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Women's Suffrage, Equality, and Farmingdale State College


By Michael Motta

Change Nationally

As the first graduates of Farmingdale State College accepted their diplomas on April 14, 1919, social change was afoot throughout the US. Congress was debating a proposal for the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution. The Amendment's words were simple but its effect was profound:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.

Days following the first Farmingdale State College commencement, Congress passed the proposal and sent it to the states for ratification. Less than two weeks later—on June 16, 1919—New York became one of the first states to ratify the Amendment. About a year later, the 36th state ratified the Amendment and, for the first time in American history, women’s right to vote was Constitutionally guaranteed.

Woman Suffrage Amendment Wins in Legislature

Women's suffrage was not only made possible because of votes in Congress and in the states; women's suffrage was made possible because of decades of protest led by Alice Paul and countless others who marched, picketed, and strategized. The town of Farmingdale even played a role—the Women's Club of Farmingdale, founded and led by Abigail Leonard, convinced Theodore Roosevelt to publicly support suffrage.

Abigail E Leonard 

Courtesy of Patch


Change at Farmingdale

Today, Farmingdale State College celebrates diversity, inclusion, and equality. One hundred years ago, things were different. Only one woman was enrolled when classes began in 1916 (Nellie Buff, pictured below) and only one woman, Kathryn Freeman, was in the 1919 graduating class.

Nellie Buff headshot

(Cavaioli, Farmingdale State College: A History, pg. 33)


According to the College's 1919 report, the official mission of Farmingdale State College (then known as The New York State School of Agriculture on Long Island) was "to send to the farms educated men and women" (italics added). Still, it is clear the College was created for men. Consider the following language from the same page of the 1919 report:

1919 Report Language

Elsewhere in the 1919 report (pg. 12) we again see truer colors: a plan (never implemented) to train "girls in home-making. Hand in hand with the training of the city-raised boy for American farm life should go the training of the city-raised girl for farm home-making." This was followed by a plan to create model homes on campus so that those "city-raised girls" could "practice all the arts of household management[.]"

In the 1919 Board of Trustees minutes (pg. 476), we see the school wrestling with its identity as a formally co-educational institution. After discussing allegations of sexual harassment on campus, the board decided not to pursue the matter, concluding that:

We feel that this will be an incident that will long live in the history of this school as a warning to everyone connected with it to be extremely careful how they treat these young girls that are put here in our charge. It is a most difficult thing to run a co-educational institution, particularly... way out in the country.

According to Dr. Frank Cavaioli, professor emeritus here at Farmingdale State College, parity did not begin to emerge until World War II. Following the war, enrollment of women increased and their accomplishments began to be celebrated. Still, much work remained. Women who lived on campus had curfews and were only permitted to receive guests in a dedicated women's lounge (Cavaioli, Farmingdale State College: A History, pgs. 43 & 52).

Even into the late 1960s, women were not allowed to wear pants or shorts in any faculty or administration office. Women were also required to wear dresses or skirts and blouses in the dining hall (Student Handbook, 1967-68, pg. 20).

Looking backwards, the social inequality is obvious and hard to justify. However, by looking backwards, we can also see the incredible progress that has been made, both on campus and nationally. With its focus on inclusiveness, Farmingdale State College is poised to make even more progress in its second century. That is what we should continue to strive for.