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Women’s Legacy at The New School: A Celebration! Gave Life to the Voices of Women at The New School

October 10, 2019 at 2:34PM
Women’s Legacy at The New School: A Celebration! Gave Life to the Voices of Women at The New School

According to the legend of The New School’s founding, a group of Columbia University professors including Charles Beard, John Dewey, and James Harvey Robinson, fed up with the intellectual timidity of traditional colleges, set out to create a new type of university. While accurate, this account is just half the story. The missing half is the rich history of women’s contributions to the founding and building of The New School.

Women’s Legacy at The New School: A Celebration!, part of the university’s Festival of New, was designed to “uncover, recover, and bring back to life the voices of women who have been silenced for so long.” At this event, a multimedia presentation of reminiscences, music, art, and dance collaboratively created by Ellen Freeberg, Elena Gleed, Stefania de Kenessey, Cecilia Rubino, Gina Luria Walker, and Savanna Washington, the lives of a number of New School women, from the founding to the present day, were celebrated in Tishman Auditorium. Students, faculty, and staff from across the university including Eugene Lang College, New School for Drama, Parsons School of Design’s School of Art, Media and Technology, The New School for Social Research, and the Schools of Public Engagement together told the stories of many of the astounding women who contributed to the development of The New School over its 100-year history. 

One of the driving forces behind the program was the desire to know more about the university’s foremothers — the ten women of the original Organization Committee, who signed the founding document, “A Proposal for an Independent School of Social Science,” with their husbands’ names, in accordance with the convention at the time. (Only nine men were part of that committee.) With images of these founding women behind them, students read brief biographies that turned Mrs. George Haven Putnam back to Emily James Smith Putnam and Mrs. Learned Hand to Frances Amelia Fincke Hand and did the same for Dorothy Payne Whitney Straight Elmhurst, Cornelia Solomon Schoeneich, Caroline Tilden Bacon, Charlotte Hunnewell Sorchan, Ruth Standish Baldwin, Margaret Dreier Robins, Katrina Brandes Ely, and Mary Harriman Rumsey. 

After exploring the rich histories of the women involved in establishing The New School, the program turned to the researchers, scholars, artists, and administrators who have always been at the forefront of creative thinking and action at the school: groundbreaking faculty like Frieda Wunderlich and Arien Mack; Clara Mayer, called “my co-founder” by New School president Alvin Johnson; feminist activists Tracyann Williams and Thelma Armstrong; Susan Fisher Bissell and Nancye Green, who helped build the Parsons brand; Clara Damrosch Mannes, who co-founded Mannes School of Music with her husband, David Mannes; and Maria Ley Piscator, who co-founded the Dramatic Workshop (later the School of Drama) with her husband, Erwin Piscator. 

Pioneering work in the visual and performing arts was showcased in two musical interludes. In one, images by the groundbreaking photographer and former faculty member Berenice Abbott were presented, accompanied by a performance of “Frontiers in Science” by the Grammy Award–winning jazz saxophonist and faculty member Jane Ira Bloom, a song inspired by Bloom’s interest in science and the contributions of women to the field.

Closing out the afternoon, music director Nathan Koci, legendary bassist Reggie Workman, and drummer Benny Woodard accompanied New School students in selections from the musical Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope. The original Broadway production was directed by Dramatic Workshop alumna Vinnette Carroll, the first Black woman to direct on Broadway and the first Black woman to receive a Tony nomination for Best Director (Musical).    

The event was dedicated to the memory of Ann Snitow, associate professor of literature and gender studies at Eugene Lang College, who died earlier this year. A quotation from Snitow’s work The Feminism of Uncertainty was read aloudduring the celebration: “History may tell us that women have been present as key players in any number of movements. Documents exist; first-hand accounts list their names. But collective memory of these movements is quite a different matter.”

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