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The State of Our Union

The History of Female Involvement at Spectator and Beyond

Columbia University is a feminist institution—these days.

For a school whose founding undergraduate college only began admitting women 31 years ago, Columbia can now boast a student body with female leadership in nearly every corner.

When we say every corner, we mean that the presidents of three of the four undergraduate student councils are women. The Columbia University Marching Band’s head manager is a woman. The Columbia University College Democrats, and Columbia University College Republicans are headed by women. The newly announced incoming chair of the Student Governing Board is a woman. And as for campus media, the editors in chief of both Spectator and Bwog are women. These are not just campus voices—these are campus leaders. And the fact that they’re women? That’s not noteworthy.

Calling Columbia a progressive institution for women is a relatively recent development in its history. Appointing women to leadership roles in many Columbia clubs and organizations was a long and arduous process, much like the decision to allow them into the University.

One Columbia organization that was particularly unwelcoming to women for much of its history was the Columbia Daily Spectator. We, as Barnard students and long-time Spectator reporters, have an obvious interest in learning about our female predecessors and the efforts they made to make room for a woman’s byline on Spectator’s pages. But putting a spotlight on Spectator is not meant to be self-congratulatory or conceited. Instead, Spectator’s history—the good and the bad—is a history anyone at Columbia can appreciate. It’s a story of women entering a hostile, male-dominated arena, and opening the door for generations of women to come.

Spectator’s archives allow for important historical insight into the minds of our predecessors at Columbia, and stretch as far back as 1910 in online format. They tell important stories in our University’s past, but the only people telling these stories for the majority of the publication’s history were men.

Examining the roles that women have been allowed within the University’s framework—from the founding of Barnard College, to Spectator’s inclusion of women, and coeducation of Columbia College—puts today’s campus-wide female leadership into a new perspective. We should take pride in today’s strong female leadership within our university—but before we do, we should ask one important question: What took so long?

COLUMBIA BCE: BEFORE COEDUCATION

Much has been written about the admittance of women into Columbia College in 1983, but the original women of Columbia University were Barnard students, the first of whom arrived in 1889, the year of Barnard’s creation. At this point, Columbia had existed for 135 years without women, and bringing Barnard into the mix, even as a separate institution, was hard for some longtime administrators to swallow.

Barnard history professor Robert McCaughey wrote in his 2003 book, Stand, Columbia, that then-University president Frederick A. P. Barnard believed that women should have access to a Columbia education. “Columbia College is destined in the coming centuries to become comprehensive in the scope of her teaching ... without distinction of either class or sex,” Barnard said in a statement in 1879. Additionally, he thought that admitting women would increase Columbia’s enrollment and therefore lower the rising tuition fee. University President Barnard presented his case three times to the Board of Trustees, who could not be convinced that women should be admitted to Columbia College. On March 5, 1883, the entire board, except for Barnard, voted against the proposition to admit women.

The decision, according to McCaughey’s book, was met with criticism nearly everywhere but the Columbia Daily Spectator. On March 16, 1883, a Spectator article was published saying that, “It is exceedingly gratifying to note how, in this instance, the sentiments of students coincided exactly with those of the Trustees.”

Following the March 5 vote, the Board of Trustees established the Collegiate Course for Women. Women were to be taught by Columbia professors offsite, in a plan modeled after Harvard. This decision was also supported by Spectator staff, who wrote in the same March 16 article, “We must commend the diplomatic manner in which these resolutions were framed, for, while finally extinguishing all hope of the education of both sexes in conjunction at Columbia, they nevertheless granted the petition of the Society for the Higher Education of Women.”

Despite this, only four women completed the program and Barnard deemed it a failure. So, several years later, he pushed for the idea of coeducation again—but this time, he proposed the creation of an affiliated college. The school was approved on April 1, 1889, and opened six months later at 343 Madison Ave. Ironically, Barnard was never able to see his dream of women’s education at Columbia fully realized. He died less than a month after Barnard College was approved, although the school was named in his honor.

The women’s college, known as Barnard College, was met with fierce opposition by Columbia Faculty of Political Sciences Dean John Burgess, who had been against the idea of coeducation since President Barnard had first proposed it years earlier. According to McCaughey’s book, during initial negotiations, Burgess had said that admitting women would “make the college a female seminary and a Hebrew femaleseminary, in the character of the student body, at that.” After the women’s college had been established, Burgess banned Barnard seniors from taking graduate courses, in spite of the fact that professors had already been teaching them and were willing to continue doing so. According to McCaughey’s book, Burgess made it difficult for his faculty to teach at Barnard.

To combat this, then-University President Seth Low, Barnard’s successor, made an anonymous gift of $36,000 to Barnard College’s Board of Trustees. The money was to be put toward hiring three new faculty members who, alongside becoming members of the Columbia Faculties of Political Science and Pure Science, could offer graduate courses if they wished to do so. It eventually became clear that one of the reasons Burgess was not named Low’s successor was because of their difference in opinion concerning the education of women.

A formalized relationship between the two schools was realized in June 1900. An agreement between Low, the Barnard Board of Trustees, and then-Barnard Dean Emily Jane Smith Putman came to define the Columbia-Barnard relationship until 1983. Barnard College was to have a separate Board of Trustees (which included the Columbia president), be financially independent, have its own faculty (whose appointments were approved by Columbia), its own dean, and could set its own curriculum. Its students were able to take upper level Columbia courses and would receive Columbia degrees in addition to Barnard degrees.

“COED AT LAST”

On Aug. 29, 1983, half of the front page of Spectator simply read: “Coed At Last.”

Columbia College was the last in the Ivy League to become coeducational. The decision to admit women was formally announced by then-University President Michael Sovern on Jan. 22, 1982. The next big question was: How did Barnard fit in the mix?

The relationship between Barnard and Columbia remained the same, relatively, up until the 1960s and 1970s—although Barnard’s identity as an independent institution was emphasized when Barnard Dean Millicent C. McIntosh’s title was changed to Barnard College President. In 1962, Barnard and Columbia agreed to offer joint courses with no extra cost to either school when the schools signed another agreement that led to an increase in shared facilities, classrooms, labs, housing, faculty appointments, and libraries.

According to McCaughey, who has been a professor at Barnard College since 1969, the schools only truly began consolidating their course offerings in the early 1970s. “In 1969, there may have been seven people who taught Chaucer ... One of the consolidations was you got rid of half those people,” he says.

The downsizing meant that students were interacting more often; which, according to McCaughey, could have changed the social dynamic of the institution. “You still have the same number of students, but you mixed up the students more effectively,” he says. “If you’re rubbing shoulders more often in class, then the extracurricular contact is more likely to happen.”

But it wasn’t only Columbia men and Barnard women who were interacting. The entire University—except for Columbia College—had become coeducational long before 1983. According to McCaughey, the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences began admitting women in 1943, in the middle of World War II, because the classrooms were essentially empty due to the number of men serving in the war.

“As it turned out, very few came,” he says of SEAS admitting women. Still, Barnard set up a pre-engineering program, which produced a good number of the women who ended up entering the engineering school. “There may have been three or four women a year in the late ’40s and early ’50s, and one or two of them would have come through the Barnard program,” McCaughey says. At this point in time, the engineering school only admitted students who transferred after completing two or three years of schooling elsewhere.

But in 1959, the engineering school began recruiting students directly out of high school—men and women. Although this effectively marked the end of the Barnard pre-engineering program, it was the start of a new chapter in the history of SEAS.

As time went on, Barnard’s multi-layered relationship with Columbia was solidified through interaction between the two schools’ student groups. Barnard College Dean Avis Hinkson, a 1984 graduate of Barnard College and 1987 graduate of Teachers College, was the junior and senior representative to the Board of Trustees on Barnard’s Student Government Association during her time as a student at Barnard. Prior to Columbia College going coed in Hinkson’s senior year, she says that the student governments at Columbia College and Barnard were always working in cooperation with one another.

“As the sister-brother model of Columbia College and Barnard College, we were constantly doing things in concert,” Hinkson says. “It was pretty easy in terms of the exchange between the schools. I certainly—as an undergrad, as a student leader—went to lots of activities that were hosted at Columbia by a specific club or were campus-wide events. And at the same time, the events that Barnard would host, there were things that were seen as Barnard-only; but there were a larger list of things that we were extending an invitation to Columbia College or all of the colleges to participate in.”

Paula Franzese—a 1981 graduate of Barnard College, a former Barnard Student Government Association president, and current Barnard political science professor—says that she remembers a predominant pride among her Barnard peers in being distinct from the rest of Columbia. And as a result, they maintained a cordial separateness from the larger university.

“We perceived ourselves more as an individualized entity. We were Barnard, the liberal arts college for women, within the rubric of Columbia University. And our sense of identity was always, we are Barnard. And our effort rooted in reform, quality of life advancement, equality of access, was aimed at our Barnard constituents,” Franzese says. “We didn’t engage in too much deliberate crossover with our Columbia counterparts. The relations were always amicable.”

Hinkson notes that within the four undergraduate colleges, there were some college-specific clubs that were not open for students outside of the college to join. But, “Barnard’s voice was always a strong voice. If I was a part of an organization and I thought that it should go in a particular direction, or some event wasn’t being run the way that it should or open to whomever it should, in true Barnard fashion, I don’t think I was held back,” she says.

Interschool interaction was undoubtedly a part of everyday life leading up to Columbia College’s decision to admit women in 1983, as well as afterwards. But an often unexamined storyline is of the men and women who were telling the story: the reporters.

THE OLD BOYS CLUB

Speaking at a “Women in Journalism” panel at the Columbia Journalism School in November 2012, Cyndi Stivers, a 1978 graduate of Barnard College and a current Barnard trustee, said that she considered joining Spectator in her sophomore year, but had a change of heart.

“When I came in after my freshman summer with clips from a paper in Northern New Jersey ... I said, ‘I’d like to volunteer for the Spectator,’ and they said, ‘Well, what makes you think you could work at the Spectator?’—because there were very few women. And I said, ‘Here are my clips from the summer.’ ... They said, ‘clips? You have professional experience? Who did you fuck?’”

After that conversation, Stivers, who went on to become president and editor in chief of Time Out New York, editor in chief of AOL.com, and most recently is overseeing digital strategy at the newly-formed Tina Brown Live Media, never wrote for Spectator.

Stivers’ experience with members of Spectator’s leadership is all too familiar for many of the early women who joined, or tried to join, Spectator.

Spectator became financially independent from Columbia in 1962, allowing the paper to publish anything the editors saw fit without administrative interference. It would no longer be known as the student newspaper of Columbia College, but became the paper of the larger University. It also meant that Barnard students had access to an additional publication besides the weekly campus newspaper, the Barnard Bulletin.

One of the earliest female reporters to join Spectator’s staff was Eleanor Prescott, a 1968 graduate of Barnard College—who, in her senior year, became the first woman to serve on Spectator’s managing board. Far from celebrating her pioneering spirit, the March 17, 1967, Spectator article about Prescott’s role on the managing board reveals a tone of harsh resentment.

“Appointment of Girl to Spectator Board Shatters Tradition,” the headline read.

“A ninety-year tradition of male exclusiveness has been broken with the selection of Eleanor Prescott ’68, to the post of Spectator Editorials Editor. Through a devious and intricate series of constitutional maneuvers the last several managing boards of the newspaper have prepared the way for Miss Prescott’s ascension to her post,” the article began, noting that the constitution, while much more inclusive of women, would not permit a Barnard Student to assume the position of editor in chief.

The article went on to explain the changes that having a woman at Spectator brought to the office atmosphere, to the detriment of cigar-smoking students and those with foul mouths.

“The traditionally blunt language of the city room has been moderated by a lady’s presence for the last three years, and cigar smoke has often given way to the more pleasant scent of ‘jog’ the world’s costliest perfume.”

In the same article, Prescott was asked by the reporter about being the first woman on Spectator’s managing board. She said she was met with much resistance initially, and that her role as editorials editor came to be seen as a distinctly feminine part-time job.

“It took some people quite a while to realize that I wouldn’t vanish like the girls who had preceded me,” Prescott said in the article. “I’ve been asked to fill a new post on the paper in addition to that of Editorials Editor. It seems my colleagues expect me to be a den mother, too. I’ve already started to supervise the cleaning of the office.”

Although at this point Spectator as an organization may not have been keen on female leadership, by 1973 the constitution had been revised once again, and it welcomed its first female editor in chief, Gail Robinson.

A March 1, 1973, Barnard Bulletin article profiles Robinson, who at that time was one of six women to have ever served on Spectator’s managing board, and the first to be on its corporate board. She was one of three female Spectator staff members that year, a slump in female representation that Robinson said had to do with sexism within Spectator and a sense of alienation from Columbia encouraged by Barnard’s administration.

“I think that lately there is a tendency for women to join activities involving other women. Especially at Barnard, which encourages women to get involved in things at their own institution. The result is that fewer women are joining the Spectator staff. The female membership on staff is at its lowest in several years,” Robinson told the Bulletin. The article goes on to say that Robinson claimed that “the sexism of the male staff members has tended to drive women away from Spectator.”

“I hope that this attitude can be changed. We really would like to have more Barnard reporters,” Robinson said, adding that, “the Barnard administration has always thought of Spectator as an enemy. I hope that as editor I can change this situation.”

Robinson noted that as a Barnard student, she felt scorned by her peers at Spectator.

“I think Columbia has always had a very superior attitude toward Barnard. And this has been reflected in Spectator. I hope that I can change this by giving equal coverage to Barnard.”

The outgoing president of the Barnard Bulletin—Eleanor Traube Kra, a 1962 graduate of Barnard College—also noted in a letter to the incoming editor in chief, Roselle Kurland, a 1963 graduate of Barnard College, on March 6, 1962 that Columbia, specifically Spectator, had an attitude toward Barnard and at times she felt bullied by Spectator.

“In any case, if you do try to cover the university, tread softly, softly. Its treacherous ground and I think Bulletin can’t really absorb anything like that. But be friendly with Spec—they can be nice—if treated gently and kept at a distance. Don’t let their stupid superiority complex bother you,” Traube Kra wrote.

Evidently, there existed a rivalry between the Bulletin and Spectator. On Dec. 10, 1952, members of Spectator distributed a farce version of the Barnard Bulletin, a joke that left the Bulletin’s editors angry. According to a Dec. 12, 1952, Spectator article, the so-called bogus version of the Bulletin “asked for the admission of women visitors to the Columbia College dorms, and accused the Barnard administration of attempting to suppress Bulletin editorials.”

Dorothy Coyne, a 1953 graduate of Barnard College and the Bulletin’s editor in chief at the time, was livid. “No issue was published by the Barnard Bulletin on December 10,” she wrote in a statement. “Any newspaper distributed under that banner-head on that date was illegal, erroneous, and libelous.”

Spectator seemed to have little interest in covering Barnard, which at the time, would have been one of the only sources of women’s news. “Barnard news tends to be forgotten by Spectator,” Robinson said in the Bulletin’s profile story on her as editor in chief of Spectator. “We’ve covered Barnard financial news in the past, but I think our coverage of Barnard should also include information on faculty and new courses among other things.”

Superiority defined the relationship, even after Spectator appointed Robinson as its first-ever female editor in chief.

In the Feb. 23, 1973 Spectator article announcing her promotion, the incoming sports editor is quoted, saying that he plans to include more Barnard sports articles, such as fencing, crew, and volleyball in Spectator. “I think they’re deserving of mention,” he said. “Not particularly of interest, but of mention.”

Robinson hoped that Spectator would become more than just the paper of Columbia College—she wanted it to become the go-to news source for Barnard as well. But before that could happen, Spectator would have to become more accepting of women on its staff.

A WARMER WELCOME

By the 1980s, some female Spectator staffers felt at home at Spectator. Anne Marie Brako, a 1982 graduate of Barnard College, was a sports associate editor at Spectator. In an interview, she says that she is still in touch with several friends she made on Spectator, and that “they’re like family members,” to her.

“I always got any story I wanted to do,” Brako says. She got her start writing first about Columbia soccer and later about fencing.

“I had never seen a fencing match and I knew nothing about it. Columbia’s fencing team was very good— they ended up winning the Ivies. I just learned about the sport, I traveled with the team. It was mostly day tripsthat we would do. I learned a lot,” Brako says, adding that she went on to cover Columbia football games. 

“You know you’ve made it when you get to cover football games,” she says. Her second year at Spectator marked the beginning of co-sports editors and the first female sports editor, Esther Fein.

“She was a very good role model. It seemed like you could do anything at that time. Although there were still very few women working for different newspapers. You didn’t see women sportswriters really,” Brako says.

Throughout the 1980s, Spectator appeared more welcoming on the outside as well. As a consequence, more and more women were drawn away from writing for the Barnard Bulletin. “Observing it from a middle-distance it struck me that in the 1980s, certainly in the 1970s, the Barnard Bulletin was a livelier piece of student journalism than it was later,” McCaughey says. “I’ve known students who have attributed that to the Spectator being more open to having Barnard people on it. If you’re a journalist, you might like for the local newspaper, but if there’s a bigger operation, you tend to do that.” Robinson seemed to echo that sentiment.

“I thought that since I would be living at Barnard and attending most of my classes there, I should get involved in something at Columbia,” she told the Bulletin. “I’m not sure I even knew that Bulletin existed at first. But I heard about Spectator at orientation and since I was interested in becoming a journalist, I joined the staff.”

Outside of Spectator, Brako says she always felt welcome at Columbia events and never faced exclusion or ostracism.

“Because Columbia was single-sex, the ratio was 4:1 men to women, Barnard women were very much in demand to attend Columbia events because they always wanted to encourage the coed situation,” Brako says.

“At Barnard, just because we were encouraged as women at that time, and I think it’s still true, more women from Barnard went to get a graduate degree than in any other women’s college. That was the sense then. You had the sense that you could do anything. I never felt that I was looked down on in any way. I was accepted to other Ivy League schools that were coed and I decided to go to Barnard because I liked the school, I wanted to be in New York, I liked the arrangement with Columbia. I never felt that anyone looked down on me because I was a Barnard student.”

But not everyone shared Brako’s perspective. Franzese says she rarely set foot on Columbia’s campus other than for class.

“We did not have the capacity to really think about an alternative,” Franzese says, referring to the imminent decision for Columbia College to become coeducational. “There wasn’t a place for women at Columbia College, and we were also so fiercely committed to the premise of quality education for women and the range of opportunities that were available in pursuit of the power that is knowledge for women.”

“Certainly none of us were myopic and none of us had blinders on. It was obvious to all of us, of the opportunities of the University experience. But the Bulletin and the student government was still principally Barnard-centric,” she adds.

THE STATE OF OUR UNION

As both Barnard students and longtime Spectator writers, we could not fathom what our college experiences would have become if we hadn’t had access to Spectator. When we take a look around the Spectator office, the “Coed At Last” front page is prominently displayed on the wall, shielded by a glass frame. It’s a daily reminder of how Columbia and the paper we love so much wouldn’t have always welcomed us with open arms. And it’s not just Spectator that’s become more open to female leadership.

According to Sejal Singh, Columbia College junior and president of the Columbia University College Democrats, there’s a running joke within the Dems that the group has an ongoing matriarchy, as the past six consecutive years of the Dems have been under female leadership.

Singh says that the Dems devote much of their work to women’s rights activism, including advocating for abortion access and most recently, reforming the sexual assault policy on campus.

“Having that sort of strong female leadership is one of the big reasons things like the sexual assault policy came up, and I think that bringing those perspectives to the table has been really useful for us as an organization,” Singh says. “I think because we work hard to do that throughout the year, it sort of manifests itself during elections quite naturally.”

This year marks the first year that Barnard students are allowed to serve on the Activities Board at Columbia—the largest undergraduate governing board at Columbia University, representing over 150 cultural, academic, pre-professional, publication, science and engineering, performing arts, and special interest groups on campus.

Barnard students have always been able to serve on the Student Governing Board, the oldest of Columbia’s governing boards founded in 1968, because SGA financially supported SGB. But SGA did not fund ABC, which was founded in 1998, until recently.

When Barnard established the Governing Board at Barnard last spring, SGA and ABC reached an agreement where SGA would fund ABC, as it does with other governing boards through Funding at Columbia University, and in exchange, Barnard students would be allowed to sit on ABC.

“That was actually part of our landmark agreement between the SGA and ABC. The issue had been in discussion for a couple of years,” Tony Lee, Columbia College junior and president of ABC, says.

“There are a lot of Barnard students who serve as leaders on our student groups, so it only makes sense that we have Barnard representation allowed on our board,” Lee adds.

One Barnard student ran in ABC’s elections last year and was not selected, but Lee says he’s actively trying to get more Barnard representation in ABC.

“I think it is very important to have a Barnard voice on our board, and it’s something I’m looking towards for elections that are going to happen in early to mid April,” Lee says, adding that, “We actually set up an outreach committee just for getting ABC’s programming out to campus and really sending the message out to Barnard students is going to be part of our work.”

In the past, ABC has had women serve on its executive board and as representatives, but, this year’s leadership is predominantly male.

“There’s only 2 [women] out of a board of 17. Which is obviously not reflective of the gender ratio at Columbia,” Lee says.

Oftentimes, the narrative of women at Columbia is told in two different acts: the creation of Barnard in 1889, and the decision to go coed in 1983. But this way of telling the story pits the women of Barnard and Columbia against each other—as well as forgets the fact that the School of General Studies began admitting women in 1891, and that the School of Engineering and Applied Science in 1943. In other words, it’s a massive oversimplification of a complicated, historic relationship, and is something best not forgotten as Barnard celebrates its 125th anniversary in 2014. Celebrating this anniversary isn’t reserved for only Barnard students —it’s about championing women’s education on both sides of Broadway.

For Franzese, her days as a student in the pre-coeducational Columbia were years she reflects on fondly. But she says that being at the University as it is today—with all four undergraduate student governments working in collaboration—there’s a mutual benefit felt on both sides of Broadway.

“I think the coeducational opportunities at Columbia worked to the mutual benefit of the entire campus to the extent that the opportunities presented are properly understood. Those have to be rooted in a spirit of cooperation, that we are all branches of the same tree. And there’s a Native American wisdom that ‘No tree would be so foolish as to fight amongst its branches,’ that we are part of the most dynamic and resilient and extraordinary learning center. And each one of us has an important contribution to make. No one’s success works to the detriment of anyone else’s,” Franzese says. “Indeed, the success is rather contagious and we tend to catch it from each other. So to the extent that we continue to build bridges, to the extent that we see our strength in our diversity of opportunity, the best is yet to be.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Spectator's first female sports co-editor, Esther Fein. The article also previously misspelled the name of Gail Robinson. The Eye regrets the errors.

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RN posted on

This was a wonderful and informative read. Thank you for your hard work!

Albert Zonana posted on

I was on the managing board that elected Eleanor Prescott. She was a brilliant reporter and editor, and had the utmost respect of all who knew her. Her career in journalism was cut short by her unexpected death at a young age.

Despite what the silly Spectator article said at the time in an unfortunate attempt at humor, those of us who elected Eleanor did it because she deserved it.

Lisa Lin posted on

It's so important to remember how things came to be as it is very easy to forget the battles fought by others. Thank you for this enlightening piece!

The Filthiest Bandie Alive posted on

The Marching Band's head manager is also the worst person I've ever met in my entire life.

Jacqueline Laks Gorman posted on

I'm sorry Cindi Stivers (B'78) had a difficult time trying to join Spectator. We overlapped at Barnard (I'm B'77), and my experience was quite different. I enjoyed three fulfilling--albeit challenging--years at Spec, where I was on the managing board. I felt that Spectator offered a much more valuable journalistic experience at the time than the Barnard Bulletin.

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