Women and the University of Rochester

It’s earlier than you think.  

The watershed 1900 admission of women undergraduates to the University of Rochester—and the (true) legend of Susan B. Anthony’s role in the long, often arduous effort to gain that opportunity—have overshadowed the achievements and the sustaining presence of women at the University of Rochester in the fifty years preceding that momentous year, and in the 120 years since. 

Women have always been a part of the University of Rochester, even when they did not have a prominent role on the campus or in the classroom. Women philanthropists supported the University’s mission as founding subscribers to the 1850 endowment required by our Charter application.  

The daughters of prominent Rochesterians influenced their fathers’ support for women’s education. In 1875, Professor Samuel Lattimore (father of five daughters) admitted women students to his advanced Chemistry course. In the 1890s, Geology professor and University Registrar Herman LeRoy Fairchild (father of three daughters) may have subverted the “no women students” intent of the Board of Trustees by registering women as special students.  

Only a small proportion of women students came from outside Rochester to attend the University, meaning that the racial and ethnic composition of the city was reflected in the student population. In 1931, Beatrice Amaza Howard (1909-1996) was the first African American woman to graduate from the University; over 725 students from underrepresented minorities are enrolled today. 

Helen Barrett Montgomery (1861-1934) was the first woman to teach at the University in 1894, as a member of the faculty of the Extension School. Dr. Elizabeth Denio (1842-1922) was the first female professor, teaching students of both sexes from 1902-1917. Dr. Kathrine Koller (1903-1993) became the first woman chair of an academic department in 1946. 

Over 170 years, the University has grown, changed, and flourished with the representation and leadership of women: from a student body that was less than one percent female, to one where women are in the majority. From one woman on the faculty to 882. From one department chair to authority over one-third of academic departments. From one voice on the Board of Trustees in 1943 to thirty-six percent representation in 2020.  

From one to many.



Photograph of Elizabeth Denio, after 1902.

Born in Albion, New York, Elizabeth Denio attended the Phipps Union Female Seminary before graduating from Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College) in 1866 and teaching briefly at Vassar College. She was a professor at Wellesley College from 1876 to 1896, when she was reportedly fired because her style of teaching was considered too old-fashioned. At Rochester, Dr. Denio taught art history from 1902 to 1917. Her salary was supported by Emily Sibley Watson and Annie B. Taylor, who would also serve as a board member of the Memorial Art Gallery.


Joanna Olmsted, University of Rochester Commencement, May 2014. J. Adam Fenster, photographer. 

After twenty years on the faculty of the Department of Biology as a successful teacher, researcher, chair, and contributor to professional journals and societies, Joanna Olmsted was appointed the inaugural Associate Dean of Faculty. She would subsequently serve as Dean of Faculty Development and Interim Vice Provost and Dean of Faculty, before becoming Dean of Arts and Sciences in 2007, the first woman to hold that position at the University.