Women in Ithaca have been upending social norms, contributing valuable insights to their fields, and proving their strength for a long time. In honor of Women’s History Month, here are some of the remarkable women who have called Ithaca home.
Women’s History Month: Recognizing Ithaca’s Own
Photo Courtesy of The History Center in Tompkins County
Sophronia Bucklin, Civil War nurse
Bucklin was one of four local women who contributed to the Civil War effort as a Union-side nurse. She detailed her experience in her book, In Hospital and Camp: A Woman’s Record of Thrilling Incidents Among the Wounded in the Late War. Among other opinions, she argued in her book that even though they were off the battleground, wounded soldiers deserved adequate pay, rations, and shelter while recovering.
Judging from her own account of her time as a Civil War nurse, she also seems to have had ample stores of both empathy and nerve. She was supervisor to a group of female African American workers when wives of some Confederate soldiers came to visit their spouses. The workers spoke loudly and frankly about the Confederate wives and, when recounting being chastised by her superior for not intervening in the incident, Bucklin wrote, “I felt sure that my ironing girls appeared far superior to the snuff-eating women, and that they knew best to what indignities they had been subjected under their hands. I felt no disposition to interfere in the matter.”
Sophronia Bucklin’s book, “In Hospital and Camp”
Dorothy Cotton, Civil Rights Movement leader
Cotton was at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement as an educator and activist. She was the educational director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, through which she met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Cotton was present for major inflection moments in the Civil Rights Movement; she helped Dr. King type his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech and was staying in an adjacent motel room when Dr. King was assassinated.
Later, she moved to Ithaca and became involved in the community, while still acting as a national advocate for civil rights through her Dorothy Cotton Institute. The institute offers “popular education and training to inspire and support people who want to foster and protect human rights and to advance civic participation for social transformation.”
Dorothy Cotton’s book, “If Your Back’s Not Bent”
Caryn Davies, Olympic rower, attorney, and motivational speaker
A graduate of Ithaca High School, Davies began her rowing career at the age of 12. Among her many pre-Olympian accolades are being named the under-15 single sculls champion of Tasmania, Australia; winning a gold medal in the junior world rowing championship; and winning a national championship in college as part of the Harvard University team.
Davies made it to the Olympics three times. In 2004 she scored the silver medal in the women’s eight in Athens. She went on to win gold in both Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012. As if that wasn’t enough, she later earned a Doctor of Law degree from Columbia Law School.
Alice Fulton, poet
Fulton is a celebrated poet whose relationship with Ithaca began as a creative writing student at Cornell in the 1980s. Her poetry is known for its focus on entitlement, injustice, and cruelty and for Fulton’s usage of scientific metaphors.
She has won numerous prestigious awards for her work, including an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, the Library of Congress Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Award, a MacArthur Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. Fulton returned to the Ithaca community as a Professor of English at Cornell.
Alice Fulton’s book, “Barely Composed”
Photo credit: Robert Barker/Cornell University
Alison Lurie, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist
A resident of Ithaca since 1961, Lurie often fictionalized the place in her written work, disguising Cornell University as Corinth University, located in Homer County, NY. Her 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Foreign Affairs, is written from the perspective of a Corinthian professor on a trip to England. Lurie herself taught children’s literature at Cornell.
In 2012, Governor Andrew Cuomo named her to a two-year term as the 10th New York State Author. Several of her books have been adapted into series or movies for television.
Alison Lurie’s book, “The Language of Houses”
Mary McDonnell, actor
Raised in Ithaca, McDonnell has twice been nominated for an Oscar, first for her performance as Stands with a Fist in Dances with Wolves in 1991 and then as May-Alice Culhane in Passion Fish in 1993. She also won a Saturn Award in 2009 for her portrayal of President Roslin in Battlestar Galactica.
McDonnell is most recently well known for her starring role on television in the TNT series Major Crimes and her theatrical portrayal of Gloria Steinem in Gloria: A Life at the McCarter Theatre Center in 2019. She acts across a variety of genres and media – she has performed in film, in television, and on stage. For over 20 years she worked with the prestigious Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.
Mary McDonnell as President Roslin in Battlestar Galactica
Photo credit: Edna Brown
Jacqueline Elizabeth Melton Scott (Mama Scott)
A 2012 Ithaca Times article described Melton Scott as “an activist, seemingly from birth.” After attending college in Massachusetts, Melton Scott created a school in Cambridge and taught at Harvard University before returning to her hometown of Ithaca in the 1990s. Here she became director of an organization that was part of her family history and of her childhood: Southside Community Center.
The Center’s mission is to “affirm, empower, and foster the development of self-pride among the African American citizens of greater Ithaca.” As director, Melton Scott instituted a wide range of new programming, including a computer lab, night basketball, a community police station hub, and a TV show that was broadcast on the public access PEGASYS channel, featuring kids at the Center discussing important issues of the day and learning about television broadcast along the way. She was a formidable presence in the effort to make Ithaca a more equitable and inclusive place to live.
Martha Van Rensselaer and Flora Rose at a meeting of the League of Women Voters at the home of Eleanor Roosevelt in Hyde Park in the 1920s (via Wikimedia Commons)
Flora Rose and Martha Van Rensselaer, co-founders, New York State College of Human Ecology
In 1912, Rose and Van Rensselaer co-founded a home economics department at Cornell University to empower women as homemakers to improve their own quality of life. The department would go on to become the New York State College of Human Ecology. They were the first full-time female professors to be hired by Cornell.
Rose and Van Rensselaer taught such subjects as nutrition, nurturing and connecting both professional and personal lives, and new theories on marriage. Their department earned praise from the women’s rights movement, Ida Tarbell, and Eleanor Roosevelt. The pair lived together from 1908 until Van Rensselaer’s death in 1932, in a same-sex relationship that they did not hide from their community at a time when it was extremely uncommon to do so. They were so inseparable, their colleagues referred to them as “Miss Van Rose.”
Who would you add to this list? Comment below with your suggestions of other remarkable women from Ithaca!