Six Syracuse Alumnae Who Transformed Their Field

First Among Many

Generations of Syracuse alumnae have been transformational trailblazers in a variety of fields, from aviation to zoology and almost everything in between.

Vintage photo of Dorothy Thompson giving a commencement speech in 1914
Journalist Dorothy Thompson, Class of 1914, was the first woman to give a Commencement speech at Syracuse, addressing the Class of 1937 at Archbold Stadium.

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, Syracuse’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 Sryacuse’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

Vintage black & white portrait of Sarah Loguen Fraser

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. 

This is women’s rights in the right direction, and we cordially wish the estimable young lady every success in the pursuit of the profession of her choice. —From an 1873 Syracuse newspaper editorial, the day after Sarah Loguen began her studies.

Cornelia Maria Clapp

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

Vintage black & white photo of Cornelia Maria Clapp sitting at a desk

Cornelia Maria Clapp G 1889 (1849-1934) was interested in science from a young age. 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. 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.

I have always had an idea that if you want to do a thing, there is no particular reason why you shouldn’t do it. —Cornelia Maria Clapp, circa 1900

Dorothy Thompson

Trailblazing American journalist

Vintage black & white portrait of Dorothy Thompson with a NBC microphone

Dorothy 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.”

She [Dorothy Thompson] has shown what one valiant woman can do with the power of the pen. Freedom and humanity are her grateful debtors. —Winston Churchill

Kathrine V. Switzer

First woman to officially run the Boston Marathon

Kathrine V. Switzer poses in front of some foliage

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.

Sometimes when you just do what you think is right, it can create a revolution. —Katherine V. Switzer

Karen L. DeCrow

Lifelong advocate for gender equality

Black & white portrait of Karen L DeCrow

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.

Eileen M. Collins

First woman to command a NASA space shuttle mission

Eileen Collins speaking
Photo by Steve Sartori

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.

My daughter just thinks that all moms fly the space shuttle. —Eileen Collins

Christine Yackel

This story was first published on December 14, 2017 and last updated on . It also appeared as “First Among Many” in the Summer 2015 issue of Syracuse University Magazine.


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