Some of Fordham’s first female undergraduates came back to the Rose Hill campus on Nov. 8 to reunite and celebrate their unique place in University history.
More than 100 alumnae of Fordham’s all-female Thomas More College (TMC), which helped pioneer the presence of undergraduate women at Rose Hill, reconnected for a 50th anniversary luncheon and panel discussion in Bepler Commons.
Thomas More opened in 1964 and closed in 1974, when Fordham College at Rose Hill began accepting women. Guests and panelists—from classes that spanned the 10-year history of the college—reminisced about their college days and about barriers they overcame both at Fordham and in their professional careers. Most agreed that it was the college’s earliest students who faced the biggest challenges.
Panelist Margaret “Peggy” Bia, M.D., Yale professor of medicine in nephrology and a member of TMC’s first graduating class in 1968, recalled that when she came to Fordham, women were not allowed in the gym “because [at times]the guys walked around in the nude.” Nods and laughter came from the crowd.
Others in the room remembered men telling them that they didn’t belong at Fordham—that there were men who deserved those spots more because they would have to work and support a family.
“It was a man’s world when we got here, but I think we quickly changed that,” Bia said, adding that she is extremely proud of her Fordham education and the University’s “ethos of value.” When she was growing up in Brooklyn, she said, Fordham was the place to go.
“We didn’t think Harvard, Yale,” she said. “Now I think Harvard, Yale, and I still think Fordham is a good place to go!”
Liberal Arts and Careers
Patricia McDonough, TMC ’69, senior vice president of insights and analysis at Nielsen, remembers facing sexist attitudes when she first got into the workforce.
“I was an account executive in the ’70s,” she said, “when they were still asking people, ‘Would you be OK if there was a woman on your account?’”
But she credits her Fordham liberal arts education, in part, with helping her learn to defend herself throughout her career—a sentiment that many in the crowd echoed. “I learned how to think critically and how to stand up for myself in a class where people were challenging each other,” McDonough said.
Bronx-born panelist Rose Marie Bravo, TMC ’71, also said she used her liberal arts education to advance in a remarkable retail career. Bravo spent eight years as CEO of Burberry, expanding and modernizing the classic British brand and doubling sales. “I took my learnings from left brain, right brain [areas of thought]—math and science and humanities that I learned at Fordham—and combined that and then just kept going,” she said.
Alumnae came to the event from as far away as Minnesota and Wisconsin. At an early-evening cocktail reception, Joseph M. McShane, S. J., president of Fordham, told the women of TMC that they were some of the brightest, most formidable students Fordham has ever seen, and joked that his two brothers who were attending Fordham at that time are still terrified of them. He asked them to mentor the young women of Fordham and to support the Thomas More Endowed Scholarship Fund.
Thomas More scholarship recipient Katherine Lease, a senior and an American studies major at Fordham College at Rose Hill, was one of several female students at the luncheon.
“It’s hard to conceptualize a time where women couldn’t go to Fordham, and I am forever grateful to the women of TMC who forged the way,” said Lease, who plans to go to law school, she hopes at Fordham Law. “The women I sat with had such different experiences, and each offered a unique story of their success.” The scholarship allowed her to take out fewer loans, she said, lessening her financial burden.
Rigorous Scholarship Amid Changing Times
The women of Thomas More were held to high academic standards from the beginning. In a letter welcoming the first incoming class, Vincent T. O’Keefe, S.J., president of Fordham from 1963 to 1965, admitted, “[W]e don’t even know whether to call you freshmen or freshwomen,” but he praised their academic records: “Few of you finished high school below the top ten percent of your classes,” he wrote. “Your College Board scores are collectively above average.”
Barbara Nowik Bono, Ph.D., TMC ’70, said Fordham set her on the path to earning a doctorate and becoming a Shakespeare scholar. “I don’t think I would have gotten an advanced degree if it had not been for the rigorous education I got here,” she said. Like many at the event, she also said that the turbulent times—the Vietnam War, the civil rights era, the women’s liberation movement—colored her education. She was involved in protests with Students for a Democratic Society. “I was gassed at the Pentagon,” she said.
Her friend Maria Shevchuk-Chaban, M.D., TMC ’70, recalled intellectual discussions with friends on topics of the day. “We sat around in the honors lounge and discussed Betty Friedan’s book,” she said. She also remembered the great “respect” she received from her professors, “which made such a huge difference.”
“When I came here,” she said, “they treated me like a scholar.”
To make a gift to the Thomas More Endowed Scholarship Fund, which honors the legacy of its 1,800 alumnae, visit our secure giving page.