When undergraduate women first enrolled at Lehigh in 1971, they faced the challenge of integrating into a student community that had been dominated by men since the university’s founding in 1865.
At the same time, some of Lehigh’s academic departments had already begun hiring the first women to their faculties. Between 1967 and 1974, for example, the English department appointed its first five women faculty members.
Four of those professors—Rosemarie Arbur, Elizabeth Fifer, Rosemary Mundhenk and Barbara Traister—are the subject of a student-produced documentary film called The First Four.
The documentary was produced by Liana Prodorutti ’16, an English major; Laura Casale ’15, a journalism and English dual major; Meghan Barwick ’15, a journalism major; and Nadia Sasso, an American studies graduate student.
The group was advised by Michael Kramp, associate professor of English, and Julia Maserjian, a digital historian in Lehigh’s Library and Technology Services group.
“Learning about these women and telling their story inspired me to become more involved in feminism and the women’s center in particular,” said Barwick. “As a group of four women ourselves, it was a really valuable experience to work on this project.”
Positive interactions and challenges
Filmed and produced throughout the summer, The First Four chronicles the lives and experiences of Arbur, Fifer, Mundhenk and Traister. While their arrival on campus was a landmark for diversity and inclusion on South Mountain, there were times when the existing campus culture made their adjustment a challenge.
At times, the women faced colleagues who held archaic ideas of gender roles—the notion that women should not be in the workplace, for example. Overall, however, they said their interactions with students in the classroom were consistently positive.
The First Four consists primarily of individual and group interviews with Arbur, Fifer, Mundhenk and Traister. Archival footage and images from yearbooks, newspapers and other periodicals are interspersed throughout as well.
The student filmmakers traveled to visit and interview women for the documentary, conducted extensive research into women at Lehigh and into the film’s time period, and edited the final product as a group. While the process of creating a film from scratch was daunting, the students said the medium allowed them to tell the story in a way that a research paper perhaps could not.
“When making a film, you have to do all of the writing and research that you have to do for a paper,” said Sasso, who is also pursuing a graduate certificate in documentary film. “A film offers a really unique academic experience, and the visual allows you to add a new layer for people to experience.”