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Claiming a Place: For Half of its History, Women Were Excluded from Saint Louis University

Note: The following excerpt is from a 1999 article in the Saint Louis University alumni magazine, Universitas. Since the time of its publication, the percentage of students who identify as women at SLU has only grown, with more than 4,990 female undergraduate (61% of all undergraduates) and 2,850 female graduate students (60% of all advanced degree-seeking students) enrolled in 2021-22.

What you are about to read may make you mad. It also could make you laugh. Consider the following comments from a Saint Louis University Jesuit in 1909: 

“Women don't want higher education or culture if we are to judge from the lack of energy and ambition of many of those who have wealth and leisure to enable them to get it if they care to. They do not exert themselves more than to acquire a few charming superlatives, varied by an appropriate giggle or two, which is sufficient to get them along in polite society.”

Those are the words of J.J. Sullivan, S.J., as quoted in a front-page article in the St. Louis Republic on Aug. 19, 1909, less than one year after Saint Louis University admitted its first female student. Sullivan, known for his caustic comments, was a longtime chair­man of the philosophy department and dean of theology at the University. 

He continued: “It’s a farce, this 'high­ly educated' screeching, martial, childless and husbandless sisterhood. It might be a laughable show were it not for the effect such antics may have on the young of the present generation." He further stated that the "trivialities of modern femininity do not point to a desire for mental development.”

Viewed from the perspective of a world on the eve of the 21st century, this may be an appropriate time for all of us - both men and women - to pause for an appropriate giggle. 

SLU students gathered in an auditorium for freshman orientation in the 1950s.

Freshman Week at Saint Louis University, September 10, 1952.

Overcoming Opposition from Rome

Although Father Sullivan was not representative of many Saint Louis University Jesuits, his attitude was
typi­cal of the age and explains in part why for its first 90 years, the University did not have a single female student. Some Jesuits of the time favored education for women, but not coeducation, preferring instead to have separate schools for women. 

"The prevailing philosophy at the time was the separate spheres philosophy - that women were intended to be in the home,'" said Dr. Mary Elizabeth Hogan (Grad '98), associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, whose doctoral dissertation focused on women and higher education at Saint Louis University. “That’s what the common wisdom was and Fr. Sullivan agreed. He reflected the opinion of a number of Jesuits, and then there were others who represented other opinions.”

But even those forward-looking Jesuits who did favor co-education faced strong opposition from Rome based on centuries of tradition. The inclusion of women in the educational process had no basis in Ignatian educational philoso­phy, which had its seeds in the patriar­chal world of the Renaissance. Even in 1929, Pope Pius XI made this clear in his encyclical on the "Christian Education of Youth," writing that coeducation was founded upon a "deplorable confusion of ideas that falsely suggests there should be some sort of equality... in the training of the two sexes." 

With such opposition from the Vatican and from the Jesuit superiors in Rome, it stood to reason that if Saint Louis University wanted to educate women, it would have to sort of “sneak them in." 

And that's exactly what the SLU Jesuits did. The rules didn't have to be broken, of course. Just bent. 

The First Female Students at SLU

The first such "bending'' of the rules at Saint Louis University came in 1908, when Adele Doyle, Anna L. Ross, and Bertha Bruening became the first admitted female students to the newly opened law school. The St. Louis Times heralded the arrival of the first female students at Saint Louis University with a headline that declared: ''Staid Old Institution Has Not Become Coeducational, But It’s New Law Department is Opened to Both Sexes ⁠— Three Girls Matriculated." 

This early experiment in the School of Law, however, did not last. Less than two years later, women again were prohibited from joining the University. "Law School Drops Co-eds Who Blush at Lecture,'' a headline in the St. Louis Times declared on June 20, 1910, with a subhead filling in some of the details: "Saint Louis University finds it easier to abolish women students than to eliminate subjects pertaining to divorce." 

According to the newspaper account, three of the five female students in the class of 65 had objected to the discussion of "certain matters pertaining to divorces in the lectures on domestic relations.” School officials, however, decided it was "far easier" to ban women from the school than to eliminate the subjects that cause the women to blush. 

"It would greatly impair the studies to eliminate features the women students found objectionable," an unnamed pro­fessor reasoned. “The subjects are entirely of a technical nature, and mat­ters that are necessary in defining law." 

Despite this temporary setback, eight women law students (five in 1911 and three in 1913) became the first ⁠— and what was thought at the time to be the last ⁠— women students to graduate from the School of Law. There would not be another woman graduate from Saint Louis University until 1920. 

And it wouldn’t be until much, much later — 1949 — that females could "officially" be admitted to the College of Arts and Sciences, five full years after the University racially integrated its stu­dent body. 

Getting Around the Rules

The prohibition of women from the College of Arts and Sciences until 1949 was, in some ways, a farce. Women were able to receive a compara­ble arts education long before then. 

The middle 1920s saw important developments for the education of women at Saint Louis University. The School of Education was founded in 1925, which helped to open the doors to a number of women religious and laywomen requiring training as teachers. 

"The School of Education and University College, its successor, gave the University a front behind which to shelter the increasing number of women pressing for acceptance on its roster from the prying eyes of disapproving Roman superiors who refused to recog­nize the realities of the American situa­tion in higher education," the Jesuit historian John Francis Bannon, S.J. (A&S '28, Grad '29), wrote in 1982. 

"The arguments that brought women permanently to the Saint Louis University campus were not of a theo­retic but of a practical nature," writes William Barnaby Faherty, S.J., (Grad '36, '49, A&S '75) in his history of the University. "Nuns and laywomen teachers needed degrees. They would get them at Saint Louis University ⁠— or go elsewhere.”

"Women were going to state universities and state colleges. The sisters were teaching in many grade schools, and they needed an education. The Jesuits knew if there was going to be Catholic education, they needed to teach the teachers."

⁠— Elizabeth Kolmer, ASC (A&S '61, Grad '62, '65)

In 1926, the "Corporate College" arrangement was formed, whereby St. Louis' Catholic women's colleges ⁠— including Webster, Fontbonne, and Maryville (then known as the College of the Sacred Heart) ⁠— granted degrees through Saint Louis University. 

"The Corporate Colleges had to do with educating women, and they had to do with keeping women in the Catholic colleges," said Elizabeth Kolmer, ASC (A&S '61, Grad '62, '65), professor of American studies and history. "Women were going to state universities and state colleges. The sisters were teaching in many grade schools, and they needed an education. The Jesuits knew if there was going to be Catholic education, they needed to teach the teachers." 

The Jesuits felt it was their obligation to assist these religious communities in the education of their members for the Catholic mission, and this was happen­ing across the country at Jesuit universi­ties at the time. This was especially important considering that in 1920, 86% of the elementary and secondary school teachers in Catholic schools were women, including many nuns. 

Both the creation of the School of Education and the formation of the Corporate Colleges (an arrangement that ended in 1957) were attempts to give Catholic women access to education at accredited institutions.

So how was Saint Louis University allowed to admit and educate women when such a practice ran contrary to the wishes of the Jesuit superiors in Rome? 

The answer, according to Bannon, amounted to a bit of Jesuit trickery. Women were allowed to be educated in the professional schools, such as law and business and education, as long as they weren't enrolled in the College of Arts and Sciences. 

Although the women could not offi­cially register in the arts school, they nonetheless went to the same classes, were subject to the same departmental regulations in their major fields, and took the same examinations. Administrators still could report to Vatican officials that the heart of the University, the College of Arts, had no women. 

"The fact that these early women students, sisters and laypersons, were registered in a different school, not in the College of Arts, made their presence tolerated, even though not really approved," according to Bannon. "The SLU Jesuits felt justified in practicing this bit of deception in order to render a service to the American Church. An increasing number of American bishops was asking that they open the doors of their institutions of higher learning, lest these females seek their education in state and/or non-Catholic schools." 

Faherty wrote that the School of Education and its successor, University College, really amounted to a "College of Art, woman's division." 

Mary Bruemmer (A&S '42, Grad '60) was a student in the School of Education and Social Science at the time, attending classes at the University from 1938 to 1942. 

"We were enrolled in all the regular College of Arts and Sciences classes," she recalled. "There was no discrimina­tion that we felt in the classes. Some of the Jesuits found it very strange to be teaching us because it was happening for the first time. Because all of our classes were with the men, I don't think any of us knew that we could not be admitted to the College of Arts and Sciences. We did not realize that we were being
dis­criminated against!'' 

Time for Change

"Women students kept the University, and in particular the College of Arts and Sciences, from floundering during the war years."

⁠— Dr. Paul Shore and Paul Reinert, S.J. (A&S '33, Grad '34, '41)

One of the most significant dates in the history of women at Saint Louis University is also one of the saddest dates in American history: Dec. 7, 1941, the day that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The war that followed led to a vast exodus of the male student population to the armed services, and, in the classroom, those men were replaced with women. 

"Women students kept the University, and in particular the College of Arts and Sciences, from floundering during the war years," write Dr. Paul Shore and Paul Reinert, S.J. (A&S '33, Grad '34, '41), in Seasons of Change. ''Female students upheld and even raised the academic standards of the University, while at the same time beginning the process of expansion and reinterpretation of the University to a broadening constituency which would continue in the postwar decades." 

"There just weren't many men around, except for the people who were here in special medical or training pro­grams," recalled Bruemmer, who was a junior when the war broke out. “A large percent of the male population, including faculty members, left. Women students took over The University News and the Archive. And the Student Conclave, which was the stu­dent government at the time, changed dramatically. At that point, the University administrators decided that they needed a dean of women to work with the women students. We had had a dean of men for many years." 

So it was in 1943 that the Saint Louis University president asked Nancy McNeir Ring (A&S '28, Grad '29) to become dean of women. She became the first female administrator in University history, a move that some Jesuits had been advocating for years. She stayed in the job until she retired in 1967 and holds a place in University history as one of its most well-remem­bered and respected women. 

Selected SLU Firsts for Women

There are many important "firsts" in the history of women at SLU. Here are a few: 


In 1916 off-campus extension cours­es for women, held on Saturday after­noons, were taught to nuns in nearby schools by "roving faculties.”


Three nuns received notable degrees in 1920. Mary Louise Wise, S.L., was the first woman to receive a graduate degree, a master's in English. Mother Gertrude Caraher, RSCJ, was the first woman to receive a bachelor of arts, and Eustachia Elder, S.L., was the first to receive a bachelor of science. In 1920, the School of Commerce and Finance graduated its first woman, Bertha Bruening (also one of the origi­nal 1911 law graduates); that same year that Helen A. Rabitt received the bach­elor of commercial science, and Angela F. Van lseghem a certificate in commer­cial science. 


The first female faculty member in arts and sciences was the novelist Inez Specking, hired in 1923 to teach English. 


In 1928, the School of Nursing was founded. In 1929, the division of health and hospital services, the forerunner to the School of Allied Health Professions, was established. Both schools would educate large numbers of women.


In 1929, Mocher Marie Kernaghan, RSCJ, was the first woman to earn a Ph.D., in physics at the University. Not until 1952 did the School of Medicine graduate its first female doc­tor, Dr. Mary Frances Nawrocki McGinnis.


Mary Ann Jones,  Fredda Witherspoon and Margaret Simms were among the first five Black students accepted to Saint Louis University. Enrolled in 1946, Antita Bond Lyons went on to become the first African-American undergraduate student to graduate from Saint Louis University with honors.


The first tenured female faculty member is believed to be Dr. Marilyn Rigby in the psychology department, who was hired in 1955 and worked at the University until 1964. 


In 1967, Eunice Kennedy Shriver became the sole woman appointee to SLU’s first lay board of trustees. 


In 1972, the SLU Women's Commission was established. It has since become an important advocate of women's concerns and other education­al issues. 


In 1982, a women's studies program was founded. 


Dr. Alice B. Hayes was named provost, the University's number-two in command, in 1989. She was among a significant number of women appointed to key administrative positions under the leadership of University President Lawrence Biondi, S.J, who took over as president in 1987. 


In 1994, Dr. Shirley Dowdy became the first woman to be dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. 

See More SLU Firsts