Stanford celebrates 13 women’s history makers

A pioneering female spirit has been a part of Stanford’s legacy since its inception, when co-founder Jane Stanford, together with her husband, decreed that the institution would be a “university for both sexes,” offering an education for men and women “equally full and complete, varied only as nature dictates.” Join us in celebrating the Stanford women who have fought since then for hard-won accomplishments in medicine, math, athletics, business, law, economics, administration, public service and even – especially – space.

Image credit: NASA

Sally Ride, Jessica Watkins, Ellen Ochoa, Mae Jemison

A constellation of remarkable Stanford alumnae have taken giant leaps for women in space.

Sally Ride, ’73, MS ’75, PhD ’78, applied to be an astronaut while earning her doctorate in physics, after spotting a NASA ad in the Stanford Daily. In 1983, she became the first American woman in space as a mission specialist on the Challenger.

Mae Jemison, ’77, entered Stanford at age 16, earning degrees in chemical engineering and African American studies. She became the first Black woman in space when she orbited Earth on the Endeavour, in 1992.

Ellen Ochoa, MS ’81, PhD ’85, studied electrical engineering at Stanford and became the first Hispanic woman to go to space when she served a nine-day mission aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1993. She later moved into leadership at NASA, acting as the first Hispanic director and second female director of the Johnson Space Center – a leap that presented its own challenges.

“I [had] just assumed that my hard work and accomplishments would make it obvious that I was ready for the next level – and [I] found out that wasn’t the case. I had to speak up about what I thought I was capable of doing, and what I wanted,” Ochoa told CNBC last year.

Two other Stanford graduates also made NASA history. Eileen Collins, MS ’86, was the first woman to pilot a shuttle, as well as the first woman to command a space shuttle mission. And Susan Helms, MS ’85, was the first woman on the crew of the International Space Station.

Stanford’s latest star is Jessica Watkins, ’10, who interned at NASA’s Ames Research Center while as an undergraduate studying geological and environmental sciences. She’s slated to become the first Black woman on a long-term International Space Station mission this year and will head to the moon in 2024.

Chances are good that Watkins could also head to Mars in the 2030s, becoming one of the first humans to set foot on another planet. Asked recently if she’d invite the challenge, Watkins was quick to answer.

“Sign me up,” she said, “as long as there’s a ride back.”

Image credit: Stanford University Archives

Myra Strober

When young labor economist Myra Strober asked her department chair at the University of California, Berkeley, why he thought she’d never earn tenure, he said she lived too far away. Driving home, Strober drew her own conclusion: It was because she was a mother.

Strober became a feminist that day, leading to a life of scholarship studying how women’s labor is valued in the workplace, the home and society.

In 1972, Strober became the first female faculty member at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. In 1974, she was founding director of Stanford’s Center for Research on Women, now the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research.

Strober’s decades of research examine economic discrimination against women, women’s invisible work, the economics of child care, the effects of occupational segregation between genders and more.

Her work and life led to real-world change. She advocated for the first campus childcare center at Stanford, helped recruit female faculty members and students, advised colleagues on sexual harassment issues and served as an expert witness in cases arguing for the value of at-home spouses’ labor.

Speaking at a Stanford commencement ceremony in 2017, Strober encouraged graduates to strive for work-family balance – and to fight for legal and societal change to make it possible for everyone.

“I hope you will work hard to make it possible not only for you to harmonize work and family,” she said, “but also for others, with less education and less clout, to do the same.”

Image credit: Library of Congress (center)

Sandra Day O’Connor

When Sandra Day O’Connor was studying law at Stanford in the early 1950s, only 2 percent of American law students were women. Today, more than half of law students are women – many undoubtedly inspired by O’Connor’s trailblazing example.

O’Connor came to Stanford as a 16-year-old “cowgirl from Eastern Arizona.” She proved herself an excellent student, earning a bachelor’s in economics in 1950 and graduating third in her law class in 1952.

Prejudice against women lawyers troubled her early job search, however, so she paved a path for herself in public service. After stints as a county attorney and assistant attorney general of Arizona, she was appointed to the Arizona State Senate. Her legislative career was brief but impressive – she was the first woman in the country to serve as a state senate majority leader.

In 1974, O’Connor was elected Maricopa County Superior Court Judge, launching her history-making judicial career. She became the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court in 1981. Throughout her 25-year tenure she was known as an impartial, pragmatic and meticulous justice.

In retirement, O’Connor has continued to advocate for civics education and engagement, encouraging young people to understand their government and consider a life of public service, like hers.

“The ever-present understanding that you are a part of something bigger than yourself, and that your efforts are paving the way for those who will follow,” she told Stanford graduates in 2004, “makes a life of public service worth the bumps along the way.”

Image credit: Jan Vondrak

Maryam Mirzakhani

Mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani explored geometry that’s hard for most people to wrap their minds around – and found it beautiful.

As a girl in Iran, she imagined being a writer. But after her older brother introduced her to an elegant math trick, she became entranced by numbers.

Mirzakhani did poorly in math in her first year of middle school. But a change in teachers, from one who didn’t see her talent to one who did, made all the difference. A year later, she was a star. 

“It’s so important what others see in you,” Mirzakhani told Quanta Magazine in 2014.

At 17, she was one of the first two girls to make the Iranian International Mathematical Olympiad team. Mirzakhani earned a gold medal her first year in the competition and a perfect score the next.

Mirzakhani studied math in Tehran before earning a PhD at Harvard. She joined the Stanford faculty in 2008, continuing to study abstract concepts such as hyperbolic surfaces – surfaces in curved space that are often described as the shape of Pringles chips or multi-holed donuts, though they’re far more complex, existing outside familiar Euclidean geometry.

In 2014, Mirzakhani was the first woman and first Iranian to win the Fields Medal, considered the Nobel Prize of mathematics.

Mirzakhani was known for filling sheets of paper with drawings she used to help her focus while navigating difficult problems. When she died of breast cancer at age 40 in 2017, her obituary in the New Yorker recounted this habit, calling her “a virtuoso in the dynamics and geometry of complex surfaces.”

But Mirzakhani attributed her success to a slow-and-steady persistence – not to “quicksilver brilliance.”

“The beauty of mathematics,” she said, “only shows itself to more patient followers.”

Image credit: Casey Valentine /

Simone Manuel

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Simone Manuel sets world records in the water, but she’s also making waves on land.

At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Manuel won the 100-meter freestyle with world-record speed, becoming the first Black woman to win individual gold in Olympic swimming. She took home another gold and two silvers in Rio and anchored the bronze-winning American 4×100-meter freestyle relay team at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

At Stanford, Manuel led Cardinal women’s swim to the 2017 and 2018 NCAA championships. She received the 2018 Honda Cup, which honors the nation’s top collegiate woman athlete.

Since graduating, Manuel has leveraged her Olympic popularity and degrees in communication and African and African American studies to support a fleet of nonprofits, including one that provides swimming opportunities for underserved kids.

When she signed with swimwear company TYR, Manuel became the first athlete to incorporate an inclusion rider in a sponsorship deal. Among other requirements, the deal gives a portion of sales from her TYR x Simone line to The Conscious Kid, a nonprofit that works “to disrupt racism, inequity and bias.”

“I was here to carve my own path, to widen the lane for others,” Manuel wrote in 2018. “I was not here to apologize for my ambition.”

Image credit: Chuck Painter / Stanford News Service. Murals: “The Mythology of Maiz,” “The Cycle of Life,” and “The Last Supper of Chicano Heroes,” by Jose Antonio Burciaga, 1987

Cecilia Burciaga

In her 20 years at Stanford, Cecilia Preciado Burciaga was more than an administrator. She built deep bonds with the students and faculty she mentored, leaving a legacy that continues far beyond her time at the university.

Raised in Chino, California, by parents who had immigrated from Mexico, Burciaga worked in education and government before moving to Stanford in 1974 as assistant to the president and provost for Chicano affairs.

Over the years, Burciaga worked in many different positions at the university, eventually becoming the highest-ranking Latino administrator at Stanford. In every role, she was known for advocating for diverse faculty, staff and students, and encouraging those students to stand up for their education and beliefs.

For 10 years, Burciaga and her family lived in Casa Zapata, a residence hall for Chicanx and Latinx students, and her mark remains on those walls. The dorm had murals when she arrived, and she encouraged students and her husband, artist José Antonio “Tony” Burciaga, to add more.

Burciaga’s tenure at Stanford ended in 1994, but her leadership in higher education continued. She went on to act as a founding dean at California State University, Monterey Bay, and served on the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.

Burciaga died of lung cancer in 2013, at 67. She was remembered for her courage and persistence. “If things were unjust, unfair, not right,” former colleague Amalia Mesa-Bains said, “Cecilia would take up the cause and she wouldn’t back down until the problem was fixed.”

Image credit: Stanford University Archives

Clelia Duel Mosher

Clelia Duel Mosher refused to accept the Victorian view that women were inferior to men, and she set out to refute it with science.

While earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physiology at Stanford in the 1890s, she studied her fellow students, determined to show biology wasn’t to blame for women’s perceived physical weakness. Instead, she concluded, restrictive clothing, lack of exercise and social mores that kept them sedentary were to blame. Her early research argued against the idea that menstruation impaired women’s bodies and minds.

Mosher earned her MD at Johns Hopkins in 1900, but her time as a physician was marred by sexism. She eagerly returned to Stanford in 1910 as an assistant professor of personal hygiene.

“I have something to contribute and the time is ripe for its reception,” she wrote. “Something to give to the question of woman.”

Mosher continued her menstrual research and delved into another taboo subject: sex.

She surveyed dozens of women about their sexual beliefs and habits, but the research remained unpublished until historian Carl Degler rediscovered it in 1974.

Mosher’s study, the earliest of its kind, has given historians an unprecedented window into the sex lives of her Victorian subjects, upending misconceptions – just as Mosher hoped.

Image credit: Steve Fecht / General Motors

Mary Barra

Mary Barra dreams of an electric future.

As General Motors (GM) CEO since 2014 and chair since 2016, Barra has shaped the automaker’s increasing commitment to electric vehicles.

Last month, Barra told financial analysts that GM will be ramping up EV production and plans to add more affordable EVs to its lineup. GM’s planned $7 billion investment in Michigan includes a new plant to manufacture battery cells.

Barra began her career at GM long before the EV revolution. At 18, she worked as a line inspector while earning her electrical engineering degree through a co-op program at General Motors Institute, now Kettering University.

GM sent her to Stanford in 1988. After earning her MBA in 1990, she returned to GM as a senior staff engineer, then worked her way up the ladder. When she was named GM’s senior vice president for global product development in 2011, she became the highest-ranking woman in the automotive industry.

As chair and CEO, Barra is the first woman to lead a “Big Three” automaker. She’s guided the company through dark days while looking forward to brighter times.

“As an engineer, I’ve always looked at how to improve situations and solve challenges,” she wrote in 2020. “I now have a unique opportunity – and responsibility – to use my engineering mindset to help make the world a better place on a much larger scale.”

Image credit: Stanford Medicine, Terrence McCarthy and Reece Sharp

Odette Harris

When Odette Harris was choosing her surgical specialty, she knew she wanted to help a broad population of people. She decided on traumatic brain injury because the World Health Organization identified it as a need in the developing world.

Harris’ identity as an immigrant and a Black woman has shaped her career. She moved from Jamaica to the United States as a child. She was the only Black student in her class at an all-girls high school, where she discovered a love of biology.

Her professors, during her undergraduate studies, fueled her interest in neuroscience, leading her to medical school and residency at Stanford. After fellowships in Jamaica and New Orleans, she returned to Stanford in 2009, where she currently directs the Defense Veterans Brain Injury Center, among other roles.

In 2018, she became one of the first Black female neurosurgery professors in the country.

Harris has called out medicine’s lack of racial and gender diversity, telling stories of patients and peers overlooking her white lab coat and asking her to run errands and do chores.

She also praises the many role models, mentors and colleagues who supported her as she made her own way and became a role model to Black girls who can dream of following in her footsteps.

“I may never go into space like Dr. Jemison, but I’m comforted in knowing that there is a generation of girls and African American youth who can look to my work,” she said in a 2019 TEDx Talk, “and they will know that they too can make science real in their lives.”

Image credit: David Bernal /

Tara VanDerveer

In a quiet gym, void of spectators due to the pandemic, Stanford Women’s Basketball head coach Tara Vanderveer’s voice echoed across the floor: “Hit that shot!”

When the final buzzer sounded on Stanford’s 104-61 victory over University of the Pacific on Dec. 15, 2020, VanDerveer became the winningest head coach in women’s college basketball history, with 1,099 wins.

A few months later, she hit 1,125 when the Cardinal beat Arizona by one point for the NCAA title.

VanDerveer played ball and studied sociology at Indiana University. She was head coach at Idaho and Ohio State before moving to Stanford in 1985.

Along with the 2021 title, she led Stanford to NCAA championships in 1990 and 1992, and was at the helm for 24 Pac-12 regular-season titles. She coached the 1996 Olympic team to gold in Atlanta and is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

VanDerveer is also a champion for women in sports. The Tara VanDerveer Fund for the Advancement of Women in Coaching supports fellowships in multiple sports at colleges across the country. She’s hired only women assistant coaches at Stanford and spoken against disparities in treatment, training and pay – an issue that earned national attention at last year’s NCAA championships.

“Women athletes and coaches are done waiting,” she wrote in 2021, “not just for upgrades of a weight room, but for equity in every facet of life.”

VanDerveer and Stanford Women’s Basketball return to March Madness this week. She’s now up to 1,153 wins.