In the fall of 1918, the New Jersey College for Women opened its doors to 54 nontraditional—that is to say, female—students. They weren’t there for the prestige: women’s education, especially if it extended beyond the domestic arts of homemaking and childrearing, was hardly held in wide esteem in the early years of the 20th century. They certainly weren’t there for the library, which housed a total of 12 books. While their motives undoubtedly varied, most were likely in search of what the  college’s founder, Mabel Smith Douglass, referred to as “nobler thought and  better action.”

NJC, as it was then known, became Douglass College in 1955 and Douglass Residential College (DRC) in 2007, and its first century has been marked by extraordinary growth and change. What began as a white, Protestant enclave is today a model of diversity at Rutgers University–New Brunswick and home to more than 2,600 students, still seeking nobler thought and better action. It’s unlikely that those present at its inception could imagine that one day the college as part of Rutgers would become a leading agent for change in the education of women and their propulsion into positions of leadership. Or that it would be a catalyst for expanding educational opportunity for women in myriad ways throughout the university, where today women make up more than half the student body (a larger percentage among graduate students) and benefit from a vast array of academic disciplines available to them—and to DRC students as well.

The Douglass Century: Transformation of the Women’s College at Rutgers University and authors


Fernanda Perrone, Mary Hawkesworth, and Kayo Denda, left to right, are the authors of The Douglass Century: Transformation of the Women’s College at Rutgers University, just out from Rutgers University Press. “We explore the issues of how you educate women and to what ends,” says Hawkesworth, “and how an empowering education for women compares to an empowering education for men.”

Nick Romanenko

To document and celebrate the college’s remarkable centenary, Rutgers University Press this month published The Douglass Century: Transformation of the Women’s College at Rutgers University by Kayo Denda, head of the Margery Somers Foster Center and women’s studies librarian at the Mabel Smith Douglass Library; Mary Hawkesworth, professor of women’s and gender studies at the School of Arts and Sciences; and Fernanda Perrone, archivist and historian at Special Collections and University Archives in the Rutgers University Libraries, with an afterword by the current dean, Jacquelyn Litt. Rutgers Magazine invited them, along with Douglass students Zahra Bukhari, a senior majoring in visual arts at the Mason Gross School of the Arts, and her sister Alya, a sophomore majoring in mathematics at the School of Arts and Sciences, to reflect on Douglass’s past, present, and future.

— Leslie Garisto Pfaff

RUTGERS MAGAZINE: Douglass’s 100th is certainly reason enough for writing this book. Is there any other reason?

JACQUELYN LITT: Each chapter of Douglass’s history resonates with issues still in play in higher education and in our society. One of the continuing threads is the need for a level playing field for women and for constant institutional change and self-reflection.

MARY HAWKESWORTH: We were interested in situating the history of this college in a larger fight for women’s education. In the book, we explore the issues of how you  educate women and to what ends. And we wanted to study the transformation of a college from a totally white, Christian space to a 21st-century celebration of diversity.

FERNANDA PERRONE: We also realized that, in the long history of Rutgers, there wasn’t a lot of space for women to tell their stories. The book gave us a way to tell those stories in more detail.

RM: Is there a theme to the book as opposed to a chronology?

FP: We have three themes: overcoming obstacles, the growth of diversity and inclusion, and creating spaces for women. 

MH: Not just overcoming obstacles but a struggle for survival. At the very beginning, the members of the Board of Trustees wanted nothing to do with women’s education.  Some of the early historical information had a trustee telling the president of Rutgers not to turn down Mabel Smith Douglass, since her inability to raise funds would be deterrent enough. But Douglass was a superb fundraiser. We wanted to show the enormous amount of work, energy, and creativity involved in founding this college.

RM: That was a major turning point.

JL: Douglass has experienced so many turning points: becoming more incorporated into Rutgers, deciding whether to go coed in 1970, the faculty becoming consolidated into the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in 1982, and the reorganization of undergraduate education at Rutgers University–New Brunswick in 2007. We’ve changed much over the decades, but we are committed  to the mission that started the college: to advance women’s education and prepare them for success in the world in which they live.

RM: Why was Douglass important in 1918, and why is it important now?

JL: Of course, there were many fewer opportunities available for women seeking higher education in 1918, and Douglass offered a curriculum that combined the traditional domestic arts with the liberal arts. That was a departure—to be educating women in the ways that men had been educated for a life that could include, but go beyond, the domestic. It’s important today because we haven’t yet achieved equity for women in most sectors, and all the data show that women can find their voice and leadership exceptionally well in spaces where they are not competing with men.

ALYA BUKHARI: A lot of the programs at Douglass cover things that many of my male student counterparts take for granted. In the BOLD [Building Opportunities for Leadership and Career Development] Center, for instance, we learn salary negotiation and how to dress for and answer questions in an interview. Given the wage gap between men and women and inequality in the workplace, it’s important that women know how to do these things. 

RM: How has the image of the Douglass woman changed over the past century?

FP: Mabel Smith Douglass was a product of Barnard College, and she came from an affluent family and she really saw this new college in two ways. It certainly was going to be a place where women of modest means could get a higher education, but she also saw it as similar to the Seven Sisters colleges. She wanted the Douglass woman to be genteel; she emphasized deportment; she looked for a middle-class, white, Protestant student as the ideal Douglass woman. She had her ideal of the Douglass woman, but that wasn’t  necessarily the case.

MH: George Schmidt’s book, Douglass College: A History (Rutgers University Press, 1968) constructed these early students as passive, apolitical, bland. But Fernanda found amazing evidence about their political activism and their interest in their own autonomy. A survey done in the 1930s on students’ political orientation, for instance, showed that the highest percentage of students declared themselves socialists—followed by Republicans.

KAYO DENDA: Today, Douglass portrays itself as a place of first-generation college students. But it was always a college of first-generation students.

RM: Were there any decades that marked an especially significant shift in the image of the Douglass woman? 

KD: In the 1950s, Dean Mary Bunting ushered in major change. She was a Ph.D. in the  sciences, so she encouraged students to embrace professions. I think she really created the academic apparatus of the college.

JL: She was a visionary. She understood what the college could and should be, and what the future meant for women.

RM: And how about today? Who is the Douglass woman of the 21st century?

ZAHRA BUKHARI: When I think of “the Douglass woman,” no particular image comes to mind, and I think that’s a good thing. I’ve come across so many different types of women here. 

RM: How did Douglass develop into such a diverse institution?

MH: In 1972, Douglass created a committee to investigate problems of racism on campus, and its report documented institutional racism—a huge step back then. There was a demand for more black faculty, staff, students—very concrete demands that the  faculty endorsed. Of course, it took from 1972 until about 2005 to realize an actually inclusive campus.

RM: Does Douglass go beyond simply celebrating its diverse population?

JL: At Douglass, we’re very intentional about establishing environments where students can talk about their perspectives and views. The most important intervention we can make is to encourage students to work and learn together across their differences.

RM: In what ways has the feminist movement helped shape Douglass?

MH: In the 1970s, Dean Margery Somers Foster formed a committee chaired by two faculty members, Elaine Showalter and Mary Howard, to invent what they called a feminist model of education. Nobody knew what that meant; the women’s movement was brand new. They were particularly interested in the issue of women’s leadership. Out of that grew the STEM programs to help women excel in the sciences, as well as research organizations like the Center for American Women and Politics, the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, and the Center for Women and Work.

RM: Douglass has also helped shape the feminist movement, hasn’t it?

MH: The first Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, in 1973, was held here. The organizers, Mary S. Hartman and Lois Banner, assumed that maybe 50 women would come, but 500 turned up; it jump-started the field of women’s history.

RM: How has Douglass affected the university as a whole?

MH: Women’s studies has been a magnet for women students at Rutgers. The STEM initiative that won a 1999 Presidential Award for Excellence [from then President Bill Clinton] has created possibilities for women in the sciences—still remarkably male dominant—to find a supportive network. So, many young women have left statements telling us, “I was close to dropping out before I became involved in this project, and all my academics have turned around.”

JL: I think we have the most leadership in the STEM area for undergraduates. We are the entity at Rutgers that has the expertise, the students, the programs that are modeling best practices for retention through our  living-learning communities and our early research experiences.

RM: In the early days, Rutgers wasn’t particularly supportive of Douglass. How has that changed?

JL: The university leadership has been outstanding in its support of the college since the transformation of undergraduate education at Rutgers–New Brunswick in 2007. We have this incredible institution that’s built by our students and our Douglass team, but it would not be where it is without that partnership.

RM: What is Douglass’s reach beyond the university?

JL: A number of the women’s colleges that have gone coed have consulted with me about how to preserve women’s education in a coed environment. I think Douglass is held up as a model for that. We’re also in the process of putting together a summit among Big Ten universities to promote the pipeline for women in STEM—which will have a tremendous impact.

MH: There are ways that Douglass is better known off campus than on. I’m thinking about the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL) and the Center for American Women and Politics. Any book you read about transnational feminism talks about CWGL and Charlotte Bunch [Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, and founding director and senior scholar at CWGL] and the founding of the Women’s Global Leadership Institutes that brought activists from all around the world to the Douglass campus.

KD: The Women’s Global Leadership Institutes trained activists to go back to their countries with their tool kits and be really effective.

FP: And there’s the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign [launched by CWGL; now comprising 3,700-plus organizations worldwide], which is  celebrating its 27th anniversary.

MH: And the global campaign for women’s rights as human rights, which got built into the 1993 Vienna Declaration [a declaration of human rights adopted at the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights]. We’ve had a huge impact on the world.

RM: What has been the impact on New Jersey?

MH: Yes. When the Center for American Women and Politics started Ready to Run [a nonpartisan program that trains women to run for public office], New Jersey was among the 10 states with the lowest percentage of women in elective office. Through Ready to Run and the training it offers, we’re now one of the top 10 states.

RM: Douglass alumnae are a very powerful force. As a group, what impresses you most about them?

JL: They are so intentional about their lives and so accomplished and deeply grateful for the education they received. I have a great alumnae advisory board that really teaches me about where they see the workforce going.

ZB: I think being an active alumna is incredibly important. Not only are we going to have the chance to give back to Douglass for everything it’s given us, but we’re also going to be giving a chance to other students. It’s nice to know that after I graduate, I could set up a scholarship or a fund for a woman like me who’s studying art, and to encourage her to keep going down that path.

AB: I was thinking about this a lot when I became co-chair of the 100th anniversary student committee and I started working with Terre Martin DC’69, who’s heavily involved in the alumnae association and organizing the 100th anniversary. Talking to her and hearing about her legacy, her work to improve Douglass, and her pride at being a Douglass woman, I was inspired to work  to make Douglass better now and after I graduate.

RM: How do you foresee Douglass’s role in the century to come?

AB: I think that Douglass’s role in the century to come is to continually be a place of support for women and social justice for all while pioneering the next generation of leaders.

JL: Douglass will be leading women through the changing context of the 21st century.

MH: Douglass is uniquely poised to offer Rutgers women far more than a physical space. It offers a mode of life, an opening of the mind, a development of expertise, a sense of community, an ethos, an attitude, a forging of friendships, an accumulation of memories, which cumulatively encourage women to think in terms of possibilities  rather than limitations and provide the  kind of education that turns possibilities into realities. •