The “New Brunswick girl” was young, beautiful, and unattainable. The “college widow,” on the other hand, was eminently attainable: an older woman with a taste for young men on campus. As archival materials from the Rutgers University Libraries make clear, both types occupied the imaginations, if not the actual lives,  of Rutgers students at the turn of the last century. And they stand as proof of just how far women have progressed at the university.

Meaghan Moody, a master’s candidate in the School of Communication and Information (SC&I) at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, brought to light the two female archetypes as part of a 2015 directed-research course. Intended to improve the understanding of the historical role of women at Rutgers, the course allowed students free rein with the university’s archives. In fact, research, according to Rutgers archivist Fernanda Perrone SCILS’95, is essential to the field of women’s history, which was once “called into question because of a supposed lack of documents.” Kelly Hannavi, now a senior in the School of Arts and Sciences (SAS), dug up old photos, the captions underscoring that, decades after the New Brunswick girl had faded from memory, female students in the 1950s were predominantly described as “pretty” or “comely.” The fruits of the course informed the first half of the symposium, “From Exclusion to Inclusion: 250 Years of Women at Rutgers,” which took place in March at the Mabel Smith Douglass Library at Rutgers–New Brunswick and was part of the yearlong commemoration of Rutgers’ 250th Anniversary. 

One of its organizers, Mary Hawkesworth, a professor in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies and the Department of Political Science at SAS, made introductory remarks at the panel discussion, “Excavating the Archive: Unearthing Diverse Women’s Contributions at Rutgers,” which brought together students, faculty, and archivists to study, report, and celebrate the roles women have played at Rutgers over its long  history. The second half of the event, “Transformative Scholarship: Remaking the Known World,” shone a light on  the lives and work of female scholars  at the university.

President Robert Barchi, Meaghan Moody, Maegan Kae Sunaz, Mary Hawkesworth, and Harriet Davidson


President Robert Barchi, top left, made opening remarks at “Exclusion to Inclusion”; Meaghan Moody, center left, a master’s student at the School of Communication and Information, shared what her research unearthed. Students, such as Maegan Kae Sunaz, lower left, now a senior at the School of Arts and Sciences, conducted much of the research into the intellectual contributions of women at Rutgers. Mary Hawkesworth, top right, a professor in the departments of Women’s and Gender Studies as well as Political Science at the School of Arts and Sciences, was one of the event organizers. Harriet Davidson, lower right, associate professor in the departments of English as well as Women’s and Gender Studies, takes in the testimony.

Nick Romanenko

The symposium, which was prefaced by comments from Rutgers president Robert Barchi, was revelatory.  The audience was audibly surprised to discover, for instance, that even though the Board of Trustees voted four times—in 1881, 1891, 1911,  and 1969—against allowing women admission to Rutgers College, the  university’s namesake, Henry Rutgers, left a bequest to create a college for women in New York City. In 1839,  the college, Rutgers Female Institute (unrelated to Rutgers College), opened as New York’s first school of higher education for women.

Nevertheless, until the founding of the New Jersey College for Women in 1918 (renamed Douglass College in 1955 and today known as Douglass Residential College), women were largely absent from the intellectual fabric of Rutgers. Initially, they were viewed mainly as a distant but civilizing presence. Before the first dorm, Winants Hall, was built in 1890 (with the next coming in 1915), Rutgers male students lived with local families, in part because it was believed that the women heading up the homes would provide a “wholesome environment.” One of the few areas where women had a teaching presence in those  early days was at the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station. They taught coeducational courses  in home economics. Panelist Autumn Oberkehr, now a senior at SC&I, observed that “the founding of the New Jersey College for Women, which became Douglass College, would not have been possible without an unsung hero: home economics.”

The push for a coeducational  university, according to Maegan Kae Sunaz, now a senior at SAS, had begun three decades earlier. At least a few men gave the idea credence from the start. The male author of an 1869 newspaper article, for instance, opined that men, who were by nature “brutes,” would benefit from the refining presence of women. On the other hand, a 1902 article warned of “the danger of feminization,” expressing the fear that women might weaken achievement at Rutgers. (The author, again male, was perhaps unaware that women at Stanford University, founded as a coeducational institution in 1885, were already outperforming men academically.) The Board of Trustees’ decision regarding the establishment of a women’s college in 1918 made it clear, Sunaz said, that the college was created “to deflect questions of coeducation and to reassure male students that it wasn’t going to happen.”

It did happen, of course, but not until 1972 when Rutgers College began accepting women, and even then not everyone at the university supported the change. A 1965 newspaper article quoted one young woman as saying that coeducation could inspire men sartorially: “They might wear shirts instead of rags and two socks instead of one.” But others thought that being in class with men could be detrimental, causing women, for example, to feel self-conscious. There was no holding back the force of history, however, and as a 1969 editorial proclaimed, “‘A woman’s place is in the home and not in an institution of higher learning’ has long been rejected by modern society.”

A male author of an 1869 newspaper article opined that men, “brutes by nature,” would benefit from the refining presence of women; a 1902 article warned of “the danger of feminization,” that women might weaken achievement at Rutgers.

Male students, however, weren’t always welcoming in the beginning—at least not in the way the first female students in Rutgers College might have wished. Sunaz interviewed several of them, including alumna Phyllis Anderson-Wright, who remembered walking into her first biology class to find a pair of women’s panties hanging from the blackboard above the chalked message “Welcome, women.”

Anderson-Wright RC’76 was also a pioneer in another way, one of the first African-American women admitted to Rutgers College. An earlier trailblazer was Ruby Manikam DC’26, the first international woman to study at the New Jersey College for Women. In her  presentation at the symposium, Kayo Denda SCILS’97, a women’s studies librarian and head of the Margery Somers Foster Center at the Mabel Smith Douglass Library, noted that “Ruby Manikam could never have imagined Douglass as it is today. She would have been absolutely astounded at so many students who looked very much like her.”

Meryem Uzumcu SAS’16 looked at another group of pioneering students, the LGBTQ women and men who, in her words, “struggled for inclusion” at the university, beginning publicly in the late 1960s. In the first years of that struggle, though, the face of the movement was more likely to be “white middle-class men,” Uzumcu observed. And yet, she said, when in 1976 the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity hung a homosexual in effigy outside the frat house, alongside a sign  proclaiming that “the only good gay  is a dead gay,” it was only women  who protested.

Abena Busia, chair of the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies and moderator of the second panel, noted that “having breached the walls and gotten women students here at Rutgers … we now have distinguished [female] faculty in every enclave of the university.” Their presence has both reflected and shaped the overall experience of women at Rutgers. Cheryl Wall, now Board of Governors Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English, joined the Douglass English department in 1972 and found herself working, she said, “in a community of scholars who were defining the then-new field of women’s studies.” It was a heady time of exploration and experimentation, but not everyone viewed the field as having  sufficient academic gravitas. Wall and her colleagues, for example, were warned by an eminent editor of a  scholarly journal not to submit papers  on women “because the topic was  just trendy.”

By the time speaker Judith Gerson, associate professor in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, came to Livingston College in 1980, where she would chair the Women’s Studies Program, she said, “there was already a strong core of feminist scholars” across the university. Although some male students, she remembered, “were gently recommended” not to take the “Introduction to Women’s Studies” course, which detractors considered trivial, those were largely thrilling times for the expanding field. “It was exciting to show students how, by centering knowledge on women’s lives, knowledge would be transformed,” she said.

Women faculty were influencing the world far beyond the gates of Rutgers, and the field of women’s studies developed hand in hand with the burgeoning women’s movement of the era. The Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) was founded as part of Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute of Politics in 1971, the same year that the National Women’s Political Caucus was established. CAWP was not only the first center studying and advancing the cause of women in politics, but was also regarded as “the mother ship” for similar programs that developed later, said Susan Carroll, professor in the departments of Political Science and Women’s and Gender Studies, and a senior scholar at CAWP. “One of the most distinctive aspects of CAWP,” she noted, “is the synergy between the research we conduct and the political and educational programs we run.”

In its first decade, CAWP struggled against the prevailing notion in the field of political science that, because there were so few women in politics, there was no point in studying the subject. Four decades later, that notion couldn’t be further from the truth. Thanks in part to CAWP, women are a growing part of the American political process. 

Today, feminist scholars at Rutgers are able to examine women’s lives through many lenses. Nicole Fleetwood, associate professor in the Department of American Studies at SAS and director of the Institute for Research on Women, researches and teaches gender theory, black cultural studies, and visual culture and media studies. All those topics will be part of her upcoming book, Carceral Aesthetics: Prison Art and Public Culture, which grew out of her experiences  with her own close relatives in the  prison system.

Marisa Fuentes, on the other hand, looks deep into the past to frame a vision of women’s place in the world, studying female slaves in 18th-century Barbados. Like the very first feminist scholars, Fuentes, assistant professor in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, invented her own tools for illuminating the lives and struggles of women who have long been virtually invisible to historians, combing the archives for probate records, inventories of property, and newspaper articles (some telling stories almost too horrific to recount). Ultimately, she said, it was the field of women’s studies, with its insistence on looking at old records with new eyes, that “changed the way I do history.”

The theme of change was at the core of all the afternoon’s presentations. As Hawkesworth noted at the symposium’s end, “While sitting here, I realized how much we have changed the world, one person and one gesture at a time.” •