Inspired by their families, a love of Northwestern and the desire to make the University and the world a better place, women philanthropists have created exciting new spaces, programs and opportunities for students.
It was a century and a half ago that women were first given the opportunity to enroll at Northwestern as undergraduates. To mark the 150th anniversary of coeducation we are championing our remarkable community of individuals, who have taken risks, charted their own course and inspired change throughout our history and today. We also recognize a new generation of catalysts who continue the journey to transform our community and our culture, by challenging conventional norms and working to ensure Northwestern — and the world — is a more equitable and inclusive place. We celebrate the brave and bold women, womxn and gender-diverse individuals who have led — and continue to lead — the struggle to open doors, creating greater access and opportunity for all who follow. We applaud their contributions, achievements and resilience.
It has not been an easy journey, and myriad challenges remain, but Northwestern has long been a leader. The University was one of more than a dozen Midwestern institutes of higher education to accept women undergraduate students in the 1860s and ’70s, more than 100 years ahead of some of our Ivy League peers, including Yale, Harvard, Princeton and Columbia. But even in the seemingly more progressive Midwest, women faced hurdles and resistant attitudes to getting into college.
The minutes of the Board of Trustees meeting on June 23, 1869, could not have been simpler: “Resolved that we approve of the admission of young women to the classes of the university upon the same terms and conditions as young men.”
As in any significant change, of course, the truth was much more complicated. The Chicago Tribune reported the next day that several board members had resisted passing the motion for hours. At the very least, they argued, women would require extra supervision to keep them out of trouble, and even worse, their mere presence could damage the University’s reputation.
It would take a conflagration and major reorganization before Sarah Rebecca Roland became the first woman to receive a Northwestern diploma in 1874 — and many more years until women were fully accepted by the University community.
Today, challenges remain to achieve equity across gender identity and expression, racial identity, sexual orientation and economic status. As we reflect on 150 years of women at Northwestern, we can take lessons learned from these inspiring catalysts to focus on creating a more positive future where all individuals have the same opportunities to flourish. The forward thinking and fierce determination of our Northwestern community challenges us to make the next 150 years more inclusive and equitable.
Here are 12 outstanding graduates who are driving positive change in our world and motivating others to take the lead, from politics to comedy to biopharmaceuticals and many other fields. What is especially inspiring about these Northwestern alums is that not only have they followed their passions and found fulfillment and success, they’ve mentored others along their journey and are helping to create a more just society for all of us.
Kristen Schaal: Kristen Schaal ’00 makes an indelible impression. Her sweet, singsong and slightly manic voice belies the many comically subversive roles she has played, but no matter how sly her portrayals, you always feel like Schaal is letting you in on the joke. Read more about her path to success
Ashley Nicole Black: After earning her performance studies master's degree, actor and writer Ashley Nicole Black ’08 MS became a TV star. She hopes her career sets an example for other diverse voices. Read more about the star of HBO's A Black Lady Sketch Show
Jody Gerson: Jody Gerson ’83 wields enormous influence in the entertainment industry. She has overseen the signings and publishing-contract extensions of songwriters Rosalía, Billie Eilish, Ariana Grande, Elton John, Post Malone, Prince, Quavo, Carly Simon, Bruce Springsteen, SZA, Jack White and many others. “In the music business, you’re defined by the success of the talent you find.” Read more about the chairman and CEO of Universal Music Publishing Group
Sheila Gujrathi: When Sheila Gujrathi ’92, ’96 MD, was a student at the Feinberg School of Medicine, she took a year off between her second and third years to live in an ashram in the south of India. Her mother, a pediatrician, was so worried about Gujrathi that she called the ashram and asked them to send her daughter home to finish school. But Gujrathi, a second-generation Indian American, wanted to lead a more centered life. Read more about the co-founder, president and CEO of Gossamer Bio
Emily Harburg: While working at Walt Disney Imagineering as a behavioral sciences researcher, Emily Harburg ’18 PhD didn’t always feel comfortable speaking up. “Every day I’d be in meetings where I was the only woman in the room,” says Harburg ’18 PhD. “It took a while to get over the feeling that I didn’t belong in that space.” Read more about the co-founder of Brave Initiatives, a series of coding workshops and camps for girls
Jolene Loetscher: Northwestern alumna Jolene Loetscher ’01, namesake of South Dakota's Jolene's Law, spearheaded a campaign to end child sexual abuse in South Dakota. Loetscher, a former TV reporter, is CEO of Mud Mile Communications. Read more about the 2019 Presidential Leadership Scholar
Claudia Lopez: When Claudia López ’19 PhD began her doctorate in political science at Northwestern in 2011, she was already well known in her native Colombia as an activist, political researcher and fearless investigative reporter. Before López was awarded her degree last June, she had also served four years as a Colombian senator, beat cancer, run as the vice presidential candidate for the Green Alliance Party in 2018, triumphed over stereotypes as a proud lesbian and inspired a new generation of voters. Read more about the mayor-elect of Bogotá, Colombia
Jade Maze: Musician Jade Maze ’08 MMus says getting an education was the turning point in her life. After overcoming adversity, Maze is mentoring promising musicians at the Merit School of Music, a community music school in Chicago that serves talented youth in its tuition-free college-prep conservatory. Read more about the master of music alumna
Martha Vitaterna: Northwestern neurobiologist Martha Vitaterna ’92 PhD helped discover the first molecular piece of the mammalian clock. Since then, research with Clock mutant mice has shown that circadian rhythms are important to almost every physiological process — from sleep to digestion to mood and more. Read more about the research professor of neurobiology