By Marybeth Jacobson, Jour ’81, President, Association of Marquette University Women
I took so much for granted when I enrolled at Marquette. I had my choice of majors and dorms, and when I graduated in Marquette’s centennial year, I gave only passing thought to the university’s history, finding it cool that my graduation year matched the ’81 on the Marquette seal.
Only later, when I became involved as an alumna, would I learn that Marquette didn’t even admit women until 1909 — becoming the first Jesuit university to do so — and that campus housing for women was nonexistent until decades later.
That housing came about thanks to the foresight of Marquette’s first Dean of Women, Mabel Mannix McElligott, Music ’31, Grad ’36, and through the hard work of the alumnae she assembled into what would become the Association of Marquette University Women.
For the past two years, I’ve had the honor of serving as president of AMUW. Women’s History Month provides a golden opportunity to remember the contributions of the Marquette women in whose footsteps my fellow alumnae and I followed … and in whose dormitories we lived.
By the late 1930s, about 70 women were attending Marquette. While the campus offered housing for men, women had to fend for themselves, with most living in boarding houses or renting rooms in private homes. Describing housing for women as “shockingly poor and inadequate,” Dean McElligott asked alumnae for help.
That group of women met for the first time in February of 1938. That fall, they opened Alumnae House with room for 85 women at 12th Street and Kilbourn Ave.
These founders of AMUW were women of action.
Their combination of fundraising success and roll-up-your-sleeves determination is even more remarkable considering that this first women’s dorm came to be shortly after the Great Depression.
AMUW acquired and renovated several other buildings, including Carpenter Tower and Cobeen Hall, which house students to this day. The dorm where I lived as a freshman, O’Donnell Hall, was AMUW’s largest undertaking, a from-the-ground-up construction project rather than a fixer-upper.
O’Donnell Hall opened in 1952 with room for 351 students. (Not to take anything away from Marquette’s 18th president, Edward O’Donnell, S.J., for whom the residence hall is named, but I wish the building had been given the name of a woman, perhaps the forward-thinking Dean McElligott.)
In 1953, AMUW deeded its properties, then valued at $500,000, to Marquette.
Over the years, AMUW’s focus has shifted to scholarships; annual awards recognizing outstanding women seniors, graduates and faculty members; fundraising for such projects as the Helfaer Theatre and Raynor Memorial Libraries; and social, spiritual, and educational events that foster connections among women.
AMUW’s endowed Chair in Humanistic Studies, established in 1963 through more AMUW fundraising efforts, brings a distinguished woman scholar to Marquette as a visiting professor each year.
While the chair was not filled this year because of the pandemic, we will continue the Eleanor H. Boheim Distinguished Lecture Series, a talk traditionally delivered by the chair holder. This year, we will have a visiting professor for one evening, on April 27, via Zoom.
Among the most memorable and moving events during my years with AMUW was our 80th anniversary celebration three years ago. It culminated with a panel discussion by ground-breaking women from Marquette’s more recent history: the Hon. Janine Geske, Law ’75, Hon. ’98; Opus Dean of the Opus College of Engineering Kris Ropella, Eng ’85; Natalie Owen, Ed ’13; and moderator Mary Alice Tierney Dunn, Sp ’72.
They covered a wide range of issues, from the Me Too movement to the continued relevance of women’s organizations. It’s available for viewing on AMUW’s Facebook page and well worth a look.
I don’t fault my younger self for being too caught up in getting a degree, paying for college and getting a job to tune into the history that I now find so impressive.
I don’t think the first women to attend Marquette or the founders of AMUW would have wanted me spending my college years looking back any more than I’d want today’s students thinking about the challenges other women and I faced in the male-dominated newsrooms of the 1980s.
Marquette’s first generation of women would have wanted me to focus on my future, which was brighter because of them. But I hope they’d be gratified to know that I find their stories — and their very existence — inspiring, and that I thank them for the path they made.