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Female Firsts banner

Meet: Ruth Simmons, First African American
female to head major University
President of Smith College

photo of ruth simmons

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 Massie Ritsch.

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 1996.

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.


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