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In a moment when women outpace men in college applications and enrollments, and more women are holding high-profile leadership positions, one could be forgiven for thinking the battle for gender parity in academe is won. Yet there are many more barriers left to break, research shows.
This Women’s History Month, learn about the lives of just a few of the incredible Pitt women whose path-forging work changed our past — and is shaping our tomorrow.
Who would you spotlight? Share your suggestions of notable Pitt women leaders past and present by emailing pittwire [at] pitt.edu.
A PhD against impossible odds
Jean Hamilton Walls
Jean Hamilton Walls, the first Black woman to receive a bachelor's degree at Pitt (1910), was also the first here to receive a PhD (1938). She graduated from Allegheny High School in 1904 and majored in mathematics and physics at Pitt before getting her master's degree at Howard University. She then returned to complete her PhD in Pittsburgh. It’s almost impossible to overstate the structural limitations Walls overcame to do what she accomplished. Her enduring strength paved a path for thousands of Black women at Pitt and beyond, over the course of the last century.
Margaret and Stella Stein
In 1895, Margaret and Stella Stein were the first women admitted to Pitt as full-time students. The sisters took every mathematics course offered, plus astronomy, mathematical chemistry and surveying. They tied for first in their graduating class, deciding together that Stella should be valedictorian. Later, they would become among the first women to earn master’s degrees from the University. Stella went on to teach modern languages and mathematics at South High School, while Margaret was principal at Avalon High School.
Our Balkan president
In April 2021, Vjosa Osmani-Sadriu (LAW ’05, ‘15) was sworn in as president of Kosovo, the Balkan nation’s second female leader. Osmani-Sadriu is one of the youngest global heads of state in the world. She has been credited with helping to bring about her native Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008.
Jazz music’s Lady of the Soul
At age 7, musical prodigy and famed jazz pianist Geri Allen sat down at her instrument for the first time, and music changed forever. She was named a Guggenheim Fellow in 2008, the same year she won a Distinguished Alumni Award from her alma mater, Howard University. Already a world-renowned musician, Allen (A&S ’85) became director of Pitt’s Jazz Studies program in 2013. She was the department’s head until her death in 2017. She has been described by more than one of her peers as “the female Herbie Hancock on the piano” and is remembered by the University community as much for her compassion and humanity as for her musical genius.
A tree grows for a Nobel laureate
After earning her master’s degree in biological sciences in 1966, Kenyan-born Wangari Maathai became the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate. She then founded the Green Belt Movement, which mobilizes Kenyans, many of them women, to plant trees — providing employment for them and renewable resources for their villages. Though Maathai was attacked and even imprisoned when her work ran afoul of powerful developers, she persevered and ultimately became Kenya’s assistant minister for environment and natural resources. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2004, the first African woman to be awarded the prize.
Diversifying the physician assistant field
When Kathryn Reed (MED ’14, SHRS ’16) was an undergraduate studying emergency medicine, she was introduced to people working as physician assistants (PA) for the first time. She also realized that not many PAs looked like her. This led Reed to found the National Society of Black Physician Assistants, an organization focused on diversifying the physician assistant student body by increasing the number of Black students, providing mentorship and support and improving health outcomes and disparities in Black communities. In 2020, Reed shared her experience of being a biracial person in medicine as a part of People magazine’s Voices from the Fight Against Racism. Reed is currently an assistant professor and vice chair for equity, inclusion and community engagement in the Department of Physician Assistant Studies.
From nurse to surgeon general
Gen. Patricia Horoho
Patricia Horoho (NURS ’92) joined the U.S. Army in 1983 as a nurse and in 2012 became the 43rd Surgeon General of the U.S. Army and commanding general of the U.S. Army Medical Command. She was the first woman and first nurse to serve a full term in the position. She is also the first woman and first nurse to serve as commander of the Walter Reed Health Care System. Horoho is a current member of the University’s Board of Trustees.
Engineering from biology
Engineer and “biomimicry” scholar Anna Balazs is the John A. Swanson Chair of Engineering in the Swanson School of Engineering’s Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering. An internationally acclaimed expert, her many accolades also include being the first woman to receive the prestigious Polymer Physics Prize from the American Physical Society in 2016. Most recently, she was named as one of the newest members of the National Academy of Engineering — less than a year after being elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Read more about Professor Balazs work in “soft robotics.”
Occupation as vocation
A childhood family trauma introduced Alyson Stover to the power of occupational therapy (OT). A subsequent lifetime of study and practice convinced her that patient advocacy was every bit as essential as her technical practice of occupational therapy. That would be a pretty full slate for most OTs, but it doesn't begin to describe all of Stover's accomplishments. Stover founded and owns Capable Kids, a private outpatient pediatric practice north of Pittsburgh that provides physical and speech and language therapy services. She's also an associate professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy at the University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. In July 2021, she began a four-year term as president-elect/president of the American Occupational Therapy Association, representing over 100,000 practitioners. Stover is the first Pitt faculty member to hold this national leadership position.
Caretaking the Mind and Soul
In addition to her scholarly work and leadership in the field of mental health counseling, in particular in African American communities, Assistant Professor Quiana M. Golphin investigates the role of the spiritual in wellness. Golphin is an ordained minister at Deliverance Baptist Church in Pittsburgh’s Wilkinsburg neighborhood. She’s also a leader of the Training Religious Leaders In Bereavement Counseling to Upskill Treatment Experiences program, which expands mental health services to reduce racial health disparities by training clergy and health care paraprofessionals in communities of color.
Making higher ed more equitable
Gina Ann Garcia
A leading scholar on Hispanic Serving Institutions, Associate Professor Gina Ann Garcia’s research has drawn attention to the role of these institutions in higher education and how they can support their students. At Pitt, she teaches courses in the School of Education on contemporary Latinx issues and social justice in higher ed, steers Pitt’s Hispanic Heritage Month celebrations and advises the Latino Student Association. Garcia has received multiple grants and awards for her work, including the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education Book of the Year Award and a Chancellor’s Distinguished Research Award.
Healing those who need it most
In her time as chair of the Department of Family Medicine at Pitt’s School of Medicine, Jeannette South-Paul made clear her commitment to minority patients. Disparities in health care for people of color and of minority genders "are immense and not narrowing, unfortunately," she told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2011. "And they tend to concentrate in cardiovascular disease, cancer and mental health, though they [also] exist in other areas." Widely recognized as a speaker on sociocultural issues in health care, when she was chair of family medicine, South-Paul was one of only a few African American department chairs at medical schools nationwide.
Regenerating medical technology
Voice-activated technology has become a part of our everyday lives. For some, including those with disabilities and injuries, these can be life-giving technologies. This is where Dan Ding comes in. Ding’s research is changing the field of assistive robots and wearables to improve accessibility and promote wider wireless use. Ding is an associate professor and vice chair of research of the Rehabilitation Science and Technology Department in Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. She is the principal investigator on a new Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center called Promoting Mainstream Wireless Inclusion through Technology Services. The project received a $4.6 million grant from the Department of Health and Human Services in 2021.
What we owe her
Bebe Moore Campbell
In her writing, best-selling author Bebe Moore Campbell (EDUC ’71) explored racial justice, childhood obesity and the tensions in friendships between Black and white people with fearless clarity. She shared the stigma of mental illness and memories of childhood, in particular those spent in North Carolina with her father. Campbell came to Pitt from her hometown of Philadelphia in 1967 and graduated in 1971 with a degree in elementary education. She would later serve on the Board of Trustees and donated her archives to Pitt. Campbell died in 2006.
Cheering for women’s sports
Margaret E. “Peg” Covert
In 1946, Peg Covert did something no woman had yet done at Pitt — joined the women’s athletics staff. By 1953, she would rise to the position of full professor. Despite resistance to the sport, Covert led Pitt’s first female cheerleading squad and pushed for equal sports facilities for men and women years before Title IX. In 1972, she became head of women’s athletics.
— Acacia O’Connor