Shaping History Today
History Month is a time to reflect on the achievements of women
in the past. It is also a time to recognize the achievements of
contemporary women who have made outstanding contributions in
various fields. Education Update interviewed 10 multi-faceted,
fascinating, dynamic, intellectual women who have improved the
lives of people all over the world.
The following questions were asked of all the women:
factors were instrumental in your choice of a career?
a pivotal point in your career. What direction did you take
as a result?
What achievements are you proud of?
What obstacles have you encountered? How did you overcome them?
Who were some of your mentors? How did they inspire you?
What advice would you give to young women in our society who
are striving for success?
What is your vision for the future? Your personal goals?
Souza Kappner, President, Bank Street, Leader and Champion for
Kurtin, Ph.D., Managing Director, Pacific Venture Group
Marianne Legato, MD, Pres., Partnership
for Women’s Health, Woman in Science Award,
American Medical Women’s Association
Jill Levy, President, Council of Supervisors
Dr. Louise Mirrer, Executive Vice-Chancellor
for Academic Affairs, CUNY
Dr. Lorraine Monroe, President & CEO,
The Lorraine Monroe Leadership Institute
Dr. Alice Wilder, Executive Producer, Blues
Clues, WNET 13
Jody Williams, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, 1997
Alice Wilder, Director of Research & Development/R&D Producer,
Blues Clues, WNET 13
in Career Choice: The following factors were instrumental:
My love for children (and toys)!; the challenge that I had with
education and learning which changed when I found a topic that
sparked my interest and a professor who made the learning come
alive and made it relevant; my love of research: being able to
ask questions to understand the thoughts and feelings of a child,
analyze that information and apply it to a product that is meant
to educate and entertain them.
Points: There were two (well many more than that…but
Mary Ann Foley, a professor at Skidmore College, approached me
to work in her memory and cognition lab because of the questions
that I asked in class. The experience that I had working with
her and in the lab was what sparked my interest in talking to
kids to understand them.
Reading a short article by Barbara Flagg entitled “Research Need
Not Stifle.” The article basically described what I wanted to
do. I wrote to tell her how inspired I was by her thoughts. She
actually wrote me back…she said, you should go to graduate school.
And however many years later, this ultimately led me to the foundation
for my work in formative research and my own personal philosophy
that: ‘the only way to understand what children are capable of
doing, what appeals to them, and what they know, is to ask them!’
And all of this information can be creatively integrated into
the making of any and all products!
One of my proudest achievements was discovering that the data
for my dissertation was significant, not only after 3 or 4 months
after the curriculum was taught to the students, but also a year
later. I worked with junior high school students with learning
disabilities and together with my advisor, created a curriculum
that would help them do something that the school system for all
intents and purposes would say that they couldn’t do: abstract
the theme or point of a story after reading it. It was also an
accomplishment to work with kids who were in a system that they
felt had given up on them. It was a rough environment with little
hope for their academic future and yet they wanted to come and
work with me because they said I “listened to them.”
Another achievement I’m proud of is The Blue’s Clues transition
from Steve to Joe. About four years into the production of Blue’s
Clues we were faced with a serious business problem when the host
of our show decided to leave. His departure presented the production
with the challenge of how to handle this potentially traumatic
change in preschoolers’ lives. So, Blue’s Clues set out to transform
this potential predicament into an opportunity to teach preschoolers
about life transitions and change, and provide them
with strategies for dealing with separation and loss. Using our
knowledge of child development, learning theory, how children
watch television, production experience, and creativity we decided
to tell a series of stories that would help preschoolers and their
parents understand and cope with Steve’s departure, his brother’s
entrance, and the new relationship. In the end, Steve’s departure
to college and his “younger brother’s” entrance into the Blue’s
Clues world were successful on so many different levels.
Yet another significant accomplishment was winning the Peabody
Award. It was humbling to be recognized among the other prestigious
winners of quality programming.
This is a hard question to answer. There are always obstacles
along the way, including many of the political or bureaucratic
ones. My approach to all obstacles is to refer back to your own
personal goals and intentions. Never forget why you are there,
assess accordingly, and have the right intentions.
Mary Ann Foley, a Skidmore College professor, was the
most inspiring of all mentors. She chose me, believed in me, and
knew how to give guidance and then let you go to try it. She inspired
a love for the topic and taught me how to get information from
children while treating them with respect and making it fun. She
is a leader, manager, inspiration, and model for happiness and
We all have a mission in life. In order to accomplish
it, tap into what interests you, what challenges you, what makes
you happy and GO FOR IT! It’s important to talk to as many different
people as possible, hear their stories, make connections, set
goals, write your own job description and see if you can find
it or make it. And don’t compare yourself to anyone else–you are
on your own journey.
My educational vision for the future is for all schools to work
for all children. The issues are complex but the learning theories
are proven. Learning does not have to be stuck in the mire of
“the way things have been done.” It can be relevant to people’s
lives, can be presented in contexts that make sense to children,
and can be multimodal. Most of all, learning can be exciting and
interesting!! And because of this shift in the Zeitgeist of education,
children, their education, and teachers will be highly valued.
That is my vision and my personal goal to make this happen!
M. Kurtin, Ph.D., Managing Director, Pacific Venture Group
in Career Choice: My father thought pharmacy was a good
career for a woman so he recommended/nudged me to go to pharmacy
school. While on an internship with a pharmaceutical manufacturer
I was very fortunate to have a mentor who recommended that I go
to business school and go into the business side of pharmacy.
I would say the instrumental factors were influential people in
my life helping to direct me towards a career.
Points: The major pivotal point in my career was deciding
to go to business school after pharmacy school. From there I was
very opportunistic about my career choices/opportunities including
the founding of this venture fund.
Achievements: My proudest achievement is actually an ongoing process
of being able to be a wife, mother, founding managing director
of a venture fund and an active member of my community. Each aspect
of my life is very important to me, but needless to say family
is the most important.
Obstacles: Like many women, I was subjected to
prejudice and harassment in the first 10 plus years of my career.
Interestingly, a fair amount of the time the prejudice came from
other women, whether not wanting the competition from another
woman in business or from social contacts looking down on me because
“I must have to work.” It is interesting that today
our culture accepts the working woman and questions the stay-at-home
Mom. Personally I think both are valid and each person should
chose what works for them. With respect to how I overcame my obstacles,
it was pure desire and strong family support.
Mentors: Paul Fireman, past Chairman and CEO of Syntex
Labs, recommended I go to business school and into the business
side of pharmaceuticals. Rose Kennedy a coach/ mentor at American
Medical International who taught me how to lead, gave me the interpersonal
tools I needed as I moved up the corporate ladder.
Advice: Be determined, understand hard work and try to
always be humble and respectful of everyone you interact with.
Goals: My personal goal would be for my children to be
happy and successful in what they do, my venture fund to be successful
and for me to truly make a difference in my community work.
Williams, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, 1997
in Career Choice: I don’t think of myself having exactly
chosen a career path. I changed my major several times while an
undergraduate—everything was interesting, but nothing totally
captured my imagination. Subsequently, I received two Masters
degrees, eight years apart, in completely different issue areas.
Over this period, I had a variety of different, generally unrelated
jobs, some of which were somewhat interesting and some of which
were not interesting at all. But, in this context, what I think
is the underpinning of my ultimately becoming an activist is my
having been at university during the Vietnam War. I learned to
question the gap between what have historically been presented
as “American Values” and how those “values” are all too often
really played out in U.S. foreign policy decisions. That gap still
informs much of my thinking today.
Points: The pivotal point was in February 1981, when
I was handed a leaflet at a subway stop in Washington, DC. I took
it, to be polite, and planned to throw it in a wastebasket when
out of sight of the person who had given it to me. I glanced at
the title—”El Salvador, another Vietnam?” For what should be obvious
from my previous answer, the title caught my attention and I read
the leaflet and attended the meeting it was announcing to learn
more about US involvement in the civil war in El Salvador. As
I listened to the speaker from El Salvador describe the devastating
consequences of US involvement in his country, I knew I had to
try to do something to stop the intervention. Twenty years later,
I am still trying to help create a world where we care about human
security, human rights and meaningful democracies rather than
which country can dominate the globe.
Achievements: Without question, the Mine Ban
Treaty negotiated in Oslo in September 1997, which has now been
signed by 3/4 of the countries of the world.
I honestly don’t think in terms of obstacles. I focus on the things
I want to achieve and how to best move toward those goals. I try
to figure out how to deal with challenges to what I am trying
to do, rather than view them as obstacles—which just seems too
negative an approach for me.
I believe in trying to be the best “me” that I can be.
I’ve never wanted to be anyone else or be like anyone else.
I don’t really like to give advice as such. All I can really talk
about with authority is what has worked for me in my own life
and work and that is to be true to myself. Not to view life as
a popularity contest. To do the work I believe in because I believe
in it and not because I will be perceived in a certain way, or
to receive recognition for what I do. I do what I do in life because
I believe it is the right thing to do, no matter what anyone else
thinks about me, my life, or my work. This life is mine. It is
the only one I’ve got and I’ve got to live it in a way that makes
me happy to get up each day and engage the world.
As I said above, I want to live in a world where human security,
human rights and real democracy are the guiding principles of
global interaction. My personal goal is to continue to work toward
that end every day.
Lorraine Monroe, President & CEO, The Lorraine Monroe Leadership
in Career Choice: When I was a kid, I wanted to be a medical missionary
doctor in order to be of service in Africa. However, as a pre-med
major I failed all the science courses that required deep math
skills. My counselor, noticing my excellent grades in English,
asked “Why don’t you become an English teacher?” Without a moment’s
pause, I said “Okay” and the rest is the history of my professional
life. I backed into the work that I was sent to do and that I
learned to love.
Points: A pivotal point in my career came when my principal,
Leonard F. Littman, said to me “Lorraine, I think you’d make a
good principal”. Although I had never before thought of leaving
the classroom, he planted a seed and I hurried up and prepared
myself by getting degrees and the necessary certification. Within
two years, I was one of his assistant principals and four years
later, a high school principal.
I am proudest of being a mother and grandmother of remarkable
children. But in my professional life, I am extremely proud of
the successful work that I did at Taft High School in the Bronx,
the Frederick Douglass Academy in Manhattan, and in the principal
training I am presently doing with my company The Lorraine Monroe
Leadership Institute based in New York City.
The obstacles that I have overcome are those that many women face:
sexism, racism, old boyism and family obligations. All successful
women face at least one of these and I, like many women, recognize
their existence, get prepared, and transcend them by forging ahead.
I call it “bulling through” i.e. Put your head down and just do
I have mentioned Mr. Littman as a mentor. Mr. Cooper at P.S. 157
was a mentor who gave me my first opportunity to lead in the 4th
grade. I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the debt I owe
to my two parents James and Ruth Williams who taught me to love
reading, who constantly talked about the importance of education,
and who by example taught me to love life. Two grandparents, my
paternal grandfather and my maternal grandmother taught me to
love God and to be reverent before life’s mysteries.
Pieces of advice to young women:
Find the work that fascinates you and gives you joy. Go to school
to get very prepared for the future. Be open to what the future
holds; continue to learn about a great many things. Ignore naysayers—and
forge ahead. Travel with an open mind. Be competitive—not cut
throat. Learn how and when to relax. Take care of your health.
Remember there are always options and alternatives. Laugh at least
once a day.
Most of the time I am an incurable optimist. I believe that good
will triumph. In my work I am a Radical Traditionalist. I believe
that many of the “old” standards way of teaching still work but
that there can be new and imaginative ways of delivering quality
instruction for all children. My goal is to continue to be of
service both inside and outside of the field of education.
Levy, President, Council of Supervisors and Administrators
in Career Choice: I didn’t choose my career, it chose
me. I am an action-oriented person. Personal family issues motivated
my involvement in the education and socialization of people with
special needs. My interest led me to legislation. I was involved
in public law 94-142 and organizational reform, particularly advocacy
for underrepresented groups of children and adults. I have a strong
sense of the importance of intellectual growth and stimulation.
I became a supervisor of special education and ultimately a professional
developer for a supervisory staff. My particular emphasis was
strategic planning, managing stress, conflict resolution, and
the intimate knowledge of the arts and crafts of leadership.
Points/Obstacles: A battle with cancer, which gave me
a strong will to survive and allowed me to let go of lots of fears.
My mentors are Dr. Schonhaut, former chancellor, Professor Stanley
Dropkin, Dennis White, former director of special education, and
Follow your bliss. You can have it all if you make rational choices
and take chances. Family and loved one matter.
Established a diverse professional and accountable union.
Within all levels of education, particularly our public schools,
we gain the pyramid of power where leadership really counts and
accountability actually rests at all levels.
Legato, MD, Professor of Clinical Medicine, Columbia University,
Founder, Partnership for Gender-Specific Medicine, Woman in Science
Award from Amer. Medical Women’s Assn.
in Career Choice: I have always wanted to be a physician;
my father, who was a general practitioner and surgeon, was my
inspiration and early role model. He was a gifted teacher and
loved medicine. From the age of three, I never thought of doing
Points: The pivotal point in my career was quite unexpected;
my family did not think I should actually pursue a medical career
and so told me I would have to find the means to continue my studies
on my own after college; I was able to do so by working for my
tuition for the first year of medical school. In the course of
my work as a medical secretary, I met two important mentors, Dr.
Irene Ferrer and her brother, Dr. Jose Ferrer. They facilitated
my medical career enormously and in fact, Doctor Irene Ferrer
financed the remainder of my tuition after the first year of school.
(Amazingly, the tuition at New York University in 1956 was $1700.00
a year—a sum I’ll never forget!)
I am proudest of two things: the first is my work in research,
which concentrated on the structure and function of the cardiac
cell. I was supported by the NIH and the American Heart Association
(the latter awarded me one of the two first named fellowships
in cardiovascular research, The Martha Lyon Slater Fellowship,
awarded by the New York Chapter and a Senior Investigator Award
after that; the NIH awarded me a Research Career Development Award
to continue my work after I finished my fellowship.) The second
portion of my career began in 1992, when I became interested in
the fact that we knew very little about women first hand and had
studied men almost exclusively. By 1996 I had established the
Partnership for Gender-Specific Medicine at Columbia University.
We are now in our 6th year, have founded a unique Journal of Gender-Specific
Medicine (indexed by the National Library of Medicine) and have
devoted approximately 6 million dollars to support research and
education in the new science of gender-specific medicine. We are
about to publish the first Textbook of Gender-Specific Medicine
(Academic Press) and I have just published Eve’s Rib, a compendium
of important differences in the normal physiology and in the experience
of disease as a function of sex/gender, for the lay public. I
am greatly encouraged by the fact that we will soon be affiliating
formally with the Karolinska Insitutet to pursue the science of
gsm, to develop training programs for postdoctoral students in
gsm and hopefully, to begin to demonstrate in an actual clinical
practice that applying the new science to the care of patients
positively impacts morbidity and mortality.
The most challenging tasks I have had were the following: Finishing
medical school and developing a career without the support of
my parents, particularly my father, whom I had very much admired;
balancing a life in academic medicine with the demands of raising
two children; developing my career in gender-specific medicine;
devotees of women’s health did not see until very recently the
dangers inherent in isolating the study and treatment of the female
patient from the general run of academic medicine. I believed
from the start that using sex/gender as an important variable
in investigation at all levels was the secret to enormous advances
in our essentially male models of normal function and the experience
of disease. Most people didn’t understand the concept, and resisted
expanding “women’s health” into the much broader concept of sex-specific
human biology and the prevention and treatment of disease.
Finding funding for continuing my program has been a difficult
and constant challenge. I am sure this is not a unique issue to
my program, but the mechanics of fund-raising consume much of
my personal time, which I would very much prefer be used for research
My most important mentor was M. Irene Ferrer, M.D., Emeritus Professor
of Clinical Medicine at Columbia University. She urged me to persevere
in medicine, gave me enormous financial support to ensure that
I could do so, and together with her brother, Dr. Jose Ferrer,
formed a second family for me and for my children. She was a world-class
investigator who was a principal player in the development of
the cardiac catheter; she should have been named along with Cournand
and Richards as a Nobel prize winner. When I told her (as I often
did), that she should have been so named, she always replied:
“I was lucky to have been able to do the work”. I admired her
brilliance, her enormous clarity and eloquence as a teacher, and
the depth of her genuine love of students and patients.
The key word for success for young women and for young
men alike (I am not gender-specific here!) is perseverance. Leave
no stone unturned, no resource untapped, no idea unplumbed to
make your dream a reality. Once you are convinced that you have
a valuable idea, spare nothing to pursue it. Many brilliant people—far
more brilliant than I—have failed because they simply gave up
and took the easier road. Trust me, only perseverance will make
the difference. Nothing else is as important.
My vision of the future is to make gender-specific medicine an
integral part of the medical curriculum, our postdoctoral training
programs and the practice of medicine. The study of women is not
a political ploy or a feminist cause; it is an intellectual imperative
that prompts us to ask questions we never would otherwise have
asked. I hope that sex/gender will be a significant variable in
all medical research one day, and that no physician will treat
a patient without regard to his/her gender.
My personal goals? They are twofold: the happiness and security
of my two children, who are the heart of my personal life. Professionally,
I hope to have some more fruitful years of productivity in this
compelling area of medicine and to find the funding to make this
program live on and expand as it should. The science will have
a strong international coalition of scholars as we move forward
with the Karolinska affiliation; we are also talking with the
Special Interest Group in Women’s Health at the NIH about affiliating
with them to expand this effort.
Louise Mirrer, Executive Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs,
in Career Choice: I grew up in an environment that stressed
education above all. Not only were my parents college and graduate
school graduates, but my grandparents were as well. My grandmother,
always a role model for me, received her degree in pharmacy more
than eighty years ago—quite an unusual accomplishment for a woman
in those days! From a very early age, I was also made to understand
that my family was very privileged in its ability to send its
children and grandchildren to college, and that, as we always
said, “With privilege comes responsibility.” I view my choice
of career as fulfilling that responsibility. After all, every
day I am in a position to level the playing field for thousands
of wonderful students at the nation’s largest public urban university,
where economically and often academically disadvantaged backgrounds
are redressed by a superb education and the many opportunities
for jobs and careers that are created as a result.
Points: In 1993 I was asked to chair an academic department
notorious for scandal, including documented cases of discrimination
against women in hiring and promotion decisions and sexual harassment.
I became that department’s chair, as well as its first female
full professor. Many people looked at me, a petite blonde woman,
and shook their heads in anticipation of my being “eaten alive.”
Within a year, the department won national distinction for its
collaborative work and became, through a number of new entrepreneurial
programs, the most prosperous in the university. Most significant
of all, a truly collaborative monthly newsletter, with contributions
by faculty, students, and staff became a standard for departments
around the country seeking to achieve collegiality. At the end
of that year, I was asked to “move up” to that university’s newly-created
position of Vice Provost for Arts, Sciences & Engineering.
It was that opportunity that set me on the path that eventually
led to my being hired into my current position at The City University
of New York.
I began my career as a Ph.D. student in medieval Spanish
literature and humanities, with a special interest in the portrayal
of historical events and characters in literary texts. I had often
thought of the similar ways in which women, Jews and Muslims were
portrayed in medieval Spanish literature, at the very historical
moment when each group’s opportunities within the society were
being increasingly restricted. But it wasn’t until nearly twenty
years later that I finally had the chance to write a book on that
subject, Women, Jews, and Muslims in the Texts of Reconquest Castile,
published by the University of Michigan Press. I am proudest of
that book, and the fact that it still earns royalties as a result
of readers around the world who are interested in the linked fates
of women and minorities in restrictive societies.
In 1982, I was a single mother in a tenure track position at a
university whose religious orientation led to negative views on
both working mothers and divorce. I practically gave up sleep
to find time to complete my first book and secure a good publisher
so that I would be in the strongest position possible when my
tenure decision was made. The strategy worked.
I have always been extremely fortunate to have had women mentors
who served both as role models and advisors. The mentor who most
influenced the direction of my career was Jean Franco, who chaired
my Ph.D. department at Stanford and later moved to Columbia University.
She was a “first woman” in too many domains to recount here. I
was also heavily influenced in the early stages of my career by
Mary Louise Pratt, now President of the Modern Language Association.
Later on were W. Ann Reynolds, former Chancellor of the City University
of New York, who helped me get a foothold in New York City, and
Helen Marshall, Borough President of Queens, who gave me great
support in her former role as chair of the City Council Higher
Education Committee. All of these women inspired me by their courage
to “do it all”: they are mothers, wives, and highly productive
and successful career women. All of them have managed to retain
a sense of humor throughout, and have unstintingly given to younger
women who seek to follow in their footsteps.
Work hard and do not let yourself be discouraged. Also, look for
women who can serve as role models for you, and find mentors who
can help you achieve your goals.
My vision for the future is of increasing visibility of women
across all sectors in New York City. People are quick to point
out the enormous strides women have made, but there is still quite
a distance to go. My personal goal is to see the fruits of the
many initiatives we have introduced at CUNY: the first graduating
class of the Honors College; a permanent endowment for the Teaching
Opportunity Program, which addresses the shortage of math and
science teachers each year by supplying the public schools with
a steady stream of academically-talented, CUNY-trained new teachers;
a stronger connection between our colleges and their surrounding
business communities; new schools of journalism and professional
studies; and the best faculty in the nation.
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