Making their mark: Cornell women through the ages
In a letter dated February 17, 1867, Ezra Cornell stated young women should be educated in the university as well as young men so that both would have the same opportunities. In 1870, the first woman was admitted to Cornell, making it one of the first universities in the Ivy League to admit both men and women.
Our graduates include the world’s first woman to secure a surgical residency, the first African-American woman in space, the first female U.S. Attorney General, and many other pioneers. For more than a century, Cornell women have profoundly influenced our world, and continue to lead in a wide range of fields.
Read on to discover some of the many inspiring Cornell women who have made their mark on history.
Emily Dunning Barringer 1897, M.D. 1901 was the world’s first female ambulance surgeon and the first woman to secure a surgical residency. She was the niece of Cornell trustee and benefactor Henry W. Sage, who paid her tuition when she entered Cornell’s medical preparatory program. Barringer took courses in the College of Arts and Sciences and Veterinary Medicine, earning her bachelor’s degree from Cornell in 1897. Barringer finished second in her class at Cornell Medical School (now Weill Cornell Medicine) when she graduated in 1901. Throughout her life, she was an advocate for women’s suffrage and worked to improve medical education for women, advance public health and sought reforms for the treatment of imprisoned women. During World War II, she lobbied Congress to allow women doctors to serve as commissioned officers in the Army Medical Reserve Corps. Congress passed the Sparkman Act in 1943, which granted women the right to receive commissions in the Army, Navy, and Public Health Service.
Jessie Redmon Fauset
Author and editor Jessie Redmon Fauset 1905 was the first African-American student at Cornell elected to the Phi Beta Kappa Society. After teaching high school French for 14 years in Washington, D.C., Fauset moved to New York City in 1919 to become the literary editor of the magazine Crisis, published by the NAACP. Many regard Fauset as the “midwife” of the Harlem Renaissance for nurturing the careers of writers such as Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes and George Schuyler. In addition to authoring essays, poetry, and short stories, Fauset published four novels, including There is Confusion, in which she sought to address inaccurate portrayals of black life in fiction, and Plum Bun, a coming-of-age story that is her most acclaimed piece of work.
Nora Stanton Blatch Barney
Pioneering engineer and suffragist Nora Stanton Blatch Barney 1905 became the first U.S. woman to earn a civil engineering degree when she graduated from the College of Engineering. The granddaughter and daughter of suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Harriot Stanton Blatch, Barney was active in the campaign for women’s rights, serving as chair of the National Advisory Council of the National Woman’s Party. In her early career, she worked for the American Bridge Company and the New York Water Supply System, building bridges and subway tunnels in New York. Barney served as the drafting technician who worked on the city’s first reservoir and aqueduct in the Catskill Mountains, which has been referred to as the largest repair in NYC water supply history. In March 2017, Barney’s work on New York City’s Delaware Aqueduct was further recognized with a tunnel-borer machine used to repair the aqueduct being named in her honor.
Martha Van Rensselaer
Recognized as one of the 12 most important women in America by the League of Women Voters in 1923, Cornell professor Martha Van Rensselaer 1909 was committed to improving the lives of women. In her early career, Van Rensselaer taught at various schools in New York and Pennsylvania, and, in 1894, she was elected one of two school commissioners of Cattaraugus County. As Van Rensselaer inspected schools, she developed a passion to improve the living conditions under of rural families. This led her to accept an invitation from Cornell professor Liberty Hyde Bailey to organize an extension program for New York state’s rural women. The program flourished, eventually growing into the New York State College of Home Economics, which was renamed the College of Human Ecology in 1969. Working alongside Flora Rose, the two were the first women to be named full professors at Cornell.
Alice Catherine Evans
Alice Catherine Evans 1909 was a microbiologist and a researcher at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Evans initially came to Cornell for a two-year nature study course offered by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Evans went on to be the first woman to receive a permanent position at the USDA. There she investigated bacteriology in milk and cheese and later demonstrated that Bacillus abortus caused the disease Brucellosis (undulant fever or Malta fever) in both cattle and humans. Because of her efforts in the 1930s, pasteurization of milk became mandatory in the U.S. dairy industry.
Florence Kimball D.V.M. 1910 was the first woman in the United States to receive the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree. One of 22 students in her class, Kimball attended the College of Veterinary Medicine from 1907 to 1910. Following graduation, she moved to Massachusetts, where she established a small animal practice and boarding facility. After earning a nursing degree, Kimball served as the head nurse in the Department of Contagious Diseases at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, followed by a role as night nursing supervisor at Oklahoma University Medical Teaching Hospital for 17 years. In addition to Kimball, seven of the first 11 women to become licensed veterinarians in the United States were Cornell graduates.
Mary Donlon Alger
The namesake of Donlon Hall, Mary Donlon Alger LL.B.’20 was the first female editor-in-chief of the Cornell Law Quarterly and is believed to be the first female editor-in-chief of any U.S. law review. She was nominated to a seat on the United States Customs Court in 1955, serving until her death in 1977. She served on Cornell’s Board of Trustees from 1937 to 1966. In 1956, following the Hungarian Revolution, Alger established a scholarship to provide aid to any young Hungarian woman accepted to Cornell. One hundred years after Alger became the first female editor-in-chief of a U.S. law review, the Cornell Law Review elected its first all-female editorial board.
Barbara McClintock ’23, M.S. ’25, Ph.D. ’27, was a scientist and cytogeneticist who was awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. She is the only woman to receive an unshared Nobel Prize in that category. During her time at Cornell, women were not allowed to study plant breeding, her area of interest. McClintock entered her field by majoring in botany at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, where she studied the genetics of maize plants. By the time she completed her Ph.D., she was recognized as the leader in the development of maize cytogenetics, the focus of her life’s research. McClintock studied chromosomes and how they change during maize reproduction, leading to her technique for visualizing maize chromosomes, which advanced many fundamental genetic ideas. She received prestigious fellowships and was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1944. McClintock’s research became well understood in the 1960s and 1970s, as other scientists confirmed the mechanisms of genetic change and genetic regulation that she had demonstrated in her maize research decades earlier.
Olive Frances Tjaden
The namesake of Tjaden Hall, Olive Frances Tjaden ’25, was the only woman architect in her graduating class from the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning. In 1929, at the age of 24, Tjaden became the youngest registered architect in New York state. In 1938, she became the first woman admitted to the Brooklyn chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Tjaden designed more than 2,000 buildings in her career. When she died, she left the bulk of her $12 million estate to Cornell.
Pearl S. Buck
By the time Pearl S. Buck M.A. ’25 enrolled at Cornell as a graduate student at the College of Arts and Sciences, she had spent most of her life in China. After returning to China in 1925, she embarked on a literary career that would transform Western perceptions of the world’s most populous country, most notably with her novel, The Good Earth, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932. She received the 1938 Nobel Prize in Literature for the “notable works which pave the way to a human sympathy passing over widely separated racial boundaries and for the studies of human ideals which are a great and living art of portraiture.”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54 is the second woman to serve on the nation’s highest court. While at Cornell, she married Martin Ginsburg ’53 and graduated with a degree in government from the College of Arts and Sciences. She enrolled at Harvard Law School in 1956, one of nine women in a class of about 500. Ginsburg completed her degree at Columbia Law School, where she became the first woman to serve on two major law reviews. She taught at the Rutgers University School of Law before becoming the first tenured female professor at Columbia Law School in 1972. Later that year, she became director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. President Jimmy Carter appointed Ginsburg to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1980, where she served until her elevation to the Supreme Court in 1993.
Prominent American novelist Toni Morrison M.A. ’55 was the first African-American woman to win a Nobel Prize. Morrison began her writing career as an undergraduate at Howard University, going on to receive her master’s degree at Cornell University’s College of Arts Sciences. After graduation, Morrison worked as an editor at Random House, publishing her first book, The Bluest Eye, in 1973. A leading voice on the experiences of black Americans, some of Morrison’s most celebrated works include Song of Solomon, Sula and Beloved, which earned her the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. Morrison’s literary honors include the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work, Fiction, The Coretta Scott King Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom presented by President Barack Obama. In March 2013, Morrison returned to campus for a conversation about her experience in literature, politics and language.
Cornell faculty member Frances Perkins was a sociologist and worker rights advocate who was the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet, serving as Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945. She was one of two original members of Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet to remain in office for his entire presidency. Perkins came to Cornell as a guest lecturer in 1955, when she was 75 years old. She was soon asked to be a member of the faculty and taught in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations until her death in 1965.
Janet Reno ’60 was the first female Attorney General of the United States, serving from 1993 to 2001. She was the second-longest serving Attorney General in U.S. history. After graduating with a degree in chemistry at the College of Arts and Sciences, Reno went on to Harvard Law School. She graduated from Harvard Law in 1963 — one of 16 women out of a class of 500. Reno worked in both the public sector and private practice before being named state attorney for Dade County (now Miami-Dade County), Florida. She was elected state attorney in 1978 and was reelected four more times before her appointment as Attorney General. She ran unsuccessfully for governor of Florida in 2002 and later served at Cornell as a Frank H.T. Rhodes Visiting Professor for five years. Reno spoke at Cornell on October 20, 1994 during the university’s Trustee-Council Annual Meeting (TCAM).
Jill Tarter ’65 is an astronomer best known for her work on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. She is the former director of the SETI Institute. Tarter earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering physics from the College of Engineering and was the only woman in the engineering program at the time. In her doctoral thesis in astronomy at the University of California at Berkeley she coined the term “brown dwarf” while researching small-mass objects that fail to stably fuse hydrogen. Since Tarter’s time in Cornell Engineering, where she was the only woman in her program, women now comprise half of Cornell engineering undergraduates — making it the first engineering school of its size and stature to achieve this milestone.
Mae C. Jemison
In 1992, Mae Jemison M.D. ’81 became the first African-American woman to travel in space. Jemison served as a mission specialist on STS-47 Spacelab-J, a mission flown on the space shuttle Endeavor. After graduating from Weill Cornell Medicine, Jemison volunteered in a Cambodian refugee camp and as a medical officer with the Peace Corps in West Africa. She was working as a general practitioner when NASA selected her for astronaut training. Jemison resigned from NASA in 1993 and founded the Jemison Group, Inc., which researches, markets and develops science and technology for daily life.
Learn more about Cornell’s historic commitment to diversity and inclusion.