Julia Nagel/Sun Photography Editor

Students walking by Toni Morrison Hall on August 31, 2021. The building was named in honor of Toni Morrison '53, the first female African-American Literature Nobel Prize winner.

March 15, 2023

Notable Female Alumnae Recognized During Women’s History Month

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As pioneers in their respective industries, the legacies of Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54, Toni Morrison ’53 and Barbara McClintock ’23 M.S. ’25 Ph.D. ’27 have been memorialized on Cornell’s campus through honorific residential hall naming. The naming provides these women recognition year-round, especially during Women’s History Month in March as Cornellians reflect on these alumnae’s influence.

Three of the five residence hall buildings constructed as part of the University’s recent North Campus Residential Expansion are named in honor of these women. In deciding how to name the new buildings, the NCRE Naming Committee considered name suggestions from the Cornell community, focusing on groundbreaking and diverse individuals.

“The Naming Committee took advantage of a tremendous number of suggestions from the Cornell community in assembling a list of names to propose,” said Karen Brown, senior director of campus life marketing and communications. “Honorific namings — those not involving philanthropic support — are considered, vetted and decided through the University administration, including the president and Board of Trustees.” 

Ginsburg, Morrison and McClintock were all chosen for their exceptional contributions not only to the University, but to society as a whole, according to Brown.

Prof. Lee Humphreys, communication, said she appreciates that the buildings’ names continue to recognize these women, during Women’s History Month and beyond.   

“It’s important to honor women, not just this month, but all the time, which is to me what the dorms do,” Humphreys said. “It’s not just a temporary honor, but it is a recognition that all three women were really pioneers in their own fields.” Humphreys said. 

​​As the second-ever female justice to serve on the Supreme Court, Ginsburg devoted her years on the bench to fighting for equality and rights, especially for marginalized groups. 

“[She] personified what it means to be a Cornellian,” wrote President Martha Pollack in a 2020 statement, following Ginsburg’s passing.

Ginsburg started to develop her passion for gender equality and civil rights as a Cornell undergraduate. In 2020, Cornell archivist Steven Calco and Brandon Hoak ’21 discovered  letters that Ginsburg addressed to Prof. Milton Konvitz ’33, a founding faculty member of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

“You opened my mind to the possibility of realizing human rights at the time that was not the best for our Nation and World,” Ginsburg wrote in a typewritten note from 2001. 

After completing her undergraduate years at Cornell, Ginsburg continued her studies at Harvard Law School. She encountered a hostile, male-dominated environment as one of the eight women in her class of over 500 students. Regardless, Ginsburg graduated near the top of her class.

Ginsburg went on to become the first female tenured professor at Columbia University and second female law professor at Rutgers University, where she fought for equal pay and co-founded the first law journal on women’s rights. 

Ginsburg later argued landmark gender equality cases before the Supreme Court as the founder of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, finally taking her seat as the second woman and first Jewish woman on the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993.  

Several students, like Aishwarya Khubchandani ’26, said they look up to Ginsburg as one of the University’s most notable alumnae. Khubchandani said she feels Ginsburg’s honorific naming is well-deserved.

“[Ginsburg] has been an inspiration to many, be it from her courtroom actions to her going to the gym at age 70 and bench pressing more than I could,” Khubchandani said. 

Toni Morrison Hall, which first housed students last year, is named after the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature winner and Pulitzer Prize-winning author. 

Morrison’s books often chronicle tumultuous life experiences of Black women, portraying racial and class prejudice. Her most notable works include Song of Solomon” and “Beloved,” which both achieved critical and commercial successes.

Before receiving a Nobel Prize and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, Morrison faced many obstacles. Morrison’s family left Georgia and moved north to escape sharecropping and violence against African Americans. She grew up during the Great Depression in the 1930s, and her family endured severe economic hardship, racial divisions and prejudice.

The third of the new female-named residence halls bears McClintock’s name and serves as North Campus’s all-female dorm. McClintock has been widely recognized in the field of biology as one of the most distinguished scientists of the 20th century. 

McClintock studied botany at Cornell, where she earned a B.S., an M.S. and a Ph.D. After completing her studies, McClintock began her research, focusing on the cytogenetics — the study of chromosome inheritance — of maize. She collaborated with Harriet Creighton Ph.D. ’33, a graduate student at the time, to demonstrate the genetic phenomenon of crossing-over. 

Additionally, McClintock’s discovery of mobile genetic elements, also known as genetic transposition or jumping genes, challenged the traditional understanding of genetics and laid the foundations for further research.

After being a student and instructor at Cornell, McClintock continued her research in maize cytogenetics. She later became the first woman to win an unshared Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1983. 

Ena Kovac ’26, who is studying engineering, said she finds women’s representation in science, technology, engineering and math important.

“Representation of any kind is important, because it lets people who fit that demographic have someone to look up to and someone who tells them that [achieving their goals] is possible no matter what,” Kovac said. “Having such strong representation as a woman in engineering [at Cornell] has been extremely encouraging from the start.” 

Humphreys also commented on female representation within her department — as a Cornell student, her mentor was  Prof. Geri Gay, communications, who was former chair of the department and later hired Humphreys as a communications professor.

“Ever since I’ve gotten here — and I got here in 2008 — we have had a woman chair of the department so we have always been led by women,” Humphreys said. “It helps in terms of looking at future careers, as scientists [and] as scholars, to see a woman in that role.”

Similarly, Khubchandani noted a strong female presence among Cornell leadership.

“Seeing women come to rise in those situations, like Cornell’s president and director of athletics, shares hope with younger generations that it could be us someday,” Khubchandani said. “We need more women to rise so we can plant dreams in the minds of the younger generation.” 

Sofia Principe ’26 is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].