Concepts familiar from grade-school algebra have broad ramifications in computer science.
The celebration marking the 100th anniversary of the Association of MIT Alumnae (AMITA) at the Faculty Club offered an inspiring view of the rich history and promising future of women at MIT.
The speakers at the sold-out event on October 2 were Dr. Shirley Jackson (PhD 1968), president of Rensselear Polytechnical Institute and former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; Emily V. Wade (SB 1945), president of the Museum Institute for Teaching Science; Dr. Beth A. Marcus (SB 1979, SM), president of Glow Dog, Inc.; Dr. Catherine G. Coleman (SB 1983), a NASA astronaut recently returned from a space shuttle mission; and Bhuvana Kulkarni, a senior in computer science. Monica McConnell (SB 1991), AMITA president, served as emcee for the gala evening.
"This was a wonderful event that captured the sweep of changes in the presence and place of women at MIT -- not by statements, but by stories -- both in the formal program and the personal conversations that kept weaving throughout the evening," said Kathryn Willmore, vice president and secretary of the Corporation. "All the speakers were pathbreakers. Our women students may not know it, but much of what they enjoy and aspire to is the result of the steps that Paddy Wade, Emily Wick, Shirley Jackson and others took before them."
"I was impressed by the common theme among the speakers of having gained at MIT the confidence and skills to pursue their dreams," said Rebecca Vest, wife of President Charles M. Vest. "Their determination and good humor about dealing with occasional adversity across the generations was also moving. The sense of shared experience among everyone in the room was very strong."
"It was a wonderful evening full of warmth and generosity of spirit and a feeling of being connected with so many women over such a span of years. It was a real memory-maker for all of us who were there," said Priscilla Gray, wife of Paul E. Gray, professor of electrical engineering and president emeritus of MIT.
The event was organized by AMITA's 100th anniversary planning committee, chaired by Laura Robinson (SB 1980). Sarah Simon (SB 1972) reported, "Alice Kimball [SB 1936] was the senior participant. She has been a major MIT Women's Association (now AMITA) supporter and 'doer' when she has lived in the area.
"We had a few mother-daughter alumnae pairs at the event, and eight out of 12 AMITA presidents since 1964 attended, including Christina Jansen (PhD 1963) who travelled from Utah; Margaret Coleman Haas (SB 1950), who came from Indianapolis; Professor Shirley Wilson (SB 1972) from Illinois; and Sandra Yulke (SB 1974, SM) from Wisconsin.
"Dotty Bowe, former associate director of financial aid at MIT, came with Emily Wick. Between 1963 and 1972, these two were the women's program at MIT," Ms. Simon said. "Professor Wick was the first alumna to come up through the faculty ranks and become tenured. As dean, she prepared the seminal paper that argued that women's admissions shouldn't be based on a quota of how many women could live at Stanley McCormick Hall. As soon as the admissions policy was changed, the percentage of women undergraduates increased from about 6 percent to 20 percent between 1972 and 1979."
Candace Royer, associate department head and director of physical education, had a "great and eye-opening time. The women I spoke with, listened to, and was in the presence of were nothing short of amazing.
"To hear Cady Coleman in person, and to hear her mention rowing as such an influential time in her life, was rewarding and energizing. Shirley Jackson is, well, awe-inspiring! I wish that every student on our campus could have heard her story. The sense of history that Mrs. Wade gave to us all, along with the knowledge that the MIT degree is useful no matter what you eventually do as a vocation, had many in attendance nodding in agreement. Bhuvana, of course, was a delight. It is clear that she enjoys MIT and will look back on her experience here with fond memories and gratitude," Ms. Royer said.
"What I had not anticipated before the event was what a powerful message we would receive from each of our speakers about the importance their MIT education had on their lives and the things they have envisioned and accomplished. It was truly inspiring," said Bonny Kellerman (SB 1972), recording secretary in the Treasurer's Office.
What excited Christine L. Tempesta, alumni/ae affairs officer for the Alumni/ae Association, most about the event was that "when I looked around the room, I saw women from all decades and many different backgrounds: alumnae from the '40s to the '90s to current students, all sharing and enjoying the community of women brought together for one night. I found that Dr. Jackson's comments were quite strikingly honest, as she talked about being a black woman on campus at a time when being a woman here was challenge enough. All the speakers were both eloquent and fascinating, and illustrated the richness of the heritage of women at MIT."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 20, 1999.