Notable UChicago Women

Lists of ‘persons of note’ are always incomplete. Indeed, the very principle of such lists is problematic. What are the criteria for selecting  individuals ‘of note’? How do we assess the ‘noteworthiness’ and contribution by women to women's issues on an objective scale? Is being the "first" sufficient?  Is it the receiving of accolades received or reaching a level of public notoriety?

The following list does not do justice to the hundreds of female administrators and staff members who have made the University run smoothly for decades, to all women faculty who have helped their students grow intellectually as well as personally and served as role models for others, and to all students and alumni who have helped shape the University's culture and crafted a space for themselves and future generations of women, feminist and/or queer voices. And finally, a list of women necessarily excludes all male faculty and allies who have embraced gender analyses and served as examples of promoting equality.

Indeed, one such ally was Dean of the Rockefeller Chapel, Rev. E. Spencer Parsons. Parsons was a member of the Clergy Consultations, which was a service for women seeking abortions both before and after Roe. vs. Wade, who believed in the fundamental right of women to have control over their bodies. Allegedly, Rev. Parsons kept the records of women seeking then illegal abortions through project JANE under the altar of Rockefeller Chapel.

Still, to remind ourselves that there have been a number of women associated with the University that are worth learning more about, we considered it important to create a list.  In addition to this list, visit the links for additional alumni of the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality and Notable diversity alumni of UChicago.
If there is someone you would like us to include, let us know!

Emily Green Balch (1867-1961)

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Nobel-prize winning (1946) Emily Green Balch was an economist and sociologist, editor of The Nation, noted pacifist and one of the founders of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.
Note: Read about a congress of women peace activists, extraordinarily held in Hague in the midst of WWI.


Carol Moseley Braun (1947)

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The first African-American woman elected to U.S. Senate (Illinois, 1992–1998), Moseley Braun was a U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand between 1999–2001, and a 2011 Chicago Mayoral candidate. While her career has not been without controversies, Braun is a staunch pro-choice advocate and responsible for convincing the Senate Judiciary Committee not to renew a design patent for the United Daughters of the Confederacy.


Rebecca S. Chopp (1952)

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Currently President of Swarthmore College, Chopp is a scholar of religion and theology. Her book The Power to Speak: Religion, Feminism and God advocates for a feminist rearticulation of Christian theology. Chopp also actively participates in the discussions on academic culture and liberal arts education.


May Louise Cowles (1892 - 1978)

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Cowles was among the first to incorporate family into economic analysis in classrooms. Her 1930 dissertation research on clothing expenditures within a family demonstrated that, contrary to expectations, men spent more on clothing than their wives. However,  the Herald Journal dismissed Cowles work because of her gender.

Note: 'Family economics' here is not to be confused with 'home economics', long disparaged for its investment in and support of women's domestic roles by offering classes on home cooking and sewing.


Mildred Dresselhaus (1930)

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Nicknamed the "Queen of Carbon Science," Dresselhaus is best known for her work with graphite and carbon nanostructures. She is the recipient of a number of awards, including the National Medal of Science and the Enrico Fermi Award, and has a number of scientific theories named after her. As the first female tenured professor of engineering at MIT, Dresselhaus has served as a role model for generations of women physicists.


Katherine Dunham (1909-2006)

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Famous dancer, activist, producer, and anthropologist, Katherine Dunham was raised in the Chicago area and is noted for creating her own dance technique, which borrowed from African and Haitian dance. She combined her love of teaching and learning dance with multiple fieldwork trips. She eventually earned a Master’s degree from the Northwestern University and founded the Negro Dance Group in Chicago in 1937. The troupe would eventually perform on Broadway and tour around the world. Beyond her artistic achievements, Dunham became an activist in the Civil Rights Movement in St. Louis and a “vodoun” priestess in Haiti.  You can read more about Dunham’s life on the PBS ‘Free to Dance’ website.


Jackie Goldberg (1944)

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As a member of the California State assembly, Jackie Goldberg authored the Domestic Partners Bill, a predecessor to same-sex marriage legislation. She was also an advocate of a "living wage," a legal ordinance that guarantees a living wage and benefits to all employees working in the greater Los Angeles area. Those interested in student activism of the 1960s will find this interview with Goldberg on the situation at Berkeley interesting.


Katherine Graham (1917-2001)

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A 1998 Pulitzer Prize winner for her memoir Personal History, Graham was a publisher and writer. While she became the leader of The Washington Post due to a tragic accident, she nonetheless held the position for two decades, and excelled at presiding over the newspaper most notably through the Watergate scandal.


Hanna Holborn Gray (1930)

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So far the only female president of the University of Chicago, Holborn Greay’s presidency lasted 15 years (1978-1993). Her tenure at UChicago also made her the first female president of a major US university. An historian of Renaissance and Reformation by training, she started her career in administration by serving on a board which reviewed whether a sociology professor was denied tenure due to her gender and political orientation. Gray holds honorary degrees from over sixty colleges and universities and was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991.
Watch this edition of Conversations with History with Hanna Gray.


Celeste Holm (1917-2012)

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An actress, Holm was an Academy Award-winner (1947) who originated the role of Ado Annie in the movie Oklahoma!


Jewel Lafontant (1922-1997)

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A prominent figure of the Nixon and Bush administrations, Lafontant held a few "firsts." She was the first African-American woman to graduate from the University of Chicago Law School, the first African American woman to argue against the Supreme Court and the first female Deputy Solicitor General of the United States. She is said to have participated in Chicago sit-ins in 1940s and was the founder of the Congress of Racial Equality.


Sherry Lansing (1944)

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As the President of Production at 20th Century Fox, Lansing was the first woman to become the head of a film studio.


Deborah Mack

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Consultant and adviser to the Smithsonian Institution, Mack was one of the original five scholars appointed by the Smithsonian Institution to an advisory committee for the planned National Museum of African American History and Culture.


Maria Goeppelt Mayer (1906-1972)

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Born in Germany, Mayer moved to the US in 1930.  During WWII she worked on the Manhattan Project from Columbia University. A theoretical physicist interested in atoms and their nuclei, Mayer's work on so-called 'magical numbers' was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1963. Two awards for young female physicists carry her name: One is awarded by the Argonne National Laboratory and another by the American Physical Society.


Patsy Mink (1927–2002)

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Patsy Mink has forever changed education and sports for US women by co-authoring and sponsoring Title IX, the Equal Opportunity in Education Act. Mink was the first Asian-American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and a Democratic Presidential nominee in 1972. She was also an author of the Women's Education Equity Act and the Early Childhood Education Act. For more information about this outstanding woman, watch this documentary.


Kim Ng (1968)

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After starting her career with the Chicago White Sox, Kim Ng moved on to work for the New York Yankees as Assistant General Manager at the age of 29. She interviewed for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2005 and came close to becoming the first female general manager in baseball but was appointed Assistant GM instead. Ng currently works as the Senior Vice-President for Baseball Operations with Major League Baseball.


Kimberly Peirce (1967)

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Photographer, animator and filmmaker, Peirce is the director of the highly acclaimed 1999 movie Boys Don't Cry. Her TV series The L-word became an immediate success.


Jeannette Piccard (1895-1981)

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Piccard was the first licensed female balloon pilot in the U.S., and the first woman to fly to the stratosphere. Because of her balloon exploits, some people claim she was technically the first woman in space. Along with her pioneer flights, Piccard held a Master’s Degree in organic chemistry, was a NASA speaker and consultant for several years, and become an Episcopal priest. You can read more about Piccard’s life in the University’s magazine.


Janet D. Rowley (1925-2013)

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A biologist, Rowley discovered the genetic roots of some cancers. While the prevalent belief of the time was that cancer caused genetic transmutations, Rowley proved the opposite was true. Rowley was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1998 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.


Susan Sontag (1933-2004)

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Critic and writer, filmmaker, photographer and activist. Sontag's multifaceted career started with her essay Notes on Camp, reevaluating and rehabilitating the concept of camp, now widely used in feminist and queer theorizing. Apart from contributing to cultural and media studies, Sontag was also an AIDS activist and advocated against the bombing of Sarajevo.