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March 9, 2023

Influential Cornell Women to Celebrate This Women’s History Month

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Since 1987, March has been recognized as Women’s History Month in the United States. Throughout the month, women are celebrated for their contributions and achievements, and Congress formally recognizes the sacrifices made by women. Women’s History Month is a time for reflection and recognition of how women of our pasts have shaped our futures. Women’s History Month celebrations can take place throughout the whole month (and should happen throughout the whole year), but International Women’s Day is March 8.

It has long been known that women have not had equal opportunities to men in most fields, but this phenomenon is especially prominent in education. Before the rise of a group of prominent early women’s colleges called the “Seven Sisters,” higher education was almost entirely for men. Wesleyan College in Georgia became the first women’s college in the world in 1836, and women’s colleges thrived for over a century. The Seven Sisters began enrolling women between 1837 and 1889. They were known as the “Ivy League for women,” but even they were not completely intersectional, as they did not enroll Black students until the late 1800s. 

From Cornell’s opening, women attended classes even if they were not officially enrolled, and Cornell became the first Ivy League institution to admit female undergraduates in 1870. In 1867, Ezra Cornell said that he wanted to “have girls educated in the university as well as boys so that they may have the same opportunity [sic] to become wise and useful to society that the boys are [sic].” Here’s a look at some influential Cornell women whom we should be celebrating this Women’s History Month (and every month)!

Emma Sheffield Eastman:

Eastman graduated in 1873 and was the first woman to graduate from Cornell. She transferred from Vassar to Cornell and earned a PhB, before going on to teach science and math at a high school in Portland, Maine. She also worked for women’s suffrage for most of her life, until she passed away in 1932.

Jane Eleanor “Nellie” Datcher:

Datcher is the first known Black woman to earn an undergraduate degree from Cornell and the first Black woman in the U.S. to earn a degree in botany. She excelled at Cornell and graduated with honors, even completing a thesis that wasn’t required by undergraduates. Many of her family members followed in her footsteps, also attending Cornell. After graduation, Datcher became part of a significant group of educated Black women in Washington, D.C. She continued her family’s legacy as a public servant, interested in racial equality and creating more opportunities for the Black community. 

Mary Honor Donlon:

In 1919, Mary Donlon became the first female editor-in-chief of any U.S. law review. She edited three issues of the Cornell Law Quarterly. She served as chairman of the Workmen’s Compensation Board from 1944, until she became the first woman to be appointed to the federal bench in New York State. She also endowed a professorship for women in the College of Arts and Sciences, and a women’s dorm was named in her honor in 1961.

Barbara McClintock:

McClintock received her PhD in botany from Cornell in 1927, despite her family’s beliefs that it was more important for her to marry than to get an education. She studied the hereditary characteristics of corn and discovered transposition, proving that “genetic elements can sometimes change position on a chromosome and that this causes nearby genes to become active or inactive.” She demonstrated many fundamental genetic ideas and was recognized as one of the best in her field, being elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1944 and earning the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Flemmie Kittrell:

Kittrell was the first African American woman to earn a PhD in nutrition and the first African American woman to earn a PhD. She graduated with a B.S. from the Hampton Institute in 1928 and then accepted a scholarship to Cornell, where she finished her M.S. in 1930 and received a Ph.D. in nutrition in 1936. She became head of the home economics department at Howard University, where she developed a broader curriculum for home economics. She believed that home economics should be focused more on low-income and minority families in rural areas. The Turner Kittrell Medal of Honor was created by the Cornell Graduate School in her honor. It is awarded to alumni who have contributed to the “advancement of diversity, inclusion and equity in academia, industry or the public sector.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

This article wouldn’t be complete without the inclusion of the Notorious R.B.G. This former Supreme Court Justice attended Cornell on a full scholarship and majored in government, graduating in 1954. Some of her accomplishments include co-founding the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union in 1971, serving on the board of Board of Editors of the American Bar Association Journal and serving as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1993 until her death in 2020. She made history being the first Jewish woman and only the second woman to serve on the court.

Toni Morrison:

Morrison received her M.A. in English in 1955. She became known as a writer in the 70s, and her works often focused on the experience of Black women while featuring different voices and time periods. She was an A.D. White Professor-At-Large at Cornell from 1999 to 2003 and returned for visits and lectures many times. Her novel Beloved won a Pulitzer Prize and an American Book Award in 1988, and she also won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. After her death in 2019, Cornell announced that one of its new dorms would be named in her honor.

Mae Jemison:

Jemison was a Peace Corps Medal Officer from 1983 to 1985 and became the first African American woman to travel in space on the Space Shuttle Endeavor in 1992. She received her medical degree from Cornell in 1981 and has several honorary doctorates. Her expansive career has included professions such as being a writer, actress, engineer, physician, professor and entrepreneur. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993 and the International Space Hall of Fame in 2004, serving as an inspiration for girls everywhere. 

I definitely did not cover everyone with this list, but these women and many more absolutely deserve to be celebrated. I also recommend checking out Wall of Wonder: Cornell Women Leading the Way in Science, Technology, and Engineering, a book written by Cornell Engineering students featuring short biographies of alumni who have impacted society through STEM. If you’re looking for other ways to celebrate, the article I wrote last year for Women’s History Month shares a playlist and reading guide to reclaim our definition of feminism. It’s time we recognize the influential women in all aspects of life — those who inspire us to be (and support) strong, powerful women who pursue their own dreams and aspirations and make us proud to be feminists.

Freya Nangle is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].