March is Women’s History Month. Join the Columbia Alumni Association (CAA) and our Columbia community in proudly recognizing and celebrating the generations of Columbia alumnae who have contributed to history, and who continue to help shape the future.
Madeleine Korbel Albright (1937– )
"Don't make me into this airy-fairy, moralist, idealist because I'm not."
Appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations by President Bill Clinton, Albright was the first woman to hold that position; she emphasized human rights and advocated U.N. military action to protect those rights and to prevent genocide.
In January 1997, she became the first female Secretary of State and the highest ranking woman in the U.S. government. Albright earned her undergraduate degree in political science from Wellesley College in 1959 and studied at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University before attending Columbia. She received her Certificate from Columbia's Russian Institute in 1968, her MA in 1968, and her PhD in public law and government in 1976, writing her dissertation on the Prague Spring. Her adviser was Zbigniew Brzezinski, who left Columbia's faculty in 1976 to become President Jimmy Carter's national security advisor.
Laurie Anderson (1947 - )
"When love is gone, there's always justice. And when justice is gone, there's always force. And when force is gone, there's always Mom. Hi, Mom!"
Mass audiences first encountered Anderson's work with "O Superman," 11 eerie minutes of techno-drone and spoken-word riffing that rose to the top of the British pop music charts in the early 1980s. In the decades that followed, Anderson continued to smudge the line between popular and avant-garde performance.
She moved to New York City to study art at Barnard College, graduating magna cum laude in 1969; she continued her education in art and sculpture at Columbia University's School of the Arts. The University's urban location put Anderson in close proximity to contemporary conceptual art movements, which formed the context of much of her early work. Anderson has remained connected to Columbia, standing to receive an honorary doctorate in 2005 and teaching Master Classes at the School of the Arts in 2006. Anderson also has remained deeply rooted in the New York City art scene, where her wit and playful use of technology continue to surprise.
Virginia Apgar (1909–1974)
"Nobody, but nobody, is going to stop breathing on me."
A pioneer in anesthesiology as well as maternal and child health, Apgar is best known for developing the Apgar score, a systematic assessment of neonatal viability known to medical personnel and parents throughout the world. Apgar is also credited with founding the field of perinatology.
One of four women to enter the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons (P&S) in 1929, Apgar graduated fourth in her class. While she intended to become a surgeon, she was encouraged for reasons likely having to do with gender discrimination to pursue a career in anesthesiology by Dr. Allen Whipple, chairman of the surgery department. In 1938, at the age of 29, she was invited back to Columbia to head the new division of anesthesiology. She was the medical school's first female division head. In addition to her clinical responsibilities, she built a residency program and, in 1949, became the first woman appointed to a full professorship at P&S. Apgar was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1995. The Virginia Apgar Award is given annually by the American Academy of Pediatrics for outstanding contributions to the field of perinatal pediatrics.
Ruth Fulton Benedict (1887–1948)
“I gambled on having the strength to live two lives, one for myself and one for the world.”
Benedict helped lay the foundation of modern anthropology. Building on the work of Franz Boas in exploring the relationship of individuals to their cultures, her fieldwork among Native Americans and her studies of contemporary European and Asian cultures led her to emphasize concepts of cultural configuration, national character, and the relationship between individual personality and culture.
In 1931, Benedict was the first woman to be appointed to a full-time faculty position at Columbia. She graduated from Vassar College in 1909, married in 1914, and came to Columbia in 1919, studying under Boas and earning her doctorate in 1923. In rising to the top of her field, she overcame partial deafness and gender discrimination; until her divorce in 1931, she was unable to draw a salary because, as a married woman, she was not considered to be in need of one. She joined the faculty as the only other full-time anthropology professor besides Boas, and was named associate professor in 1936. Benedict was finally appointed full professor in 1948, the year after she was elected president of the American Anthropological Association, but died before assuming her new role. Many of Benedict's students, including Margaret Mead, went on to shape the emerging field of anthropology.
Kathryn Bigelow (1951– )
"There should be more women directing; I think there's just not the awareness that it's really possible."
Bigelow is the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director, the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing, the BAFTA Award for Best Direction, and the Critics' Choice Award for Best Director, for her film The Hurt Locker, which also won the Oscar for Best Picture. In April 2010, Bigelow was named on the Time 100 list of most influential people of the year.
Bigelow received the ninth annual Andrew Sarris Award at the 2009 Columbia University Film Festival. The award, named for School of the Arts Film Program professor and critic Andrew Sarris, honors outstanding service and artistic achievement of distinguished Film Program alumni.
A'Lelia Bundles (1952-)
A'Lelia Bundles is a 1976 graduate of Columbia Journalism School and is vice chair of the Board of Trustees of Columbia.
She is chair and president of the board of the National Archives Foundation. She is a former network television news executive and producer, having held positions as director of talent development for ABC News in Washington, D.C., and New York, deputy bureau chief of ABC News in Washington, D.C., and a producer with ABC News and NBC News. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm (1924–2005)
"Of my two handicaps, being female put many more obstacles in my path than being black."
The first African American woman in Congress, Shirley Chisholm gained widespread notice as a tireless advocate for the interests of African Americans, women, and the urban poor, and as a champion of greater educational opportunity for all.
Chisholm received her master's degree in early childhood education at Teachers College in 1951. It was at TC that she met Conrad Chisholm, a Jamaican graduate student, who would become her first husband. (They divorced many years later, and Chisholm remarried.) After graduating, she ran a child-care center and then worked as a consultant on child-welfare issues. Despite her historic "firsts," Chisholm has said she does not want to be remembered primarily for them: "I'd like to be known as a catalyst for change," she said, "a woman who had the determination and a woman who had the perseverance to fight on behalf of the female population and the black population, because I'm a product of both, being black and a woman."
Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933- )
"[W]hen I’m sometimes asked when will there be enough [women on the supreme court]? And I say ‘When there are nine.’ People are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that."
Through her example and her work as a lawyer, law professor, and jurist, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has had a tremendous impact on the effort to end gender discrimination in America. In 1980, President Carter appointed her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. When President Clinton nominated her to fill the seat vacated by Associate Justice Byron R. White in 1993, Ginsburg became the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court.
After attending Harvard Law School, Ginsburg transferred to Columbia Law School and graduated first in her class in 1959. She clerked in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York and, from 1963 until 1972, taught at Rutgers Law School. In 1972, she became the first woman full professor at Columbia Law School. Ginsburg held that post until her appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals. On her transition to the courtroom she has said, "One of the biggest impacts on the courts is made by law professors who turn judge."
Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960)
"Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It's beyond me."
Hurston combined literature with anthropology, employing indigenous dialects to tell the stories of people in her native rural Florida and in the Caribbean. She became one of the most widely read authors of the Harlem Renaissance but died penniless and forgotten, her eight books long out of print. Her reputation was resuscitated after Alice Walker's 1975 essay, "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston," led to rediscovery of novels such as Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934) and Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937).
A published short story writer by the time she came to New York in 1925, Hurston studied anthropology at Barnard, where she was the college's first African-American student. Her admission was secured and expenses paid by Barnard cofounder and longtime trustee, Annie Nathan Meyer. After graduation at the age of 37, Hurston later pursued graduate work at Columbia with renowned anthropologist Franz Boas.
Jhumpa Lahiri (1967– )
"When I sit down to write, I don't think about writing about an idea or a given message. I just try to write a story which is hard enough."
Nilanjana Sudeshna "Jhumpa" Lahiri is an Indian American author. Lahiri was just eleven years out of Barnard when she won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000 for her debut short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies (1999). Her 2003 novel, The Namesake, was adapted into a popular film of the same name.
She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2002, Barnard’s Young Alumna Award in 2004, and was appointed a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities by President Barack Obama in 2010. After graduating from Barnard, she received multiple degrees from Boston University, including a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies.
Margaret Mead (1901–1978)
Faculty 1934–35, 1941–42, 1948–49, 1951–78
"I was wise enough to never grow up while fooling most people into believing I had."
Mead was instrumental in extending and popularizing anthropological concepts of culture. As a professor, intrepid researcher, author, speaker, and museum curator, she bridged the gap between the academy and popular culture. She first made her mark with Coming of Age in Samoa, published in 1928 and based on original fieldwork done for her PhD at Columbia.
Mead transferred to Barnard College in 1921, majored in psychology, and graduated in 1923. She remembered her two years there fondly in her memoir Blackberry Winter. From Barnard, Mead proceeded across Broadway to Columbia, where she pursued graduate studies in anthropology with Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict. She received her PhD in 1929. In 1934, she became a member of the curatorial staff at the American Museum of Natural History, with which she remained affiliated until her death in 1978.
Constance Baker Motley (1921–2005)
"I rejected the notion that my race or sex would bar my success in life."
Over fifty-plus years as a jurist, Constance Baker Motley has had a major impact on ending racial discrimination. As the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's associate counsel, she participated in writing the briefs for Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., et.al., the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case that ended school segregation.
After graduating from New York University in 1943, Motley took a well-paying job with a wartime agency that aided the dependents of servicemen. A year later, she turned down a promotion to attend Columbia Law School. "That's the dumbest thing I ever heard, a complete waste of time," her supervisor told her. "Women don't get anywhere in the law." While still a law student at Columbia, Motley met Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP's legal director, who offered her a job as a law clerk in the organization's New York office. After receiving her law degree in 1946, Motley became a full-fledged member of the NAACP's legal staff.
Georgia O'Keeffe (1887–1986)
"I decided that if I could paint that flower in a huge scale, you could not ignore its beauty."
The American artist Georgia O'Keeffe is best known for her large-scale paintings of flowers as well as for the use of color in depicting the vistas and objects of the American Southwest. She first drew attention as a member of the avant-garde movement in New York, rejecting the imitative realism of the 1910s in favor of abstract charcoal drawings, and by the mid-1920s had begun experimenting with the oversized images that would gain her even wider notice.
In 1912, Alon Bement of Teachers College introduced O'Keeffe to the ideas of his colleague Arthur Wesley Dow, who saw art as a representation of the artist's personal feelings—an expression in line, color, and the balance of light and dark. While O'Keeffe had studied at both the Art Institute of Chicago and New York's Art Students League—where she won a prize in 1908 for an oil painting—she had not painted in four years, having concluded that she could not improve upon the work of artists who had come before her. Newly encouraged by Dow's theories, O'Keeffe began working again and returned to New York in the fall of 1914 to take courses at Teachers College. __________________________________________________________________________________________________
Claire Shipman (1962-)
"Recognizing your accomplishments in a real way will make a big difference for younger women."
Claire Shipman is an alumna of Columbia College and the School of International and Public Affairs, and a trustee of Columbia.
She is a senior correspondent for ABC News and joined in the network in 2001. Shipman spent a decade at CNN, where she covered the White House, and spent five years at CNN’s Moscow bureau covering the collapse of the Soviet Union. She’s received numerous awards for her reporting, including a Peabody, a DuPont, and an Emmy.
Julia Stiles (1981-)
"Even after such milestones as Kathryn Bigelow winning an Oscar, there still seem to be few women in leadership roles."
Actress Julie Stiles graduated from Columbia College in 2005 with a degree in English. She is known for her roles in the films Save the Last Dance, 10 Things I Hate About You, and on the TV show Dexter.
In 2010, she received the John Jay Award from Columbia College.
Thank you to those who nominated a Columbia alumna who inspires you! Here are your picks.
To learn more about extraordinary Columbia alumni women, visit Columbia250.
Watch "Women and Leadership in the 21st Century University," a colloquium of women deans.
The CAA's alumnae leadership group is exploring ideas for a women's panel at Columbia Alumni Leader's Weekend, as well as a potential women's conference. What topics would you like us to consider? Share your ideas here.