Meet: Ruth Simmons, First African American
female to head major University
President of Smith College
Ruth J. Simmons assumed the presidency of Smith College on July 1, 1995,
becoming the first African-American woman to head a top-ranked college
or university in the United States.
She was the last of the twelve children of Isaac and Fannle Stubblefield,
who, during much of their marriage, barely eked out a living raising cotton
as tenant farmers. Mrs. Simmons is also a great-great-granddaughter of
slaves. Her parents' stories about "what mattered in one's life," Simmons
told Massie Ritsch for the Daily Princetonian (April 5, 1995), taught
her that "decency and concern for other people" were of paramount importance.
From her mother she also learned that whatever you do,"Even if it is scrubbing
floors in other people's houses, (as her mother did), do it well, and
do it thoroughly."
An extremely talkative child who was an independent thinker, Simmons
refused to abide by her parents' warnings that, outside of their home,
she be "obsequious" and "stay in the background." She never bought the
premises that underpinned those social conventions. As a youngster she
realized only dimly, if at all, that in the segregated milieu in which
she was raised, most blacks and whites assumed that only white people
could ever hope to get a college education, gain membership in the middle
class, or even attend theatrical performances. "The fact that there was
definitely a really low ceiling for me didn't enter my mind," she told
At Grapeland's all-black elementary school, Simmons' intelligence and
natural interest in learning attracted the notice of Ida Mae Henderson,
her kindergarten teacher, who encouraged and nurtured her in the conviction
that, with help, she would eventually make a difference in the world.
Indeed, well before entering high school, Simmons became gripped by the
desire not only to make a difference but also to "achieve something spectacular."
In 1967 Simmons graduated from Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana.
She received a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures from Harvard
University in 1973. She has been a member of the faculties of the University
of New Orleans, California State University Northridge, Spelman College
and Princeton University.
Beginning with a focus on nineteenth and twentieth century French literature,
her teaching and research interests later shifted primarily to literature
of francophone Africa and the Caribbean. She has written on the works
of David Diop and Aime Cesaire and is the author of a book on education
in Haiti. Simmons is the recipient of a number of prizes and fellowships,
including the German DAAD and a Fulbright Fellowship to France. She was
named a CBS Woman of the Year, January 1996; an NBC Nightly News Most
Inspiring Woman, August 1996; a Glamour Magazine Woman of the Year, November
In 1983, after serving as the associate dean of the graduate school
at the University of Southern California, Simmons joined the Princeton
administration. She remained at Princeton for seven years, leaving in
1990 for two years to serve as provost at Spelman College. Returning to
Princeton in 1992 as vice provost, she remained at the university until
1995. In 1993, invited by the president to review the state of race relations
on the Princeton campus, Simmons wrote a report which resulted in a number
of initiatives that received widespread attention.
Learn more about Dr. Ruth Simmons from her online profile and chats in the Women of
the World section of the Women of NASA website.