A Co-Ed Campus 50 Years Down the Line

Editor’s Note: 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of Boston College allowing women into all of its undergraduate colleges. The Heights interviewed alumnae who were at BC before, during, and after this shift. We were disappointed to not be able to reach every alumna we found for comment, either because they are deceased or The Heights could not find current contact information for them.

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In 1899, eight years before becoming president of Boston College, Rev. Thomas Gasson, S.J., spoke to a crowd at Trinity College in Washington, D.C. about the lack of women in higher education.

“Is man alone gifted with understanding? Is man alone dowered with reasoning faculties? Can man alone grasp truth? The harmony between the inner and outer world? Are men the only pilgrims to the shrines of wisdom? Are men the only torchbearers of knowledge?” he asked the crowd.

“If these questions cannot be answered in the affirmative, and assuredly they cannot be answered affirmatively by anyone who has not bid farewell to common sense, then we must come to one conclusion,” he said. “And that conclusion is that the blessings of higher education should be placed within the reach of women.”

Despite these words spoken by the namesake of BC’s most iconic building, the University would not open the doors of all of its colleges to women for another 70 years.

Oberlin College became the first school to admit women in 1837. Over the next century and a half, colleges throughout the country would become co-ed. Though BC, which was founded in 1863, began letting women into its School of Education in the ’50s, it did not admit women to all of its colleges until 1970.

The Class of 1974, the first co-ed class at the University, was the culmination of decades of small changes that expanded the presence of women on campus. Though 1970 was the official year that BC became co-ed for all undergraduate schools, women at BC—students and faculty alike—had been working behind the scenes for years to establish their presence on campus. And though the ’70s were a contentious time in the fight for equality, the struggle for equal opportunity on campus continued over the span of the past 50 years and persists today.

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Margaret Magrath and Olivia Pennell became the first women to earn degrees from BC in 1926, receiving master’s of arts. Magrath and Pennell have died.

Three decades later, a young mother was blazing the trail for women at the BC Law School. Margaret Heckler, previously O’Shaughnessy, BC Law ’56, was admitted to Harvard Law School in 1953, but she was not able to attend because her husband wanted to enroll, and Harvard did not allow spouses to enroll together. 

In search of another school, Heckler found her way to BC Law, where she was familiar with the Jesuit mission, having attended Catholic school for her entire life. Heckler would go on to graduate as one of the top six students in the Class of 1956. 

Her husband dropped out of Harvard during his first semester.

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Heckler died in 2018. Her daughter-in-law, Kim Heckler, is in the process of writing a book on her mother’s life. 

After her graduation, Heckler worked as a lawyer, although she initially struggled to find work because many law firms only wanted to hire women as secretaries, Kim said. Heckler eventually left law and ran for the U.S. House, becoming the first woman from Massachusetts to win a seat without succeeding her husband. She went on to become the secretary of Health and Human Services and the United States ambassador to Ireland. 

As Heckler was making a name for herself, BC continued to slowly shift toward being co-ed. In 1959, the nursing school completed its move from Newbury Street to the now-demolished Cushing Hall, which brought 700 more students and faculty members to Chestnut Hill. 

But women were still barred from the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Management. Male-only events and inferior dorms, among other things, led female students to write a letter to the editor in The Heights in 1964 calling for change. The call resulted in improvements—later that year, a new residence hall for women was opened in Brighton.

Progress for women continued in small increments. The school appointed Mary Kinnane as the first “Dean of Women” at BC in 1956. Then in 1959, Alice Borneuf became the first female tenured faculty member at the University. In 1966, the administration hired its first Black administrator, Sylvia Simmons, as a registrar for the School of Management. Kinane and Borneuf have died. Simmons could not be reached. 

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University President Rev. Michael P. Walsh, S.J., feared that BC was missing out on intellectual talent, and he instructed Rev. Charles F. Donovan, S.J., vice president for Academic Affairs at the time, to find and enroll a cohort of female students who could demonstrate they were prepared for the rigors of a college education. 

Seven women enrolled in the college of Arts and Sciences in 1959 and were colloquially known as the “Vestal Virgins” by their classmates. Six of them graduated with honors, and the seventh joined a convent, according to Peg Bonarrigo. 

Bonarrigo, previously McLaughlin, was one of the seven. A Catholic woman from Jamaica Plain, Bonarrigo received her acceptance letter to BC without even submitting an application.

“One of the Jesuits came to my school and told us that Boston College had decided to accept women into the next class. That interested me greatly,” Bonarrigo said. “I went home and told my parents that they were doing that. They kind of scratched their heads because they hadn’t heard about it before.”

After discussing it with her family, Bonarrigo decided to enroll as a math major. She would later switch to English.

“Part of my motivation was that I did not want to go to the same school that [my sister] did, which I had been doing all through high school,” she said. “The challenge, I guess, was a motivating factor.”

The following fall, Bonarrigo and her six other female classmates in the Class of 1963 received a private tour of campus from a male student on the first day. He taught them “For Boston,” BC’s fight song. 

“There wasn’t a sense of great hostility—curiosity more than anything—and the people who were social didn’t make an issue of it, so it was pleasant,” Bonarrigo said. “I mean, we were invited. It wasn’t until after that first year that it became clear that there was a lot of controversy about our being there.”

In 1959, The Heights interviewed male students about how they felt about the decision to accept a limited number of women to campus. 

“Any tradition which excludes excellence is detrimental to one of the primary reasons for the existence of a university,” Francis McLellan, BC ’59, said in the article. “If accepting excellent students is what is proposed, these students should be given all the encouragement possible.”

Some were less enthusiastic.

“I don’t honestly think it will hurt anybody is A&S,” Bill Connell said in the article. “Women are infiltrating the ranks of every profession. I accept the inevitable.”

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One person who was receptive was Albert Duhamel, a professor of English who looked out for the women, according to Bonarrigo. Duhamel listened to the problems the women faced and advocated for them. He was a member of BC’s faculty who taught for 41 years before his death in 2006.

After their first year, the women found that campus became more hostile as the administration debated whether women should be enrolled in the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Management or if the program should be scrapped. It was years after Bonariggo graduated that Duhamel told her in a letter that this battle was raging during their time on campus. 

The program was discontinued after her freshman year, but she and her female peers stayed and graduated from BC. Bonarrigo said she no longer felt welcome after the decision to discontinue the program—a feeling that stuck with her after her time at BC.

After graduation, Bonarrigo enrolled at Boston University Law School and eventually set up her own law practice in Maine. 

“I didn’t attend reunions. I didn’t feel like I was part of the family,” Bonarrigo said. “It wasn’t until our 50th reunion that we got any recognition. I have a plaque that I can put on the wall that confirms that I was a graduate and one of the first women.”

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Ann O’Malley, BC ’66, and Judy Gundersen, BC ’67, went to BC before it allowed women in all schools. They met around 50 years ago in The Heights office at BC—they still talk regularly. 

O’Malley came to BC as an undergraduate student in the School of Education and Gundersen as a graduate student in the School of Nursing. The pair agreed that they had wanted to become more involved in campus life and subsequently found The Heights

O’Malley recalled her early experience in The Heights office as a typist. She was offered the job of head typist, which was the highest position women normally occupied on the paper. Instead of taking the position, O’Malley rejected their offer. She later became the first female co-editor-in-chief of the paper and is now a partner at the law firm O’Malley and Harvey.

“It was meant to be an honor,” she said. “[The boys] offered me the job of head typist, and I said no, and they didn’t get it. I mean, they were surprised, but they weren’t in any way hostile. It was just like, ‘Hey, this is a new idea.’”

Gundersen echoed O’Malley’s thoughts on breaking some of the gender molds in The Heights. But she too recalled the open and willing nature of the boys in the office.

“They were just really exciting guys,” she said. “I think that they were supportive.”

As the ’60s progressed and women continued to push for equal opportunity, tensions rose.

“So, without further ado, I would like to start this series with one of the more vulgar aspects [of BC life]: the relationship between B.C. men and B.C. girls,” one student wrote in a 1965 column in The Heights. “I know some very nice girls whom I like to consider friends—but not those stereotyped wenches I see most of the time.”

The op-ed was met with condemnation from women on campus, which had made clear that the struggle to integrate women into BC was not just a battle against the administration, but against male students as well. 

“Despite the most adamant cries to the contrary by the administration, it is the B.C. student (I mean male) who makes this university whatever it is,” the same student wrote later that month.

At the same time, some male students started to call for improvements to the female experience at the University.

“Among the objectives of the new president of UGBC should be examination and improvement of the position of women here,” one wrote in a letter to the editor published in The Heights in 1970.

Nursing students also felt that their department administrators were not advocating for and assisting them.

“What we are asking for is that the university become more flexible, that we become recognized as members of the university,” nursing student Nancy Turletes said to The Heights at the time, “and also that the School of Nursing make changes for the benefit of the student, and not just in terms of schedules.” 

Moving into the back half of the decade, improvements continued to come in the form of new residence halls and expanded course offerings to nursing students. On March 19, 1969, the Academic Senate voted unanimously to admit women to all colleges at BC. 

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In 1970, 247 women enrolled, which exceeded the University’s aim of 200 female students for the Class of 1974. Years of financial mismanagement by BC led to a budget shortfall of $6.6 million, which influenced the decision to admit women.

The Heights has learned that substantially more than $2 million of the $4.6 million operating deficit represents accumulated debts covered up by an antiquated accounting system for several years,” The Heights wrote. “An informed source within the administration indicated that the Treasurer’s Office, until the deep-going audit of 1969, had been using the system of short-term borrowing on university funds.” 

The administration defended itself in a letter to the editor in The Heights, saying that the reporters had botched facts about the deficit.

The inclusion of women did help to meet the need of declining enrollment and tuition income as 941 women applied in the first year following the announcement of co-education at Boston College.

Marie Kenkel, BC ’74, joined the School of Management in 1970. Being the only female in her male-dominated classes could be stressful, Kenkel said. 

“Especially freshman and sophomore year in the School of Management, you looked at it, a classroom full of male faces,” she said. “And there was one female face, and we always had to be better prepared, on top of it, because we would be called on.” 

Kenkel said that her professors realized the amount of stress the women in the School of Management were under, and they began putting two or three women in a class together to alleviate this.

In terms of extracurricular activities, she said that women had fewer opportunities available to them. In the world of sports, co-ed teams and women’s teams were just being introduced, making it difficult for Kenkel to be as involved as men on campus. She ended up joining one of the first women’s rowing teams at BC—something she said she didn’t think was that big of a deal at the time.

As she was applying for jobs toward the end of her time at BC, Kenkel noticed that people were particularly inclined to hire women.

“They were so concerned about the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, that they had to look like they were being proactive,” she said. “So as far as finding jobs … everyone wanted us. I had no doubt I’d have a job when I finished.”

Kenkel said that in that moment, she didn’t think much about the impact she’d made as one of the first women to attend a co-ed BC. Only later in life did she look back and realize she had made a change.

“All of a sudden someone called you a pioneer and you’re like, ‘Oh, I guess I was awesome,’” she said.

Margaret Doherty, BC ’74, came to Chestnut Hill as a nurse in 1970, but due to the admittance of women to all undergraduate colleges, she transferred into the College of Arts and Sciences after her freshman year.

“It was a very big year for the campus. [Freshman year] was a pretty exciting year because so much was changing,” Doherty said. “The year before, the school had been on strike… So it was a really interesting year.”

Being part of the first group of women in the College of Arts and Sciences, Doherty remembers a learning curve taking place among the men, who now needed to share their classrooms with women.

“It was a conservative school, a conservative young men’s school,” Doherty said. “It took some time for many of the young men to learn how to share the campus with women, share their classes with women.”

Even if she could tell that everyone was not quite used to women walking the halls of every school on campus, Doherty said she still felt welcome. 

“People were really not resistant to it,” Doherty said. “It was more a matter of some people had to adjust their behavior now that there were more women on campus.”

The adjustment happened relatively quickly, Doherty said, although there were still groups of male students who were not courteous to their new female counterparts.

“They just did not have respectful attitudes towards women,” Doherty said. “But other than that, I think it was a very progressive time. It was a great time to be in school.”

Mary Anne Macaulay, BC ’74, learned of BC after her sister moved to Massachusetts, which piqued Macaulay’s interest in following her for college. She found her way to BC and became involved with the PULSE program.

“When I look back on [PULSE], it was very formative for me,” she said. “I was working with one other student, and we were assigned to the lead poisoning prevention efforts in South Boston on Mission Hill.”

Macaulay went on to earn a master’s degree in the School of Social Service, and she worked in the healthcare industry for 41 years. Despite finding her passion, she remembers a struggle to get the administration to recognize the needs of women on campus.

“It was challenging. I think the administration really had to come to terms with safety issues. There were reports of assaults on campus, and we had to demand better security and lighting on campus,” Macaulay said. “From that, there was a real push to get administration to come to terms with the overall needs of women at the University.”

Maureen Dezell, BC ’75, arrived on campus in 1971. While the majority of people on campus were engaging and welcoming, she recalled some bitter attitudes.

“There were, you know, men and students and a couple of faculty who made it clear that they didn’t think that women should be there,” she said. “But again, you know, [everything] was changing.”

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Dezell is currently a senior editor in the marketing section of the Office of University Communications at BC. She was the first female editor-in-chief of The Stylus, BC’s literary magazine, and was in the second co-ed graduating class of the College of Arts and Sciences. She was also an editor for The Heights

Dezell said society was rapidly shifting at that point. Before BC went fully co-ed, there was a de facto system in place on campus for women to get Arts and Sciences credits.

“The trick with BC was you applied to the education school,” she said. “And you always got in there, and then you just took your courses in A&S until you have enough to graduate.”

Dezell said that when she came to campus, it was the year before the 1972 election, and people were completely focused on the war, Nixon, and corruption within the government. Students were also experiencing freedoms they never had before.

“An 18-year-old could vote for the first time,” Dezell said. “These 18-year-olds could drink for the first time. Eighteen-year-old women could go to Boston College.”

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In 1973, a group of female students opened the Women’s Center in the bathroom outside of what is now Eagle’s Nest. The students invited then-University President Rev. J. Donald Monan, S.J., to be their first guest, but instead of attending, Monan gave the center its own room in McElroy Commons, where it stayed until it moved to Maloney Hall in 2015.

In 1974, BC acquired Newton College of the Sacred Heart and its 900 female students, which worked dramatically toward evening out the gender imbalance on campus. Around this time, women were voicing concern about sexual assaults and the “monitoring” of feminist voices—professor Mary Daly was known for banning men from some of her classes.

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But the end of the ’70s didn’t mark the end of the fight for gender equality on campus.

Joanne Caruso, BC ’82, made history as the first female president of the Undergraduate Government of BC. In the 1981 election, one of the candidates was disqualified for spending over the allotted budget two weeks before election night, turning a tight race into an all-out scramble. With Timothy Shea, BC ’82, out of the picture, the election faced an uncertain future.

Caruso had just decided to take a step back from her responsibilities. She was in her junior year and had spent her time excelling in her classes, being an active participant in UGBC, and working a job at a hair salon in Newton.

“I really got a little bit burned out,” she said.

She had been working on Shea’s campaign, so when he was disqualified, her peers turned to her to pick up where he had left off. She did, and she won the election.

“I didn’t actually even appreciate or factor in the importance of gender and being the first woman,” she said. “Because it wasn’t something that sort of came through in terms of the campaigning until after I won.”

Caruso recalled receiving letters from administrators, professors, and students, which she said helped her realize the significance of being elected.

Because she entered the race so late, Caruso’s name wasn’t on the ballot, and she wasn’t allowed to participate in the debates. For students to vote for her, they had to write her name in and check the box next to it, Caruso said.

In the two weeks between Shea’s disqualification and election day, things got unpleasant.

“That’s when I was really hearing things that I just could not believe, you know, ‘nasty woman’ and ‘militant lesbian’ and all of these things,” she said. “Frankly, it seemed so ridiculous to me. I was like, ‘This is just insane. This is just crazy. Like, where is this coming from?’”

Caruso said she tends to ignore bad things and plow forward, which is exactly what she did then. 

The night before the results came out, she went out to dinner with one of her roommates, who was not involved in the campaign, and she went to bed early. She said this helped her ignore those rude things that were said during the race.

“I didn’t carry that with me as we moved forward, which I think was a really good thing because I think things like that you don’t forget,” she said. “They’re just so nasty.”

In 1969, feminist professor Mary Daly had been forced to resign after the publication of her first book, The Church and the Second Sex. After student protests, the University rehired Daly with tenure

Despite her reinstatement, Daly remained a controversial figure at BC. Jessica Miller, previously Prata, BC ’91, recalled students protesting in the Dustbowl—a green space where Stokes Hall now stands—in support of Daly when the University again threatened to fire her for what they viewed as radical feminism.

This conflict over feminist issues played out during Miller’s time at BC. She enrolled in 1987 and went on to become the UGBC director of women’s issues during her junior year. As a political science and philosophy double major, she was exposed to feminist ideas early in her undergraduate career, she said. 

Through her political science major, Miller also had access to opportunities for activism. She won the Rising Star Award for Women in Politics and Government, which allowed her to intern under Lucille Hicks, a Republican state representative in Massachusetts. 

She now works as a philosophy professor and certified health care ethics consultant at the University of Maine. She said her career path was highly influenced by a philosophy of women class she took at BC, where she read Philosophy of Woman by Mary Mahowald.

Miller’s ideas of feminism leaned somewhat more conservatively in college, she said. As director of women’s issues, one of her more controversial moves was hosting a panel to hear men’s perspectives on abortion. 

“The event was absolutely packed, and the tensions boiled over,” Miller said. “I had a roommate who is today a high-powered lawyer and is still a dear friend who stood up and took everybody to town—including me for even hosting the event.”

During her time as an undergraduate, rhetoric around feminism was focused on topics such as rape, pornography, and the ways public images of women affected women’s rights, Miller said. BC was a place where she could express her ideas, but also have them challenged by others, helping her grow.

“What an amazing place Boston College was that I could have the academic experience, the student government experience, the experience at the State House, and this experience in the community,” Miller said. “That I could do all of those things and express feminism in all of those ways as an undergraduate.”

Upon reflecting on her experience at BC, Dezell remembers thinking progress would happen more quickly—she described herself as more radical at the time. Despite changes happening slightly slower than she expected, Dezell talked about the little things, like seeing more and more women dressed in professional clothing on the T.

Dezell’s story of women on the T is just one example of the small increments of change that were taking place when BC went co-ed. The culmination of years of work from various women in BC’s community brought about the reality of a co-ed campus and steps toward equality for women. After the decision in 1969 to make BC co-ed for all undergraduate schools, women continued to fight for equal opportunity on campus.
“The lofty tower of Gasson Hall at Boston College registered no shock perceptible on the seismograph at Weston College Observatory last week,” The Boston Globe wrote in 1952. “So perhaps the first enrollment of women as undergraduates at the century-old college at Chestnut Hill was not, actually, earth-shaking.”


Graphic by Allyson Mozeliak / Heights Editor

Photos Courtesy of Joanne Caruso, Maureen Dezell, and The Heights Archives

Owen Fahy, Maeve Reilly, Anna Lonnquist, Haley Hockin, Eric Shea

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