On Geneseo’s 150th anniversary, we celebrate women leaders.
By Kris Dreessen
Julia Delehanty graduated from the Geneseo Normal School in 1921. When she returned in 1956, it was as the college’s first physician. She was noted for being a skilled doctor and accessible to students.
Only 5 percent of U.S. doctors were women during that time, says Amanda Roth, assistant professor of philosophy and women’s studies and coordinator of Geneseo’s women’s and gender studies program. While the first woman graduated from a U.S. medical school in 1849 and women were practicing physicians in the United States by the mid-1850s, the number of women doctors only significantly grew after 1960.
Delehanty was one of many pioneering women leaders in SUNY Geneseo’s history who served and serve in professional and academic positions. Three of them — athletic leaders Louise Kuhl and Myrtle “Myrt” Merritt and educator Lydia Jones — have campus buildings named in their honor.
Women’s and men’s athletics were separate when Kuhl directed the physical education program at Geneseo, starting in the 1941, so career opportunities in that field not uncommon, says Catherine Adams, associate professor of history. Passage of Title IX in 1972 transformed opportunities for women in broader disciplines because it bars exclusion for gender in any educational program that receives federal assistance. It opened up many doors for education, higher degrees and athletics, says Adams.
Today, says Adams, Geneseo has strong representation by women in leadership positions, including President Denise A. Battles.
“Geneseo has a history of welcoming women into leadership positions,” says Provost Stacey Robertson. “Long before women were fully accepted into the medical profession, our first on-campus physician was a woman. In athletics, a field that continues to be dominated by men, Marilyn Moore broke a glass ceiling when she was hired as athletic director in 1999. President Battles is our second woman president, and she is supported by a cabinet that is nearly 80 percent women. As we continue to demand women’s equality across the globe, it is heartening to see Geneseo embracing inclusion.”
Meet a few women leaders from SUNY Geneseo history:
Myrtle “Myrt” Merritt
Merritt arrived on campus in 1952 to lead physical education for female students — just in time to see the last bricks of Old Main taken down. In the nine years before Schrader Gymnasium opened, she at times led makeshift classes on Elizabeth Street. She taught for 30 years, serving also as chair of Faculty Senate, chair of the physical education department, and a leader in regional, state and national organizations before retiring as a Distinguished Service Professor of Health, Physical Education and Recreation. A longtime benefactor of the College, she now serves on the Roundtable Athletic Association, has created two scholarships for students and is in the Geneseo Sports Hall of Fame. In 2004, former president Christopher Dahl called her to the Big Tree Inn for a surprise — a gathering to celebrate the naming of the Myrtle A. Merritt Athletic Center in her honor. The center includes the ice arena, gymnasium, pool, fitness center and more.
Kuhl served as the college’s athletic director from 1941 until her death in 1967. She was noted as a champion tennis player, having held for several years the Nebraska State Championship for Women as well as several other tennis titles before coming to Geneseo. During her Geneseo tenure, she also served as acting dean of the College three times. She directed summer school for seven years and supervised construction of Schrader Gymnasium, which opened in 1961. In 1973, the College named the Louise Kuhl Gymnasium in her honor. It is home to intramural and recreational sports and special events, such as Section V high school championships.
Harter was the college’s first female president, serving from 1989 to 1995. She sought greater diversity of students, faculty and experiences on campus, and her vision was to create a sense of cosmopolitanism at Geneseo with quality academic and intellectual life. She also hired several professors who are still on faculty.
President Battles became Geneseo’s second female president in 2015 after serving many years at other institutions sharing her expertise with students as a geology professor, and in several academic leadership roles.
Moore was Geneseo’s first female athletic trainer, who then became assistant director and finally director of intercollegiate athletics and recreation from 1999 to her retirement in 2011. The National Association of Collegiate Women Athletics Administrators chose her as national administrator of the year in 2000. She is still engaged with the College, heading up the Roundtable Athletic Association (RAA), which enhances student-athlete experiences. RAA members and other alumni called her part educator, coach, sports psychologist, cheerleader and life counselor and created an RAA endowment in her honor to benefit future student-athletes. More on Moore at Geneseo.
Jones was among several female faculty members of the Geneseo Normal School preparing young teachers from 1904 to 1922. She also served as the college dean during her tenure. She is the namesake for Jones Residence Hall, which was dedicated in 1958 and is the only residence hall not named for a New York county.