Women at Stevens: Paving the Way, Then and Now
Women have long made an impact at Stevens Institute of Technology, even before the university welcomed its first undergraduate class of women nearly 50 years ago; they continue to do so today. Few alumni probably realize the university itself owes its existence and formation to a woman.
Martha Bayard Stevens, wife and widow of Stevens founder Edwin A. Stevens, bore the responsibility of establishing a "school of higher learning" per her husband's will and bequest. She did so, making key decisions as the university trustees selected a president and faculty and constructed a campus building.
In the mid-20th century, Lore E. Feiler and Beatrice Hicks M.S. '49 each helped pave the way for inclusion of women at Stevens in their own ways.
Feiler audited business classes at Stevens during the 1940s and took what she learned from the university to become an industrialist in the jewelry industry. Feiler later expressed her gratitude to the university with a foundation gift that created the Lore-El Center for Women’s Leadership, a unique residence hall for female students and the current hub of women’s programming at Stevens.
The talented Hicks became the first woman to be employed as an engineer by Western Electric in 1942. She received a master's degree in physics from Stevens in 1949. One year later, she co-founded and became the first president of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) in 1950.
A watershed moment for women arrived in 1971 when the historically all-male school opened its doors to the first Stevens undergraduate class of women. Lenore Schupak '74 completed her degree in just three years, becoming the trailblazing first woman to receive a Stevens undergraduate degree. Martha Connolly '75, another member of the milestone class who graduated with the remaining women a year later, admitted she and her fellow female classmates felt tremendous responsibility.
“When you’re in a class of 30, and 29 are guys, you’re going to stand out. We definitely had some academic pressure on us to succeed,” Connolly recalled.
Yet succeed they did. Women from that graduating class went on to serve and lead in industry, academia and government, setting an example for what was possible for successive generations of women at Stevens.
Today, women are leading the university’s teaching and research mission at the highest levels. Virginia Ruesterholz '83 was elected the first woman chair in the history of the Stevens Board of Trustees in 2013, a role she served for five years. Jean Zu has been leading the School of Engineering & Science since her appointment as dean in 2017. Professor Darinka Dentcheva became the first woman to chair Stevens' Department of Mathematics, while professor K.P. “Suba” Subbalakshmi was founding director of the Stevens Institute for Artificial Intelligence (SIAI), launched in 2018.
In addition, the National Science Foundation has awarded its prestigious CAREER Awards to a number of Stevens women faculty researchers, including professors Samantha Kleinberg, Stephanie Lee, Negar Tavassolian and Wendy Wang.
A variety of organizations on campus also support and connect women with one another. Sororities, sports teams and women’s professional societies, including SWE, help create a close-knit community that continues to nurture and graduate the best and the brightest women, carrying on the legacy of pioneers like Beatrice Hicks and Martha Bayard Stevens.