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When the Times Changed: 50 Years of Women at Iona

The year is 1969.
And it is a year of firsts:

The Woodstock Festival attracts approximately 400,000 people for a peaceful three days of music;

Neil Armstrong becomes the first man to set foot on the moon;

The microprocessor is invented, paving the way for a technology revolution;

The Mets miraculously defeat the Baltimore Orioles to win their first World Series.

1969 is also a year of turbulence with frequent civil rights marches and protests against the Vietnam War. Many Americans are also demanding full equality for women.

The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), first introduced in 1923, stipulated: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” By 1969, the ERA had still not become a constitutional amendment. In fact, to this day, it has not become the law.

This meant that banks could still refuse to issue credit cards to single women and could demand a husband’s signature on applications from married women; states could prevent women from serving on juries because women were regarded as primary caregivers who were needed at home; pregnancy could get a woman fired, and substantial inequities existed between a man’s and a woman’s pay. Women were also excluded from getting a college education in many institutions.

But in 1969, demand for women’s equality exploded, and colleges and universities began rethinking their policies of excluding women.

Until 1969, Iona had been traditionally male with a few exceptions. In 1966, female students had been admitted to the summer sessions, and students from the neighboring College of New Rochelle were admitted to a handful of courses. It was the success of these women that set the stage for the College to decide to go fully coed—one of the most significant changes in Iona’s history. Under President Br. Joseph McKenna, the 1969-1970 school year became known fondly, and a bit giddily, as the “Year of the Girls,” when approximately 200 women, one-quarter of the freshman class, registered at Iona College.

Jill (Matthews) Stump ʼ73 received a letter on December 12, 1968, signed by Leo R. Downey, CFC, Ph.D., acting president of Iona, stating that she would be “the first coed accepted for the freshman class of September 1969.”

Kathleen G. Savolt ’73 was also among the first women to get the news. “We owned a house behind campus and my mother worked at the College, so Iona was always a part of our lives,” she remembered. “We used to say it was too bad that Iona didn’t accept women because one of the benefits my mother had was free tuition for her children; she had four daughters.”

Then one day Kathleen’s mother came home with some big news. “’Fill out these forms,’ she told me,” Savolt recalled, “’You’ve been admitted to Iona College. The Board of Trustees voted to admit women.’” Kathleen remembers that there weren’t many choices or opportunities back then for women, so she seized the opportunity and ran with it—taking classes, working in the admissions and financial aid offices and participating in the Iona Players.

Not everyone had a mother who worked at Iona. Dorothy “Dotty” (Senkewicz) Pascale ’73 recalls Iona recruiters coming to Mother Cabrini High School in Washington Heights where Dotty was a senior. “They were looking for leaders. We were going to push for change, and they knew that.”

“Two hundred women to 1,200 men. Those were good odds,” Dotty joked of the approximate ratio of females to males on campus. It may have seemed like 1,200 men but the class of 1969 was actually comprised of 200 women and 545 men, making it the largest class in Iona’s history.

Yale University became coed in 1969. Princeton University became coed in 1969. Columbia University became coed in 1983. Manhattan College became coed in 1973.

“Bathrooms were an issue,” Rosanne Anello ’73 recalled with amusement. “Some men’s rooms were converted for women. They just covered up the urinals with a plank of wood in that first year.” Nancy (DeLigio) Raftery ’73 remembers the College accommodating women with “bathrooms in Spellman Hall, East Hall (now LaPenta School of Business) and the Administration Building.”

But everyone agreed that they felt welcome, and no one felt out of place.

“We were confident,” said Kathleen “Kate” Cunningham ’73 when she reflected on those early years.

“They were looking for leaders. We were going to push for change, and they knew that.”

Confident and scrappy might be an even more accurate description, and Kate proved that when she first walked into the offices of The Ionian, the student-run newspaper. “A group of us had been out at George’s on North Avenue and some of the people I met that night worked on the student newspaper. The next week, I saw my name in the masthead as a staff member. I had no idea. But I decided if I was listed as staff, I better show up. So I did, and I became one of the first female reporters.” The next year, Kate became copy editor; in her junior year, she was managing editor; and as a senior, Kate became Iona’s first female editor-in-chief.

“There was so much going on in the world,” Kate recalled. An especially poignant memory for many of the women of the Class of 1973 is one of watching the first televised draft for Vietnam. The 366 days of the year (1972 was a leap year) were printed on slips of paper, placed in capsules and dumped into a glass jar. Capsules were drawn one at a time, opened, and the date drawn was assigned a number. September 14 was the first date drawn and was assigned “001.” Those men with a September 14 birthday could expect to be called soon to serve. When young men were assigned high numbers, there might be a mix of feelings—relief because they wouldn’t be called yet, but distress for those who would be called.

Rosanne and Kate remembered wanting to play basketball and trying to get that off the ground. “We set up intramurals,” Rosanne said, “and played when we could. And a fellow student, Kenny Fitzpatrick ’74, coached us.”

And the College accommodated the women in a way they saw fit. “They painted half the locker room pink,” Rosanne laughed. “And hung up pink shower curtains. I don’t think the guys were happy about that.”

At the same time, a group of determined and spirited young women were forming Iona’s first cheerleading squad. Nancy DeLigio Raftery ’73, who captained the team for four years; Joanne T. Posen ’73; Maryann Welch; Laura (Sailer) Schafer ’73, ’87MS; Jerilyn E. (Weinheimer) Broege ’75; Dotty (Senkewicz) Pascale ’73; Maria R. (Morea) Gorman ’73; Carol A. (Ferrara) Zarb ’97MS; Karen E. (Donati) Recine ’72; and Pamela A. (Magnotta) McLoughlin ’73—not only put together a team, but they coached themselves. Raftery remembered the squad’s resourcefulness: “We raised money for uniforms through bake sales and moved furniture around in the Doorley Hall lounge to create a practice area.” Many of the women were so committed to the team that they remained part of it until their graduations. Later, other women joined including Paula M. (Toscano) Poricelli ’73 and Joanne M. (Miserendino) Harris ’73.

The young men of the Spirit Club drove the cheerleaders to games and sometimes cheered with them at basketball, football and hockey games. The hockey team bought the cheerleaders corduroy pants to keep them warm at their games while the cheerleaders motivated and inspired athletes and the fans.

In the meantime, the basketball-minded women of Iona were not going to remain content with intramurals. As Margaret “Peggy” M. Norton-Sullivan ’75 said, “We learned that if we wanted something, we really had to push for it. It helped to keep a good sense of humor and to have the women around you as a support.”

In 1972, the women got even more help in their push for athletic opportunities with the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments Act. Title IX stipulated: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” One of the stipulations of Title IX, simply stated, is that women and men must be provided equitable opportunities to participate in sports.

In 1973, soon after the passage of Title IX, basketball, the first women’s intercollegiate sport, was founded at Iona. Groundbreakers Jeanne
(Morris) M. Torigian Neville ’74, a junior at the time, and Janice A. (Ghiorsi) Crowley ’76 were the driving force behind this successful endeavor. They eventually helped recruit a coach and transitioned the basketball club to a varsity team prior to the first game against Manhattanville on February 7, 1973.

The College hired coach Sandie Capifali, who had been coaching at St. Barnabas School in the Bronx, and she wasted no time. She managed to get the team entered in the Dominican College Invitational Tournament, which was made up of established women’s teams. Sandie told the girls to wear their home uniforms for the tournament, but as Valerie Fenton ’76 recalled, the “uniforms” were cut-off denim shorts and orange t-shirts.
“I think they were supposed to be gold for Iona gold,” she said, “but they were really orange, and they faded every time we washed them.”

Not letting this be a deterrent, Sandie instructed the team to wear white t-shirts for the tournament. When the women showed up, Sandie wrote “Iona” across the front of the t-shirts in magic marker and added a number on the back—any number they liked.

The women had not played at this level before and no one knew how they’d do. But not only did Iona hold their own, they won the tournament. After that, the women got real uniforms and the team enjoyed many years of success.

Not only did Sandie coach the women’s basketball team, but
in 1979, when a group of Gaels wanted to form a women’s tennis team, Harry M. Dunkak, CFC, Ph.D., ’51, who was the coach of the very successful men’s tennis team, asked Sandie to take charge of the women’s team.

Elaine M. Porter ’84 recalled learning what being on a team entailed. “We learned to strive for individual success, support our teammates and contribute to our team’s overall success. You really need to do all three, It’s not just me, me, me. It’s us, us, us. Understanding and embracing this is important not only with athletic teams but also with family life and work life.”

Over the next years, Iona women continued to press for athletic opportunities and succeeded in forming several more teams.

The women’s voices were not only heard in the athletics arena. In the first freshman

Student Council election held since Iona went coed, the turnout, thanks in part to all the women who participated, was the largest on record. Dotty (Senkewicz) Pascale ’73 was the first female elected to the Executive Board
as recording secretary. Colleen (McHugh) Giles ’73, Kate G. Cunningham ’73, and Vicki Olsen ’73, ’79MBA were elected as Iona’s first female Student Council representatives. In 1979, ten years after the first coed class walked onto campus, Iona elected Mary Beth (Dunkak) Marchiony ’80 as the first female Student Government Association president. As a junior, Mary Beth had already broken Iona’s glass ceiling, becoming the first female SGA treasurer.

Br. Dunkak remembers when Iona went coed and saw the women as a “great asset.” He was not surprised that the College welcomed them. “It was in the spirit of the Christian Brothers to reach out and include everyone.”

By 1970, The Ionian was employing women in all aspects of the paper. The October 28, 1970 masthead listed Kathleen (Kate) Cunningham ’73 as copy editor, Lynette M. (Migliaccio) Waterhouse ’73 as circulation manager, and Lorraine P. (Portman) Czarnecki ’71, Barbara Jo (Poletsky) Bellantoni ’73, Sandra R. (Parks) Pfoh ’79, and Karen Condon as staff writers.

“As we celebrate the 50 years since the first class of women arrived at Iona College, I am happy to have been present at the time, a witness to this transformational year in Iona’s history, which brought gender integration, diversity and equality to campus.”

Br. Joseph Cussen ’57
(teaching at Iona 1965 – present)

The women also brought their voices to the stage with the Iona Players. Kathleen Savolt ’73 was instrumental in bringing women behind the scenes by doing make-up for all the actors and designing sets.

Just before the first class of coeds graduated in 1973, the first sorority was formed at Iona. Gamma Lambda Rho is still active today, as are four other sororities: Psi Kappa Theta formed in 1980; Delta Theta Beta formed in 1984; Phi Gamma Chi formed in 1988; and Phi Sigma Sigma formed in 1985.

Then, as now, the women of Iona entered college with curious minds. They majored in math, psychology, English, Italian, economics, history, communication arts, sociology and every subject that was

available. They went into finance, technology, telecommunications, biology, chemistry, public relations and media, medicine, teaching, and coaching. Many opened
their own businesses. They raised families while working or volunteering. Many of them kept the friendships formed at Iona alive. And without knowing it, the women of Iona paved the way and continue to pave the way for future generations of women. As Lorna Petrone Ferrara ’73 recalls, “My fellow pioneers and I were ready to strive to make a place for ourselves within the Iona community. We joined clubs, volunteered, cheered our Gaels. We joined the Ionian and Icann staffs and became part of student government. We were serious about being a part of everything that comprised the college experience.”

When Johnine N. Clark, Esq., ’84 arrived at Iona in 1980, “Women were widely accepted and had been elected to key student government and leadership positions on campus.” That encouraged Johnine to serve
as president of the History and Political Science Club and as an arts and feature editor at The Ionian, among other activities. Johnine also competed for and was awarded a Rotary Scholarship to study law in Australia; she was the first African-American and first woman to be awarded the scholarship. She now runs her own law practice specializing primarily in family law.

“I am confident I would not be the woman I am today without my time at Iona,” said Brianna Schauer ’15, who is project manager for Pharmacy Times Continuing Education. Brianna was a member of the varsity softball team, which won two MAAC championships while she was playing. “I attribute my leadership qualities to the strong women I was surrounded by during my time at Iona.”

“I am so grateful for the women who walked on Iona’s campus for the first time in 1969,” said Erin Kutch ’18, an associate producer at MSNBC, who served as president of the Student Government Association in 2017-2018. “Because of these women 50 years ago, I was able to attend Iona without being self-conscious of my spot due to my gender, and I was able to take on leadership opportunities and ultimately “have a seat at the table.”

Today Iona serves almost 4,000 students, both undergraduate and graduate. The overall student body consists of 53% women, a long way from the 26% of 1969. And according to NPR, “the 1981-82 academic school year was the first time that women received more bachelor’s degrees than men.” Since then, women have consistently outpaced men in earning that same level of education, receiving 57% of the bachelor’s degrees awarded by U.S. institutions in the 2016-2017 academic year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Iona will always be greater for and grateful to the women who so generously enriched and continue to invigorate the College and who use their educations to lead the way for others.

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