New York City
March 2003

Women Shaping History Today

Women’s 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:
  • What factors were instrumental in your choice of a career?
  • Describe 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?

Women interviewed were:

Dr. Alice Wilder, Director of Research & Development/R&D Producer, Blues Clues, WNET 13

Factors 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.

Pivotal Points: There were two (well many more than that…but the Biggest):

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!

Achievements: 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.

Obstacles: 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.

Mentors: 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 “success.”

Advice: 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.

Goals: 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!

Eve M. Kurtin, Ph.D., Managing Director, Pacific Venture Group

Factors 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.

Pivotal 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.

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.

Be determined, understand hard work and try to always be humble and respectful of everyone you interact with.

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.

Jody Williams, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, 1997

Factors 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.

Pivotal 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.

Obstacles: 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.

Mentors: 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.

Advice: 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.

Goals: 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.

That’s it

Dr. Lorraine Monroe, President & CEO, The Lorraine Monroe Leadership Institute

Factors 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.

Pivotal 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.

Achievements: 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.

Obstacles: 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 it.

Mentors: 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.

Advice: 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.

Goals: 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.

Jill Levy, President, Council of Supervisors and Administrators

Factors 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.

Pivotal Points/Obstacles: A battle with cancer, which gave me a strong will to survive and allowed me to let go of lots of fears.

Mentors: My mentors are Dr. Schonhaut, former chancellor, Professor Stanley Dropkin, Dennis White, former director of special education, and my husband.

Advice: Follow your bliss. You can have it all if you make rational choices and take chances. Family and loved one matter.

Achievements: Established a diverse professional and accountable union.

Goals: 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.

Marianne Legato, MD, Professor of Clinical Medicine, Columbia University, Founder, Partnership for Gender-Specific Medicine, Woman in Science Award from Amer. Medical Women’s Assn.

Factors 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 anything else.

Pivotal 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!)

Achievements: 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.

Obstacles: 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 and education.

Mentors: 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.

Advice: 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.

Goals: 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.

Dr. Louise Mirrer, Executive Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs, CUNY

Factors 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.

Pivotal 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.

Achievements: 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.

Obstacles: 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.

Mentors: 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.

Advice: 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.

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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