(Men and) Women for Others: Women make their place at Boston College

Announcement of the club's monthly meeting, including not just tea, but also a lecture from a Jesuit on citizenship, November 1932-1935

Announcement of the club’s monthly meeting, including not just tea, but also a lecture from a Jesuit on citizenship. Announcement, no year November 14, Philomatheia Club records, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

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.

A cartoon featured in the Nursing School's newspaper, The Co-Edition. A girl extends her heart to the stubborn, unaccepting BC male, though his attitude does not deter her, 12 February 1958

A cartoon featured in the Nursing School’s newspaper, The Co-Edition. A girl extends her heart to the stubborn, unaccepting BC male, though his attitude does not deter her. The Co-Edition, Friday, 12 February 1952.

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.

Rita Kelleher enjoying her hard-earned, spacious office in the School of Nursing's previous location on Newbury Street

Rita Kelleher enjoying her hard-earned, spacious office in the School of Nursing’s previous location on Newbury Street. Kelleher, Rita P., Dean of the School of Nursing, undated. Box 17, folders 106-110, Boston College Faculty and Staff Photographs, BC.2000.005, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

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.

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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