Women of Vassar

Women of Vassar
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Yale University announced recently that the name of the Calhoun residential college will be changed to the Hopper College in honor of alum Grace Murray Hopper. Not only did Admiral Hopper (who has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame) receive her graduate degrees from Yale, she earlier attended Vassar College and received her bachelor’s degree there. The first class to attend Matthew Vassar’s College enrolled in 1865. Vassar established the college to provide an education for women equal to what men could receive at Harvard or Yale (neither of which admitted women until much later) and hired astronomer Maria Mitchell (who has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame) as its first professor. Vassar’s many graduates have made contributions in a wide range of fields from science to medicine, law to arts. Match the woman with her accomplishment:

____ 1. A co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, she believed voting was a basic right for anyone – male or female.

____ 2. After a tumultuous tenure at Vassar, she became the first American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry.

____ 3. A groundbreaking anthropologist who helped popularize the field and demonstrated the benefits of women’s perspectives.

____ 4. The first female environmental engineer, she is the founder of the field of home economics and is today referred to as the mother of ecology.

____ 5. The first woman president of the Association of American Geographers, her groundbreaking books and publications were in the area of cultural geography.

A. Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards

B. Crystal Eastman

C. Ellen Church Semple

D. Edna St. Vincent Millay

E. Ruth Fulton Benedict

Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards earned her B.S. from Vassar College in 1870. Subsequently, she attended M.I.T. as the “Swallow experiment” (without tuition so the President could deny that any women were enrolled if he were asked) and received her. B.S. in chemistry in 1873. That year, she also earned a Masters of Arts degree from Vassar. During her long and illustrious career, Richards would open the Women’s Laboratory at MIT, found the field of home economics and become one of the founding members of what today is the American Association of University Women. Today, she is called “the first female environmental engineer” and deemed the mother of ecology. Richards has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Citing her working and feminist mother as one of the greatest influences on her life, Crystal Eastman herself became a feminist, activist and civil rights advocate. Graduating from Vassar in 1903, she was finally able to attend the New York University Women’s Law Class (after helping support her brothers’ college attendance) from which she graduated in 1907. A committed suffragist, Eastman believed that voting was a basic right that could not be denied women. Her early work investigating deaths in the workplace led to her drafting of the first workers’ compensation laws in the nation and her advocacy work in labor relations. A co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, she was one of the four people to write the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923. Eastman has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

After enrolling in Vassar College when she was sixteen, Ellen Church Semple graduated in 1882, the youngest member of her class, with emphases in geography, anthropology and economics. She returned to Kentucky where she taught geography and began her groundbreaking work in cultural geography. Her 1903 publication, American History and Its Geographic Condition, was considered a classic and used as a high school and college textbook until the 1950s. She was awarded the 1914 Cullum Geographical Medal by the American Geographical Society “in recognition for her distinguished contributions in the field of anthropogeography,” after the publication of her 1911 seminal book, Influences of Geographic Environment. Semple was a founder and the first president of the Association of American Geographers and the first woman to give a lecture in front of the Royal Geographical Society.

The recitation of one of her poems in 1912, led Edna St. Vincent Millay to apply for a scholarship to Vassar and to receive financial support in expenses not covered through that scholarship. That poem also led to national attention and fourth prize out of 10,000 entries. Although her experience at Vassar was tumultuous, it also laid a foundation for her artistic talent. That talent would lead her to become the first American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in poetry (1923). Her poem “First Fig” is very well known:

My candle burns at both ends;

It will not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends –

It gives a lovely light!

A pioneering anthropologist and one of the earliest women in the field, Ruth Fulton Benedict helped popularize the science of anthropology and demonstrated that women’s perspectives benefited the pursuit of science. Also a writer and a poet, Benedict graduated as an English literature major from Vassar in 1909. She discovered anthropology in 1919 when she returned to school. Her PhD from Columbia University was awarded in 1923 and her groundbreaking publication that established her anthropology reputation Patterns of Culture was published in 1934. Benedict has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and featured on a U.S. postage stamp.

Learn about more she-roes and celebrate amazing women. These women, all of whom are Vassar College alums, are among the more than 850 women profiled in the book Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America. I am proud to tell women’s stories and to write them back into history.

(Answers 1-B, 2-D, 3-E, 4-A, 5-C)

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