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On this #WomensDay we remember Ellen Swallow Richards, the first woman to graduate from MIT

by Milicent Atieno
Ellen Swallow Richards womens day

Today is women’s recognition day around the world, and what other better way to recognize women than to talk of the pioneer women who were first to beat the odds? In this article, we will feature Ellen Swallow Richards (1842-1911), she was the first woman to join the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Ellen Swallow Richards womens dayEllen Swallow Richards attained her Bachelor of Science degree in 1873; five years after the first graduating class of MIT. You can check out her thesis – titled ‘Notes on Some Sulpharsenites and Sulphantimonities from Colorado’ – at this link [PDF].

Two years after her graduation, Ellen appealed to the Women’s Education Association of Boston for assistance in setting up a lab at MIT to be used to instruct women in chemistry. The lab was established in 1876, and Professor John M. Ordway was set in charge with Ellen as his assistance.

Ellen served as an instructor in chemistry and mineralogy at the Women’s Laboratory until the day it was shut down in 1883. The next year she moved on to become an instructor in sanitary chemistry at the MIT, a position she held until her death in 1911.

Ellen joined MIT at a time when women rights and freedom were widely violated. You can imagine the pressure on her shoulder being the only woman in a campus full of men; men who probably thought she was not supposed to be there.

As we mark the international women’s day today, we pay great tribute to the women who came before us and pioneered a journey that has seen so many of us get rights and freedoms that we can now take for granted. To the women before these pioneer women, these rights and freedoms were privileges. The pioneer women earned them through ridicule, mistrust, threats of violence and abuse. They nonetheless remained firm in their quests until the society accepted that a woman’s place goes further beyond being a housewife and caring mother.

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