Women's History Month: Selected Highlights of Women's History at the University of Pittsburgh

Issue Date: 
March 14, 2011


Margaret SteinMargaret Stein

Sisters Margaret and Stella Stein are the first women to enter the Western University of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pittsburgh) as full-time sophomores, when the University was on Observatory Hill in Allegheny City (now Pittsburgh’s North Side). The Stein sisters have an advantage over previous female applicants because Chancellor William Jacob Holland believes that two women could look after each other and keep each other company. The sisters take all the mathematics courses offered, plus astronomy, mathematical chemistry, and surveying.


Stella and Margaret Stein graduate, tied for first place in their class at Pitt. The sisters decide Stella should be the valedictorian.


Stella SteinStella Stein

The Stein sisters return to Pitt for their master’s degrees, another first. Stella went on to teach modern languages and mathematics at South High School, and Margaret was principal at Avalon High School until she married.


Pi Theta Nu, the first sorority, forms in 1908. Women’s organizations are rare until after 1910.


Shortly after the University moves to Oakland, Pitt opens the School of Education. Women flock to the new program, the number of women students at Pitt jumping from about 40 to more than 300 in the first year. Teacher training continues to be an academic haven for female students for more than 60 years.

Jean Hamilton WallsJean Hamilton Walls


Jean Hamilton Walls receives the bachelor’s  degree at Pitt, the first Black woman to do so at the University. In 1938, she becomes the first Black woman to receive the PhD degree here.


Women constitute 25 percent of Pitt’s student body with 600 female students attending.


Women’s basketball organizes, the first competitive sport for women at Pitt.


Blossom HenryBlossom Henry

Pitt hires its first woman faculty member, Blossom Henry.


Virginia Proctor Powell Florence is the first African American woman in the United States to complete a professional education program in librarianship. She graduates in 1923 from the Carnegie Library School, which later became part of Pitt’s School of Information Sciences. (In 2004, a plaque honoring Florence is installed in the Information Sciences Building lobby.)

The Women’s Athletic Association forms to manage intramural sports.

Pitt’s first Dean of Women, Thyrsa Wealhtheow Amos, arrives from the psychology department at the University of Kansas.

Virginia Proctor Powell FlorenceVirginia Proctor Powell Florence


Lantern Night, a candlelight ceremony for freshman women, begins.


Women’s Varsity Basketball team sweeps its home game opponents and loses only one game on the road.


Eighty-two percent of the students in the professional nursing program enlist in a unit of the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps organized by the University. Because of a wartime shortage of nurses, the federal government mandates that nursing schools receiving federal money accept Black students. Adena Johnson Davis becomes the first African American admitted to the School of Nursing. She graduates in 1947.


Flora Diemert begins her term as the first female president of Pitt’s Student Congress (now Student Government Board). The 1950 edition of The Owl credited the 1949-50 Congress, led by Diemert, for fostering a more inclusive Congress by establishing a Foreign Students Committee and a High School Relations Committee.


Chancellor Wesley Posvar creates the Advisory Committee on Women’s Opportunities to address the agenda of the newly formed University Committee for Women’s Rights.


The Pitt Women’s Studies Program is founded.


Pitt establishes the Women’s Center to serve as an advising center to campus and community women.


The Provost’s Advisory Committee for Women’s Concerns is created.


Pitt establishes a Faculty Medical and Family Leave Policy, which, among other benefits, allows new and expecting mothers time off.


Katherine Detre, Distinguished Professor of Epidemiology in Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health, begins leading a national study—involving 2,368 patients at 40 sites across the United States—to determine the best way to treat people with both Type 2 diabetes and early coronary artery disease. The study attracts funding for the largest combined grant in Pitt history, $65 million.

Wangari Muta MaathaiWangari Muta Maathai


Wangari Muta Maathai, who earned the Master of Science degree in biology at Pitt in 1965, is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her 30-year effort to reforest her native Kenya and improve the economic status of women there, while fighting for democracy and against corruption and tribalism. Pitt conferred on Maathai an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree during an Oct. 26, 2006, ceremony in Alumni Hall.

Under the leadership of Irene Frieze, professor of psychology and then-president of the University Senate, the Senate sponsored a plenary session on the roles of women at Pitt that led to three Senate ad hoc committees addressing women’s concerns: the Committee for the Support and Advancement of Women at Pitt (2004-06); the Committee for the Promotion of Gender Equity (2007-08), and the Committee for the Promotion of Gender Equity II (2009-2010).

Alberta SbragiaAlberta Sbragia


The director of Pitt’s European Union Center, Alberta Sbragia, is named Jean Monnet Chair ad personam by the European Commission, which also designates Pitt’s center a European Union Center of Excellence. Sbragia, a Pitt professor of political science and then-director of Pitt’s European Union Center, is one of only two academics to be named Jean Monnet Chair ad personam in 2005. In 2006, Sbragia is named the inaugural holder of the Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg University Chair and in 2010 a vice provost for graduate studies.


Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg tells the University’s Board of Trustees that Pitt will honor Helen S. Faison—Pitt alumna, emerita trustee, and trailblazing educator—by creating the Dr. Helen S. Faison Chair in Urban Education, the first fully endowed chair in the 96-year history of Pitt’s School of Education, where Faison earned her BS, MEd, and PhD degrees in 1946, 1955, and 1975, respectively.

Susan G. Amara delivers a Provost’s Inaugural Lecture Nov. 21 to mark her formal installation as the Dr. Thomas Detre Endowed Professor in Pitt’s School of Medicine. Amara, who also chairs the school’s Department of Neurobiology, was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2004.

Anna Balazs, a Pitt Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering, was honored by the Women and Girls Foundation of Southwestern Pennsylvania with a Woman in the Material World Award both for her research and for providing an example of the careers young women and girls can pursue through math and science.

Helen S. FaisonHelen S. Faison


Anna Quider, a Pitt Honors College student majoring in physics and astronomy, the history and philosophy of science, and religious studies, is named a Marshall Scholar for 2007. Quider is the ninth Pitt student to win a Marshall Scholarship, one of the most competitive and prestigious merit scholarships available to graduating American seniors.


Patricia E. Beeson is elected the first female provost and senior vice chancellor of Pitt by the University’s Board of Trustees. Beeson was recommended by Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg for her successful 27-year career as a Pitt faculty member and administrator.


Roberta Luxbacher is the first woman to be named a Swanson School of Engineering Distinguished Alumni, an award presented annually since 1964. Luxbacher, who also serves on the Swanson School’s Board of Visitors, received her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 1978 and is currently the general manager of corporate planning for ExxonMobil.

Katherine Wisner, Pitt Professor of Psychiatry and director of Women’s Behavioral HealthCARE at the Western Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute, receives the 2011 Women in Science Award from the American Medical Women’s Association. Since 1993, the annual award honors a woman physician who has made exceptional contributions to medical science, especially in women’s health.