April 22, 2019 | 52° F

Institute for Women's Leadership explores history of women at Rutgers with film screening

Photo by Alexandra DeMatos |

The Institute for Women’s Leadership screened “From the Boarding House to the Boardroom” on Wednesday afternoon. The documentary explores the history of women over Rutgers’ 250 years of existence. 

As Rutgers continues to celebrate its 250th anniversary, the Institute for Women’s Leadership (IWL) Consortium added another prerogative to the mix: a panel exclusively featuring women.

IWL presented the world premiere screening of the film, “From the Boarding House to the Board Room: 250 Years of Women at Rutgers” on Thursday. The screening was followed by a conversation with the panel of women involved in the making of the film.

The panel consisted of June Cross, the director of the film and the 2016 Laurie Chair in Women’s Studies in the Department of Women's and Gender Studies, Mary Hawesworth, a distinguished professor in the Department of Political Science and the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, Kayo Denda, head librarian at the Margery Somers Foster Center and Women’s Studies Librarian and Mary Ellen Clark, executive director of the New York City Employment and Training Coalition.

The 30-minute film centered on the founding of the New Jersey College for Women (which soon became Douglass College) in 1918 and the transformation of Rutgers College to a co-educational facility in 1972.

As Rutgers began its year-long 250th anniversary celebration, the IWL board started thinking about how Rutgers would portray women in their celebrations, whether or not they would discuss women before the founding of Douglass College and how much information was actually known about women prior to Douglass College, Hawkesworth said.

“We decided we needed to do some research, so we did a team-taught study where we recruited (student) volunteers and we set them loose in the archives and they started unearthing these fabulous stories … and the IWL board said ‘What should we be doing to share this?’" she said. "And it was like this little miraculous discussion of 'We should make a film,’ and that’s how it got started,” she said.

The filmmakers collected more than 2,000 photos for the project, Cross said.

“The biggest challenge was fitting 250 years of history into 30 minutes,” she said. “And then figuring out how to focus it. What I finally did was focus it on founders, so that helped ... Once I decided to focus it that way, and it became more about the Institute for Women’s Leadership and the Consortium, a lot of things started to fall away.”

Clark attended the panel to offer insight as a student during a pivotal time in Rutgers history, in the midst of Rutgers making the transition to a coeducational college.

Clark was a student at Douglass Women’s College and did not attend Rutgers when it was coeducational. She was one of the first 16 women to be a part of the marching band at Rutgers, but said the men did not respond well, and she would return to Douglass to talk to her friends about it.

The women's story is not told or documented, she said.

“I haven’t read the history of Rutgers University, but I’m sure it doesn’t include (what was in the film). I, as a person who is very invested in Douglass and in women’s leadership, was astounded to learn about these benefactors in the early years, and the boarding houses and all of the attempts to become coeducational," she said. "This history needs to be told."

Rutgers has a long history of considering itself a men’s space, Hawkesworth said. 

Because of this, she believes it is important to offer the feminist perspective to not only Douglass College, but also Rutgers University as a whole.

New Jersey was the last state in the United States to have higher education for women, Hawkesworth said.

At the time, Hawkesworth said women were outnumbering men in high school graduation rates, yet were not attending college. Mabel Smith, the first dean of Douglass Women's College, mobilized principals in New Jersey to push for legislation granting higher education for women.

“The story of women’s education is the story of enormous struggle,” she said. “The virtue of feminist inquiry is this tenacity to allow spaces of women self-determination despite incredible institutional obstacles.”

The remaining footage, containing interviews, photographs and archival footage that did not make the final cut of the film will go to the IWL.

Most of the boards at Rutgers to this day do not have enough women seated around the tables, said Bernice P. Venable, an overseer Emerita of the Rutgers Board of Overseers.

"This is so extraordinary, this has to be shown and talked about. In the history books, there is such a slant, but this should be in there forever, because that’s how important this is,” she said.

Chloe Dopico

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