Syracuse University Magazine

First Among Many

First Among Many

Syracuse University alumnae have created pathways to progress that changed the world

By Christine Yackel

Generations of Syracuse University alumnae have been transformational trailblazers in a variety of fields—from aviation to zoology and almost everything in between. Their significant contributions were made possible by decades of progressive thinking when, from its very beginning in 1870, Syracuse was one of the few private institutions of higher learning to open its doors to women and people of color. For 145 years, SU’s inclusive campus has created a learning environment that empowers women to find their own voices and thrive. Some have been honored for their notable accomplishments, while others are unsung heroines who have made the world a better place without recognition or praise. Here are the stories of just a few of SU’s pioneering women who have had the strength of character and courage of conviction to forge their own destinies.

Sarah Loguen Fraser


First African American woman granted a medical degree from the Syracuse College of Medicine

Sarah Loguen Fraser G 1876 (1850-1933) grew up in Syracuse where her parents, the Reverend Jermain Wesley Loguen (a former slave) and Caroline Storum, were staunch abolitionists who turned the family home into an Underground Railroad station that sheltered more than 1,500 escaping slaves. One day, after hearing the screams of a boy whose leg had been crushed by a wagon, Fraser vowed she would never again witness someone in need and not be able to help. In 1876, at a time when medical students were predominately white men, she earned a medical degree from the Syracuse College of Medicine (now SUNY Upstate Medical University), becoming the school’s first African American woman to be certified as a physician, and the fourth in New York State. She relocated to Santo Domingo with her husband, Charles Fraser, in 1882, and passed the medical certification exam there, making her the first woman in the Dominican Republic licensed to practice medicine. After her death on April 9, 1933, flags in Puerto Plata waved at half-mast for nine days.

Cornelia Maria Clapp


First woman to earn a doctorate in biology in the United States

Cornelia Maria Clapp G 1889 (1849-1934) was interested in science from a young age. Nevertheless, after graduating from Mount Holyoke College in 1871, she followed the conventional path for educated women of her time and taught Latin at a boys’ school. She eventually returned to Mount Holyoke as a biology lecturer, but soon realized that to engage in complex scientific research she needed a full faculty appointment, which required a doctorate. She turned to Syracuse University, one of the few institutions of higher education admitting women to graduate programs in the sciences, earning the first biology doctorate awarded to a woman in the United States in 1889. With a Ph.D. degree in hand, Clapp returned to Mount Holyoke and gained recognition as a pioneering research zoologist and leading scholar in ichthyology, a branch of zoology that studies fish. Spending summers at the Woods Hole Marine Biology Laboratory on Cape Cod, Clapp was the first woman elected to its board of trustees. Finally, in 1904, after 15 years of debate, she was promoted to professor. Clapp inspired many women to seek careers in the natural sciences, and today, the home of Mount Holyoke’s biology department is named Clapp Hall in her honor.

Welthy Honsinger Fisher


First Lady of Literacy in Asia

Welthy Honsinger Fisher 1900, G’21, H’65 (1879-1980) was a teacher, philanthropist, and author who believed the way to overcome poverty was through education. After volunteering for the YWCA in France during World War I, she traveled to Asia and devoted her life to promoting literacy in China and India. She trained thousands of teachers and came to be known in that part of the world as the “First Lady of Literacy.” In 1951, she founded World Literacy Inc., an organization dedicated to providing literacy training to those who needed it most. In 1957, World Literacy became World Education, and today, the organization she began more than 60 years ago continues to carry on her vision to eradicate illiteracy both here and abroad. In honor of her work, the Indian government issued a postage stamp bearing her likeness.

Dorothy Thompson


Trailblazing American journalist

Dorothy ThompsonDorothy Thompson 1914 (1893-1961) was a prominent journalist, political commentator, and leading opponent of Adolf Hitler. After working her way through college, she participated in the women’s suffrage movement until 1917, when she moved to New York City to begin a career in journalism. She journeyed to Europe during World War I, and became a correspondent for New York and Philadelphia newspapers and syndicates, served as a radio commentator, and contributed articles to American and British magazines and periodicals. In 1926, while stationed in Berlin, she became the first woman to head a foreign news bureau. There, she was the first Western journalist to interview Hitler, and the first to be expelled from Nazi Germany on Hitler’s personal order.

With the sweeping events of the first half of the 20th century as her beat, no journalist was more controversial or more quoted than Thompson. After returning home, her column, “On the Record,” ran in the New York Herald Tribune and more than 150 other newspapers, and she also wrote a monthly column for the Ladies Home Journal. She was heard by millions more in her regular NBC radio broadcasts, and her stories appeared in The New York Tribune and The Saturday Evening Post. In a 1939 Time magazine cover story, Thompson was named the most influential woman in America next to Eleanor Roosevelt, and Katharine Hepburn played Thompson in Woman of the Year (1942), a movie about her extraordinary life. A forceful campaigner for justice, free speech, and women’s rights, Thompson was considered a trailblazer, and sometimes referred to as the “First Lady of American Journalism.”

Photos courtesy of SU Archives

Edith Marie Flanigen


First woman to win the Perkin Medal from the Society of Chemical Industry

Edith Marie Flanigen G’52, H’08 earned a master’s degree in inorganic-physical chemistry at a time when few women were working in the field. After many years as the first corporate research fellow at Union Carbide, she became the first woman to be named a senior research fellow at the company where she spent 42 years. Flanigen holds 108 U.S. patents, and has received many awards and honors, including the Francis P. Garvan-John M. Olin Medal of the American Chemical Society, which recognizes distinguished service by women chemists. In 1992, she became the first woman to win the Society of Chemical Industry’s Perkin Medal, one of the highest honors given for outstanding work in applied chemistry in the United States. In 2004, she received the $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award, and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. In 2011, President Barack Obama presented her with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation for her groundbreaking achievements in zeolite and molecular sieve technology.

White House photo

Betty Bone Schiess


Key player in the movement to ordain women priests in the Episcopal Church of America

Betty Bone Schiess G’47 spearheaded the drive to eradicate discriminatory practices within the Episcopal Church of America. On July 29, 1974, Schiess and 10 other women became the first women to be ordained in a renegade ceremony at an inner-city church in Philadelphia. Known as the Philadelphia Eleven, they were ordained by three retired bishops who were authorized to ordain priests, but had not followed church procedure. The ordination sparked a national controversy, and it wasn’t until early 1977 that Schiess was officially ordained as an Episcopal priest. She went on to an accomplished career within the church, serving as chaplain of Syracuse and Cornell universities and as rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Mexico, New York. In recognition of her leadership role in the ordination of women priests in the Episcopal Church in America, Schiess was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994.

Stella Jacobs Petersen


First South African woman of color awarded a scholarship to study abroad

Stella Jacobs Petersen G’49 (1923-2013) was a woman of color who didn’t let racism or financial hardship deter her from earning an undergraduate degree at the University of Cape Town in her native South Africa. She went on to become the first South African woman of color to be awarded a scholarship to study abroad, earning a master’s degree in education from Syracuse University. When Petersen returned home, she was not allowed to teach in a university because of apartheid, and instead taught high school students for more than 35 years. She became the first woman of color to earn a master’s degree in botany from the University of Cape Town, and wrote a history-making master’s thesis that involved observing and describing the peculiar structure of an indigenous Oxalis plant species. In 2011, in recognition of her dedication to the pursuit of excellence in science education and her work as a respected conservationist, Petersen was awarded an honorary doctorate in education from the University of Cape Town.

Photo courtesy of School of Education

Ruth Johnson Colvin


Dedicated leader of the adult literacy movement

Ruth ColvinRuth Johnson Colvin ’59, H’84 was moved to act after reading a 1961 newspaper article based on census reports that showed thousands of Syracuse residents were functionally illiterate. Working out of her home, she founded Literacy Volunteers of America, a national nonprofit organization with hundreds of local affiliates training volunteer tutors to teach adults how to read (merged with Laubach Literacy International in 2002 to become ProLiteracy Worldwide). In recognition of her spirit of volunteerism and leadership role in the fight against illiteracy, Colvin was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993 and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in 2006.

White House photo by Eric Draper

Elsa Reichmanis


Groundbreaking chemist at the forefront of integrated circuit technology

Elsa Reichmanis ’72, G’75 has received international acclaim for having a major impact on the field of microlithography, which is central to the manufacture of electronic devices. Years before computers entered everyday life, she predicted the need for advanced materials that would later launch the personal computer revolution—integrated circuits with features smaller than the width of human hair. The advanced materials Reichmanis helped develop led to the fabrication of integrated circuit technology that is now found in almost every modern electrical device from cars and television sets to CD players, cell phones, and personal computers. Reichmanis has received numerous awards from the scientific community for her innovative work, including the Society of Chemical Industry’s 2001 Perkin Medal. In 2002, she was elected fellow of the Polymer Materials Division of the American Chemical Society and, in 2005, was named fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Photo by Veronica Magan/

Kathrine V. Switzer


First woman to officially run the Boston Marathon

Kathrine Switzer ’68, G’72 is a true champion in the struggle to obtain equal status for women athletes. She made history in 1967 when, two miles into the Boston Marathon, an irate official attacked her from the sidelines and tried to force her out of the race simply because she was a woman. A widely distributed photograph of the incident sparked outrage and went on to become one of Time-Life’s 100 photographs that changed the world. Suddenly Switzer was transformed from a naïve 20-year-old college student into a radicalized woman who was determined to educate the public on the value of women’s participation in sports. In the decades that followed, she created many opportunities for women athletes that did not previously exist, and succeeded in getting the women’s marathon included in the Olympics for the first time, at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. In 2011, Switzer was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame for giving women an opportunity to excel, compete, and be empowered in all areas of their lives.

Photo courtesy of Kathrine Switzer

Vanessa Williams


First African American crowned Miss America

Vanessa Williams ’85 made history in 1983 when she became the first African American to win the Miss America pageant. Today, she is one of the most respected and versatile performers in entertainment. A singer, producer, and actress, Williams has conquered the musical charts, Broadway stage, music videos, television, and motion pictures. She starred in the critically acclaimed TV series Ugly Betty, for which she won or was nominated for numerous individual and ensemble honors, including the Emmy, SAG, Golden Globe, and NAACP Image awards. For her accomplishments as a performer, Williams has been honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Photo by Steve Sartori

Karen L. DeCrow


Lifelong advocate for gender equality

Karen DeCrow L’72 (1937-2014) devoted her life to writing articles, columns, and books on feminist issues, lecturing on reproductive rights, and using litigation as a tool for social change. In 1967, she joined the fledgling National Organization for Women (NOW) at a time when the organization was pushing for equal pay for equal work. As a Syracuse mayoral candidate in 1969, she became the first woman to run for mayor in New York State, and one of only a handful of women seeking office anywhere in the country. Under her leadership as president of NOW from 1974 to 1977, efforts to advance gender equality included persuading NASA to recruit women; urging the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to investigate sex discrimination complaints; pressuring the three national television networks to include women and minorities in front of and behind the camera; and influencing the male Ivy League schools to admit women. In 2009, in recognition of her pioneering advocacy for gender equality, DeCrow was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Photo courtesy of Karen DeCrow

Eileen M. Collins


First woman to command a NASA space shuttle mission

Eileen Collins ’78, H’01 is recognized by Encyclopedia Britannica as one of the top 300 women in history to have changed the world. A former SU Air Force ROTC cadet, she was one of the first four women chosen to attend U.S. Air Force Flight School. As a pilot, she logged more than 6,751 hours in 30 different types of aircraft. In 1995, she became the first female space shuttle pilot and, in 1999, was chosen to be the first woman astronaut to command and land a NASA space shuttle mission. Under her command, the shuttle Columbia made history when it deployed a $1.5 billion telescope into orbit to enable deep-space exploration of exploding stars, quasars, and black holes. Hailed as an aviation pioneer, Collins was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1995. She retired from the U.S. Air Force in 2005 at the rank of colonel.

Photo by Steve Sartori

  • 2015 Commencement
  • Heroic Service
  • First Among Many
  • Online Edge
  • Collaborative Rewards