140 Years of Women’s Voices at Penn

Women began attending Penn in 1876, nearly a century before most Ivy League peers became co-ed. Now 140 years later, Penn is home to a dynamic female president, eight female vice presidents, and world-renowned female scholars and researchers. In the voices that follow, we hear how these and other women of Penn have continued to break glass ceilings and create ever-widening circles of inclusion that start here on campus and ripple out across the world.


“A hallmark of the women’s community here at Penn is the inclusivity that permeates all divisional line,” says Senior Vice President for Institutional Affairs and Chief Diversity Officer Joann Mitchell. “Another is a deep appreciation for the work and service of the ‘sheroes’ who came before us, and a commitment to carry their work forward for other women to come.”

Fifteen years ago, the Trustees’ Council of Penn Women (TCPW) honored this legacy by commissioning 125 Years, an installation featuring Penn women’s words engraved in granite curbs and benches along the easternmost block of Woodland Walk. Current TCPW chair Hildegard Toth, chief of breast imaging at the NYU Langone School of Medicine, sees the installation as a testament to the generations of Penn women who pushed the needle progressively forward:

“The possibility that I would ever lead a large radiology section and mentor so many medical students, residents, and fellows seemed inconceivable at the time I graduated,” says Toth. “But we have certainly moved on from that era—today’s Penn women students see no boundaries and are aiming for the very top of their professions.”

One Penn alumna who was particularly instrumental in changing the landscape early on was Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, the first black woman in history to earn a Ph.D. in economics (1921) and the first black woman to graduate from Penn Law School (1927). Her words are engraved in the 125 Years bench figured below:


Vice Provost for Faculty Anita Allen says Alexander “opened the door for other women of color to get their Ph.D.s at Penn because she showed that it could be done, not just by going to Penn, but also by becoming a famous civil rights lawyer. Now we have more women faculty than ever in the Law School, including African American and Latina women, LGBT women, conservative, liberal, and it’s reflective of what’s happening all over Penn.”

As the first African American woman in history to hold both a Ph.D. in philosophy and a law degree, Allen sees herself as part of Penn’s long history of inclusivity.

“I know I’m where I am today because of the work done by past pioneers that enabled us to reach this point where yes, a black woman can be Vice Provost for Faculty.”

Valarie Ena Swain-Cade McCoullum, vice provost for university life, sees this flourishing of diversity as intertwined with Penn’s ascension as a globally prominent university:

“One could posit that Penn’s ascent from provincial, colonial academy to world-class academic distinction is precisely because subsequent generations of Penn people have expanded Franklin’s initial, binary construct of ‘American Youth’ to embrace an ever-changing, demonstrably vibrant, richly diverse community.”

Cade’s perspective is echoed in the words of Anne Esacove, associate director of the Alice Paul Center for Research on Gender, Sexuality and Women (APC) who says, “I think all educational institutions have a responsibility to imagine a world that’s different and to work toward that world with people who are very different from us.”

This is exactly the direction in which President Amy Gutmann has been steering the University over the course of her tenure: In 2015 and 2016, she established the President’s Engagement Prizes and the President’s Innovation Prize to promote the very kind of imagining that Esacove evokes.

Katlyn Grasso, one of the inaugural President’s Engagement Prize recipients, says, “As a young entrepreneur, I have found Penn to be one of the most empowering places for women's advancement. My Penn experience as a student and alumna has been shaped by inspirational women, such as Dr. Gutmann, who are committed to paying it forward to the next generation of women.”

Felicity Paxton, director of the Penn Women’s Center (PWC), says, “I’m proud that Penn provides an environment that makes women feel like they can achieve anything.” Toward this end, she says, “We work to make sure the supports are in place for the realities of women’s lives, including addressing any issues that may be interfering with their educational journeys.”


In a Voices of Change video celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2014, Gutmann called the PWC “an ongoing reminder both of the progress that has been made and the progress that still has to be made for women, especially in universities. We’re educational institutions so we should be sending the message loud and clear that equality of women is absolutely essential.”

It is a message that Penn women continue to send.

“At this time when [women’s and minority] rights are being threatened, it is important to be reminded of our collective strength,” says Luz N. Marín, program coordinator of the APC’s Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program, “but also to assess the present and plan for creative leaders to take us to the next 140 years. Penn women can do that!”


Homepage photo: Vice Provost for University Life Valarie Ena Swain-Cade McCoullum, Senior Vice President for Institutional Affairs and Chief Diversity Officer Joann Mitchell, and Vice Provost for Faculty Anita Allen  (left to right).

Photo: Luz Marin, program coordinator of the Alice Paul Center’s Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program (left) and Felicity Paxton, director of the Penn Women’s Center.

140 Years of Women’s Voices at Penn