Rider's progressive commitment to women's education has endured for more than 150 years
Joan Mazzotti ’72 can recall sitting in the classrooms of Rider College in the early ’70s and seeing few if any female students. She was a political science major — a program historically dominated by men — preparing to apply to law school. She always knew she wanted to be a lawyer, and though it was not unheard of for women to go to law school in that era, it was still uncommon.
“I recognized the challenges facing women, but I wasn’t going to let them stop me,” says Mazzotti, who would go on to become the first woman to chair Rider’s Board of Trustees. “Thankfully, I benefited from an institution that supported and encouraged me, even though I was in a male-dominated program.”
She was coming of age at a time when women’s issues were playing out on the national stage, including college campuses across the country. Rider was no exception. In 1968, the Student Government Association demanded changes in dress codes and a relaxation of dormitory visiting rights between the sexes. In 1969, a group of women demanding the right to wear pants staged a sit-in in Alumni Gym and a rally in front of Moore Library that lasted so long it violated the midnight curfew.
“I was at Rider at one of the most exciting times to be in college,” Mazzotti says. “Social change was happening at a rapid pace and the impact on women was significant. Doors were opening that previously had been closed.”
For more than 150 years, Rider’s student body has demanded, and the administration has dedicated itself to, a strong and progressive commitment to advancing women’s education and leadership. It has provided female access to education since the mid-19th century. The Trenton Business College, which was the University’s first incarnation in New Jersey’s capital city, graduated its first female student, Marian Ashton, in 1866. At the time, women did not have the right to vote and many married women did not have rights to their own property and wages. They were, however, using the education they acquired at places like Trenton Business College to join the ranks of the growing clerical workforce taking shape after the Civil War.
College administrators were happy to accommodate women who wished to enroll. They required a dedicated Ladies Department and, in their catalogues, spoke plainly about women “being on an equal footing with men,” declaring that discrimination against women in business “has largely, if not entirely, disappeared.” Female graduates benefitted from the opportunities, earning good-paying jobs as bookkeepers, stenographers and accountants. By 1885, women were teaching in the college as well. Georgie T. Freas and Myra Marsh were Rider’s first female instructors. By 1929, a quarter of the institution’s faculty were women. That year, two of them, Mary Hooper and Emily Gibbons, were the first females at Rider to attain the title of professor.
“In my research, I have seen an abiding commitment to women’s education and to women’s opportunities at Rider — even when such a commitment was not widespread,” says Dr. Erica Ryan, an assistant professor of history who has studied Rider’s role in educating women over time.
The University’s commitment continued in the modern era. Its gender and sexuality studies program (which began as women’s studies) launched in 1979. It began dispensing the annual Sadie Ziegler-Bernice Gee Woman of the Year Award in 1986 to high-level female administrators who make valuable contributions to the University. In 2006, Mazzotti and her husband, Michael Kelly, collaborated with Rider to establish The Mazzotti Awards in Women’s Leadership, which provides grants to distinguished women faculty members and administrators to support leadership training and professional development to enhance the women’s leadership culture at Rider.
Most recently, the Rider Women’s Leadership Council (RWLC) was formed to advance and celebrate women’s leadership and connect distinguished alumnae and friends who take an active role in mentoring female students and recent graduates. RWLC member Michele Powers ’84 finds it rewarding to help young women get started in their careers. She graduated with a bachelor’s in management and organizational behavior in 1984. Today, she has more than 30 years’ worth of experience in the healthcare industry. Throughout her life, she has acquired mentors who have been primarily men, from the coaches she had as a youngster to the people surrounding her in the business world.
“Not that male mentors are a bad thing,” she says, “but they don’t always approach things the same way female mentors do, so I’m happy I’m able to give back and share some wisdom from my experience growing up in the workforce to where I am now. I didn’t have a female role model from a business sense, and I always think back and wish I had something like that myself.”
Franziska Schmitt ’17 joined the RWLC in 2015, the same year she enrolled in Rider’s Master of Business Communication program as an international student from Stuttgart, Germany. She enlisted JP Morgan Marketing Executive Director and Rider Trustee Denise Pettita ’86, ’91 as a mentor to help her adjust to life at Rider.
“Denise is so supportive and has done so much to encourage and motivate me,” Schmitt says. “It has been a great opportunity to develop myself personally and career-wise and to learn from other women who have achieved so much in their lives. It’s also wonderful to be surrounded by other women who are as ambitious as I am and who have all struggled with the same issues.”
Fifty-seven percent of women participated in the U.S. workforce in 2015, down from a peak in 1999 of 60 percent. Women, who significantly lag their male counterparts in occupying senior level management positions, are most commonly occupied as administrative assistants, teachers and nurses. According to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, women who worked full-time in 2014 earned 79 cents for every dollar on average of men’s median annual earnings. This represents a significant gain from 1972, when Mazzotti graduated. At that time, women only earned 58 cents to every dollar.
Against that backdrop of wage inequality and discrimination, women have made significant gains in higher education. The number of adults (both men and women) earning bachelor’s degrees or higher has steadily climbed since the Census Bureau began tracking such statistics in 1940. Then, only about five percent of adults in the U.S. had a bachelor’s or higher. Today, a full third of the population, or 33 percent, do. Despite those gains, men have historically held an advantage over the number of women holding college degrees.
That fact was finally upended in 2015 when the Census Bureau reported for the first time since it began collecting data on higher education attainment that women were more likely to have a bachelor’s degree than men. Overall, the difference is statistically insignificant (30.2 percent of women with degrees compared to 29.9 percent of men), but young women are creating a gulf between them and their male peers. For those between the ages of 25 and 34, 37.5 percent of women have a bachelor’s or higher compared to only 29.5 percent of men. More women than men are also completing at least some college (60 percent to 58 percent).
In New Jersey, more men still obtain degrees than women, according to the Census Bureau, but Rider has been graduating more women than men since at least the mid-1990s, when the University began using electronic enrollment records. Most recently, females made up 63 percent (522 of 828 students) of the Class of 2016 — a five percent increase over the Class of 2015.
“Certainly things are on the right path, but they have not moved fast enough for me,” Mazzotti says, who recently stepped down from her role as the head of Philadelphia Futures after more than 16 years at the helm of the nonprofit. “We are still talking about the same issues we were faced with when I began practicing law in 1975. That is not acceptable.”
To ensure Rider’s legacy of a strong and progressive commitment to advancing women’s education and leadership advances, Mazzotti and others have come together to launch a $150,000 Giving Challenge. The goal is for alumnae who have not contributed in the past to become donors and for past contributors to increase their support. The group will match $150,000 in new or increased gifts, for a total of $300,000 in additional support for current students.
“Rider alumnae are a diverse group, but we are bound by a common intellectual foundation and a shared life experience,” Mazzotti says. “I would love to see alumnae re-engage with the University in significant numbers. I am hopeful the increased giving by alumnae over the next 18 months far exceeds the amount of the Challenge. With our success, we have an obligation to help the next generation of Rider women take their place in the world. The way to do that is to ensure the University has the resources to make it possible.”