‘Remarkable Women’ celebrates state’s difference-makers

OSWEGO — A new book co-edited by current and former SUNY Oswego faculty members recounts the indelible niches the women of New York state have carved, from suffragist Susan B. Anthony to astronaut Eileen Collins, from abolitionist and humanitarian Harriet Tubman to actor, comedian and producer Lucille Ball.

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Marilynn Smiley, right, professor of music, and Helen Engel, former Oswego adjunct in biological sciences, have co-edited a new book titled “Remarkable Women in New York State History.”

In “Remarkable Women in New York State History,” a book of mini-biographies, dozens of less well-known women shine among the celebrated, thanks to having made significant differences in their communities — among them Oswego County’s Doris Allen, Muriel Allerton, Rosemary Nesbitt and Lida Penfield.

“We originally wanted the title to be ‘Women Making a Difference,'” said Marilynn Smiley, SUNY Oswego professor of music, who with Helen Engel, former Oswego adjunct in biological sciences, served as co-editors of the book and co-historians for the state’s branches of the American Association of University Women. “We asked every (AAUW) branch in New York state to submit a brief bio of at least one woman in the community who really made a difference in some way.”

The outpouring that followed — edited to 145 mini-biographies from 85 different authors in 32 branches of AAUW around the state — kept Smiley and Engel busy for more than four years, resulting in the 320-page work published in May by the History Press of Charleston, S.C.

The path to publication actually began seven years ago, when Smiley noticed at a regional AAUW conference that Pennsylvania’s branches had produced a similar work. She and Engel began research on women in the Oswego area who would fit the difference-maker criteria.

“The amazing things these (New York) women did really needed to be recognized, and I’m so pleased that they have been,” Smiley said. “There is a sense of relief and of immense accomplishment” that it’s done, she added.

Inspirational work

The co-editors see “Remarkable Women in New York State History” as a reference book for libraries, historical societies and for museums dedicated to some of the famous women. The biographies are presented alphabetically from Allen, a retired SUNY Oswego professor, actor and former local politician, to Rita Wright, a Cortland social worker.

But Smiley and Engel also view it as a potential source of knowledge and inspiration among a much broader range of women, students and others.

The authors hope the book helps convince young women “they can become leaders,” Smiley said. “That even if they’re in an era when what they’re doing is very unusual — it’s amazing how recently women were allowed to go to college — that they could accomplish it. … Some women at the (AAUW) state convention said they were giving it to their daughters and granddaughters who were graduating from college. ”

Smiley and Engel acknowledge that as a reference work, there are significant gaps in the book. For example, former Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, one of the nation’s most famous women and a Chappaqua resident, is not included, because representatives of lower Hudson Valley branches of the AAUW chose less well-known women to write about. Smiley said she shouldered one key gap herself, authoring a mini-bio of JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

In all, Smiley wrote 10 of the 145 biographies, and Engel, who did a great deal of the photo editing, wrote two. Their writing focused largely on women who made a difference in the Oswego area.

Smiley, who has taught at SUNY Oswego for more than 50 years, said the late Lida Penfield, longtime English professor and local historian, helped form the state AAUW in the 1920s, at the request of the Cornell University president’s wife. Penfield became the first president of the association’s Oswego branch after traveling to Cornell for meetings.

“Lida Penfield went there from Oswego, and I believe some other faculty members from here attended,” Smiley said. “They were complaining because their salaries were so low. They were pleading for AAUW to make it known how low their salaries were. That’s been one of the missions of AAUW ever since: equal pay, as well as equal educational and research opportunities.”

All profits from the sale of “Remarkable Women of New York State History” go to the American Association of University Women in New York State, which owns the rights to the book. The AAUW, founded in 1881, advocates for women and families, attempting to break down any barriers to engagement and advancement that remain at colleges and universities around the nation.