Newsletter

Stay up to date with the latest from MAKERS delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for new stories from trailblazing women, a big dose of inspiration, and exclusive MAKERS content.

Newsletter Confirmation

Thank you for joining! Please check your inbox for our special welcome letter
with exclusive updates from MAKERS.

MAKERS Profile

Ruth Simmons

First African-American Ivy League President

More From Ruth

In this video

Ruth Simmons on escaping poverty and discrimination through education, speaking her mind, and lingering insecurity.

Ruth's Biography

Cause of Choice: Community Music Works
First Paying Job: Working as a maid while she was a student.
Most Meaningful Advice Received: From her mother: “Never consider yourself better than any other human being… Always act as if you have respect for another person even when you disagree with them, even when they oppress you.”
Greatest Influences Never Met:  “There’s no question that Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall, those who shaped the Civil Rights Movement are responsible for my sitting here today. Without them I could not have had the life that I've had.”

In 2001, Ruth Simmons made history when she became the first African-American president of an Ivy League university, as well as Brown University’s first female president. Prior to this appointment, she served as the first African-American female president of a major college or university when she took the reins at Smith College in 1995. Yet growing up, Simmons had much more modest ambitions. “I had one goal,” she recalls, “if only I could one day work in an office, because every woman that I knew was a maid… The farthest I could think was working in an office. That was it.”
Simmons began her prodigious journey on a sharecropping farm in Texas, the youngest of 12 children. She attended Dillard University on scholarship and spent her junior year at Wellesley College, where she encountered President Margaret Clapp who opened her eyes to the possibility of women in leadership. Graduating Dillard in 1967, she studied in France on a Fulbright fellowship, and went on to earn a Ph.D. in Romance languages from Harvard.
 
In 1983, after serving as associate dean of the graduate school at the University of Southern California, Simmons joined the Princeton University administration. She left in 1990 for two years to serve as provost at Spelman College, returning to Princeton in 1992 as vice provost. In 1995, she became president of Smith College, the largest women’s college in the U.S., where she launched a number of strategic initiatives to strengthen the college’s academic programs and inaugurated the first engineering program at a U.S. women’s college. Over the course of her career Simmons has been a visionary leader in academia, championing, and demonstrating, the power of education to transform lives. She stepped down as Brown president in 2012, but remains a professor of comparative literature and Africana studies at the university.

Related Videos

Martha Stewart
Martha Stewart
Lifestyle Mogul

Personal reinvention and astounding business success? Definitely “a good thing.” The former Martha Helen Kostyra had married and worked as a model to support her husban...

Ellie Smeal
Ellie Smeal
Co-Founder & President, Feminist Majority

Eleanor (Ellie) Smeal, is Co-Founder and President of the Feminist Majority Foundation and former President of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Through both organizations...

Johnnetta Cole
Johnnetta Cole
Groundbreaking Scholar & College President

Dr. Johnnetta Cole is the director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. She was a pioneer of African-American studies and black women's studies and made history ...

Alix Kates Shulman
Alix Kates Shulman
Feminist Writer and Activist

Alix Kates Shulman is a feminist activist and writer who has penned fourteen books including her bestselling novel, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, considered one of the first of its ...