that entering first-year students had no idea Rutgers College had been coed for only five years.

An Early Ally
While male alumni warmed slowly to coeducation, one group that took an early stand supporting gender equality was the Rutgers Marching Band, whose male members belonged to Kappa Kappa Psi (KKP), a na­tional band fraternity. In November 1972, “The Rutgers Incident”—as reported in a 2001 KKP Podium newsletter—began when Rutgers’ KKP men voted to induct women. They invited KKP national secretary Robert Rubin to Rutgers to discuss their move, naively expecting praise for the chapter’s being a national model for inclusion. Instead, Rubin revoked the chapter’s charter, prompting KKP, stunned but resolute, to form its own coed fraternity, Mu Upsilon Alpha, which included 13 women among its 28 new brothers.

The women in the marching band were the vanguard of many breakthroughs. Melanie Willoughby RC’76 and Deborah Harris Rickards RC’76 were the first women from Rutgers College elected to the University Senate. And Willoughby, alone, was the first woman president of the Rutgers College Governing Association, the first woman president of the Rutgers College Alumni Association, the first woman to serve on the Rutgers College Alumni Association Board of Directors, and the first woman to represent Rutgers College on the university’s Board of Trustees. Tony Award-nominee Sheryl Lee Ralph RC’75 completed her degree in only three years and graduated near the top of her class at age 19, Rutgers College’s youngest female graduate at that time. The first women’s basketball contest was played in December 1974, with Rutgers defeating Princeton, 76–60. The first full-time women’s basketball head coach in the nation, Theresa Grentz, was hired in 1976. She led the Scarlet Knights to the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women National Championship six years later and was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

By the time of graduation in May 1976, the presence of women was the norm at Rutgers College, although there were still some indignities to shoulder. Abraham, vice president of the Class of 1976, was instrumental in arranging for Millicent Fenwick, the beloved congresswoman from New Jersey’s Fifth District, to deliver the address at commencement. Abraham introduced Fenwick—an outspoken advocate for women’s and human rights—to the assembled crowd, a great honor she cherishes still. Days before the event Abraham learned that the men’s Glee Club would be paid a stipend for their commencement performance; the Women’s Chorale would not. “It was an oversight,” says Abraham. “But I was not afraid to come forward and say something to admin­istrators.”

To Boldly Go
The first women of Rutgers College indeed were not afraid. Brown, today a successful lawyer in Burlington, Vermont, remembers early in her career going up against Green Mountain Power, a powerful utility company in the state. “There was one female judge and all the attorneys were men,” she said. “I won the case at the trial level—which was unheard of.” With her accent, “it was clear that I was from out of state, and they were blown away. I was raised to think I could do whatever I wanted, be whatever I wanted. I was never intimidated by male authority figures.”

Forty years after matriculating, the first women of Rutgers College are successful in every field of human endeavor, and placing women on an equal footing with men is their most pronounced legacy. Enrollment is now 52 percent female and 48 percent male at the School of Arts and Sciences (SAS)—into which Rutgers College, Douglass College, Livingston College, and University College were merged as part of a major restructuring of undergraduate education in 2006. Enrollment in the SAS Honors Program is 54 percent female and 46 percent male. SAS women lead scores of organizations, from the Rutgers American Medical Student Association to the powerful Allocations Board of the Rutgers University Student Assembly. SAS women are the editor in chief, managing editor, news editor, business manager, and marketing director of the Daily Targum. Of the 12 deans in the SAS Office of the Executive Dean, half are women. Women chair 41 percent of SAS’s academic departments and make up more than a third of tenured and tenure-track faculty.

Today, Rutgers–New Brunswick is a top destination for women’s scholarship and leadership development. It is ranked first in the nation for women’s history and fifth in the nation for gender and literature by U.S. News & World Report. The Center for American Women and Politics, Center for Women and Work, Center for Women’s Global Leadership, Institute for Women’s Leadership, Mary H. Dana Women Artist Series, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Papers Project are among Rutgers–New Brunswick’s standout entities with national reputations for excellence. Many of these began at Douglass College, which lives on as Douglass Residential College, offering unique opportunities for women’s living, learning, and empowerment.

When she meets younger alumnae of Rutgers College, VanKleef tells them that she, and the others who went to Rutgers with her, paved the way for them. “Being one of the first is a great source of pride,” she says. “We were such a small group among so many men. We knew we were special.” •