Life for a lady on the Heights for the college’s first century looks very different than the campus atmosphere lady eagles now enjoy. One man, in a letter from the early 1930’s, noted that “Boston College is a man’s school, but without its ladies, it would have lacked many of the finer and more artistic features that only a woman’s mind and woman’s taste could suggest.” His observation, however, illustrates the uninviting atmosphere awaiting women at Boston College, one encapsulated by three women’s experiences of devotion, perseverance, and resilience.
The first group of women welcomed on campus was the Philomatheia Club. Originally recruited to fundraise for the Athletic Department in 1915, the women soon contributed to all the aspects of Boston College. Mary Roberts–the club’s third president and whose tenure lasted a half century–was long the school’s most influential and devoted female presence. She encouraged the Philomatheia women to improve Boston College’s resources with successful fundraisers. But she also used those resources, such as lectures, as educational opportunities for her members who could not enroll in classes.
Olivia Pennell was one of the first two women to earn a first degree at Boston College–a masters of arts–and one of the first two to earn a doctorate in 1930. That second degree, however, was not easily awarded. The administration put a number of obstacles in her way, and Pennell chafed at the unfair treatment. She eventually wrote to the Jesuits’s Superior General, explaining that her “question is of justice” and demanding to know why “this case isn’t of sufficient importance to merit [his] particular and immediate attention.” She received her degree a year after she completed the necessary work, a credit to her perseverance alone.
With the opening of the Nursing School in 1947, Boston College finally admitted undergraduate women, though they remained largely isolated in their Newbury Street offices. The school’s second dean was Rita Kelleher, and, as one of the university’s earliest female leaders, she spent 26 years resiliently creating one of the nation’s top-rated programs. She also guided her female students through uncomfortable interactions with unwelcoming male eagles. As “both an idealist and a pragmatist,” her lofty and practical visions provided the program with a solid foundation and bright future.
Before men invited women to the “Boston College table,” these three women set a place for themselves. And Boston College was the better for it.
- Jenna Postiglione BC class of 2017 & Spring 2015 Making History Public Student
The images and content in this blog post are from the exhibit #WeWereBC, which is now on display in the History Department, Stokes 3rd Floor South. This exhibit was curated and organized by Professor Seth Meehan’s Spring 2015 Making History Public class, in collaboration with the Boston College University Libraries.