Wonder Women: Celebrating Female Heroes of STEM

Wonder Women: Celebrating Female Heroes of STEM

Watching my son stand with his high school class and move his cap tassel from right to left on a warm June afternoon, I shared in the emotions of the day with hundreds of other parents. As I reflected on my son’s future and my hopes for his success, I felt proud knowing that this Fall he is headed to an institution that set the national course for academic flexibility and encouragement for women in the sciences.

You see, while touring the Rutgers University campus last year, we drove by Douglass College, which, before co-education, was Rutgers’ women’s college. It was a formative place for a talented scientist who found herself shut out of prestigious academic positions open to men.

Before Sheryl Sandberg emboldened women to lean in, Mary Ingraham Bunting-Smith(July 10, 1910-January 21, 1998), a scientist, educator, and feminist who served as the fifth president of Radcliffe, then the sister school of all-male Harvard University, was breaking down the institutional barriers that prevented advancement for women scientists. Bunting-Smith became a national figure. Her radical (at the time) vision: Women in academia should be able to take time off to have families, and then get the support they needed to re-enter the workplace and resume their careers to achieve their maximum potential. “Our prodigious national extravagance has been largely overlooked,” she wrote in a 1961 article in the New York Times magazine. “The waste of highly talented, educated womanpower.”

Before she got to Radcliffe, however, Bunting-Smith brought change to Douglass College. She had earned her master’s degree and doctorate in bacteriology at the University of Wisconsin, where she met her future husband, Henry Bunting. His medical career brought them to Yale, where he taught on the faculty while she researched radiation-induced changes in bacteria. As many women did and still do, Bunting-Smith scaled back her work to raise their four young children.

Then, in 1954, tragedy struck. Henry died of a brain tumor, and Bunting-Smith needed to go back to work full-time. As a woman, there were no faculty positions open to her at Yale.

Instead, she uprooted her children to become Dean of Douglass College at Rutgers. There, she established the Mary I. Bunting Program for Non-Traditional Students. This program, which still exists today at the Douglass Residential College, was the first in the nation to accommodate the reality that women interrupt and then complete their education at different life stages.

Soon after, at age 48, she was named president of Radcliffe. There, she rallied against the “climate of unexpectation” for girls on a national stage, making the cover of Timemagazine.

Bunting-Smith helped Radcliffe and Harvard advance their leadership in education by putting women on a more equal footing with men. She also established the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, which provided fellowship support and office space for women who had paused their careers to have a family. Then, after Harvard began to admit women into its Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 1961, she ensured that students received their master’s and doctorate degrees from Harvard, countersigned by the Radcliffe president. Joint commencement exercises began in 1970.

Bunting-Smith would go on to break more barriers and find new ways to give. She was named the first female member of the Atomic Energy Commission and served as a member of the President’s Committee on the Status of Women under President John F. Kennedy, and as vice president of the Peace Corps.

As a woman of color who has studied science and communications, and worked my way up the corporate ladder, all while raising a family, I have experienced many different stages in my life. I know it can be a difficult and delicate balance. At Johnson & Johnson, we have created programs to help women—and men— return to work after being away. We’ve made tremendous progress as a society, but there’s still much to do:

  • We must stand up, as Bunting-Smith did, against assumptions by others, or even within ourselves, that having a family need limit our accomplishments.
  • Mentoring is key. Bunting-Smith sought out and found mentors, and she mentored hundreds of women.
  • We must demand, and create, the support we need to achieve our most as scholars, professionals, artists and mothers.

Let’s work together to make sure we and our daughters, and their daughters, thrive in a climate of the highest expectations.

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