History mystery: Wagner’s first women

History mystery: Wagner’s first women

In 1933, Wagner College enrolled its first class of 17 freshman women. Who were they? Reported by Jacqueline Caruso ’18.

Girls' League & Basketball Team, 1934

Girls' League & Basketball Team, 1934

In the fall of 1933, Wagner Memorial Lutheran College enrolled its first class of freshman women. After 50 years of all-male enrollment, this was a major turning point in the college’s history.

Wagner was founded in 1883 specifically to prepare young German-American men to enter Lutheran seminary, at a time when only men were admitted to the ministry. Soon after the college’s move to Staten Island in 1918, Wagner opened up its curriculum to provide studies for the other professions as well. Fifteen years later, in 1933, when the college first admitted women, the 63 members of the new freshman class included 17 women. All but one of the women hailed from Staten Island — an important detail, since no on-campus housing was available for women that first year.

The women were met with condescending remarks from the press and mixed feelings on campus about the admittance of “girls.” They were seen as either a “civilizing influence” on the young Wagner men, or a welcome distraction from the monotony of higher learning. Latin professor J.C. Krahmer said, “Female Wagnerians would effect a general refinement of the students, academically and socially.” The author of one particularly cringe-worthy article wrote, “A library with books, but no girls skilled in the timely dropping of pencils when the desirable male approaches, is too dull a place for earnest young men to investigate the early history of the British labor movement.”

To counter the patronizing atmosphere, the first women at Wagner organized themselves into a Girls’ League and created a women’s basketball team that grew in popularity and recognition over the years. The Girls’ League’s first mission statement reads:

“The Girls’ League was organized in September, 1933, as the first official women’s organization at Wagner. Its purpose is to create a spirit of friendship among the women of Wagner, and to be of every possible aid to the incoming women. The organization has succeeded in its first purpose but has not yet had a chance to function in its second capacity. The League sponsors a number of socials during the year. Its headquarters are in the Girls’ Rooms in the Cunard Building.”

In 1934, Wagner College women athletes were awarded athletic letters at the annual student body banquet.

It was not until 1941 that the first sorority, Tau Lambda Chi, was formed at Wagner. The following year, a Theta Pi Epsilon chapter was formed.

Evelyn Pedersen. Left, March 1933. Right, Newark Evening Journal, April 1933.

Evelyn Pedersen. Left, March 1933. Right, Newark Evening Journal, April 1933.

It’s true that one woman was enrolled at the college in the spring semester of 1933, just days after the trustees voted to admit women: Evelyn Pedersen (later Boyd), who lived across the street from Wagner at 84 Campus Rd. Pedersen enrolled, however, as a special student, and only for that one semester.

Among the notable first women of Wagner was Mabel Spitzer, who transferred to Wagner as a junior during the 1933-34 school year. Spitzer, nicknamed “Mom,” was elected secretary of her class after protesting the absence of women in class office positions. Spitzer became the first woman to earn a degree from Wagner College, in 1935.

Mabel Spitzer '35

Mabel Spitzer '35

Other female transfer students in the 1933-34 school year were junior Irma V. Carlson and sophomores Thelma F. Biele and Christine L. Murbach. In the 1934 issue of the Wagner College yearbook, Kallista, Biele’s blurb reads, “Thelma has the honor of being the first girl on the debate team — long may she rave.”

It was Biele’s father who, in 1935, pledged to give the college 17 maple trees to memorialize the first class of freshman women at Wagner. Those trees were planted the following April, behind Main Hall. Unfortunately, we do not know exactly where they were planted, or if any of them are still standing.

Present-day rumors that the London plane trees lining the Sutter Oval were planted to honor our first women are not true. Those trees were planted on April 13, 1932, as the Class of 1932’s senior gift to the college — 9 months prior to the decision to enroll women.

Gertrude Lucas, 1945

Gertrude Lucas, 1945

The first woman of color to enroll at Wagner College was Gertrude Lucas, a social science student. Lucas transferred to Wagner in 1943 and graduated in 1945. The first woman of color to graduate from Wagner College, however, was Ethel Carter, a nursing major, who was awarded a degree in 1944.

Wagner’s first female student body president was Evelyn Schaefer, Class of 1945. In a story published in the May 1977 issue of Wagner Magazine, Evelyn Schaefer Diers recalled, "I seem to remember that the suggestion for a woman to run for the office came from a man. Since the ratio of women on campus at that time was so great (185, versus 59 men), I guess it seemed only representative to have a woman president."

Why is it important for us now, all these years later, to revisit the accomplishments of the women who came before us? Because here at Wagner College, with a student population that is 63 percent female, it’s easy to forget them. And the truth is that women today may not know all of the same difficulties as those who first integrated Wagner in the 1930s, but they surely encounter degrees of the same discriminatory attitudes those pioneers faced.

The following are the first 17 women who enrolled as freshmen at Wagner College in 1933, including a few details about their lives, when we could find them. Those who earned degrees from Wagner are indicated by their class years following their names:

WEB Eleanor Gertrude GarberEleanor Gertrude Garber

Treasurer of the Girls’ League during her first year at Wagner College. Attended for 2 years.

WEB Clara Margaret BarkerClara Margaret Hladky née Barker ’37

Born Oct. 31, 1916, in Leicester, Vt. Captain of the first women’s basketball team at Wagner College. She was a retired employee of Connecticut’s state Department of Income Maintenance. Active in politics, she was a member of the National Federation of Republican Women’s Clubs, the Connecticut Federation of Republican Women’s Clubs (2nd Congressional Dist., North) and the Republican Women’s Club of Columbia, Conn. She was survived by five children.

WEB Agnes P BersagelAgnes P. Bersagel ’37

Born in 1914.

WEB Elsie Billings BoydElsie Billings Boyd ’37

Born in 1911.

WEB Elaine ComeforoElaine Iaciofoli née Comeforo ’38

A native Staten Islander, she graduated from Curtis High School. She earned her degree in math at Wagner in 1938 and played basketball for the college. She went on to become a businesswoman, working in trucking and real estate. She was 94 years old when she died in Freehold, N.J., leaving behind three children and six grandchildren.

WEB Edith Anna DanielEdith Anna Raisch née Daniel ’38

The only non-Staten Islander among the female freshmen of 1933-34, she came from Little Falls, N.Y. As a student, she appeared in a Wagner College production of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s “Wild Duck” and was featured singing at a Christmas celebration with other students in a news clipping. She earned her B.A. degree in modern languages.

WEB Helen Jane DaviesHelen Jane Newhouse née Davies ’37

Born on Staten Island Dec. 8, 1914. Member of the technical staff at Bell Laboratories in Whippany, N.J., before marrying Russell C. Newhouse. Later worked for the AT&T Foundation.

WEB Louis M Holder EggerLois Mae Holder Egger

Attended Wagner College for 1 year.

WEB Doris E EppingerDoris E. Eppinger

Attended Wagner College for 1 year.

WEB Marie L FemenellaMarie L. Lewis née Femenella ’38

Born to Michael Joseph and Matilda Femenella of Staten Island in 1917.

WEB Shirley E MacDonaldShirley E. Wigren née MacDonald ’41

Attended Curtis High School, Staten Island. Was secretary of the Girls’ League in her freshman year at Wagner in 1934. She earned her B.A. in English in 1941. Retired from Rockland County Schools.

WEB Ruth M MillerRuth M. Miller

Enrolled in 1933. In Kallista 1935, still shown as a freshman.

WEB Audrey A MorganAudrey Amelia Morgan

Attended Wagner College for 1 year; did not graduate.

WEB Vera Lee PetersVera Lee Peters

Attended Wagner College for 2 years; did not graduate.

WEB Frances T PillitteriFrances T. Pillitteri

Attended Wagner College for 2 years; did not graduate.

WEB Clara ShakeClara Shake ’38

Starred as Mary Bruin in a production of William Butler Yeats’ “Land of Heart’s Desire,” according to the Staten Island Advance.

WEB Francis H SternerFrancis H. Sterner

Attended Wagner College as a freshman in 1934; did not graduate.