‘She Persists’ symposium highlights women innovators

She Persisted

By Sue Wuetcher republished from UBNow.

Published September 18, 2017

“Persistence is a feminist practice, one that has ruffled feathers as well as achieved major victories. And what is interesting is to see how women leaders today negotiate this legacy.”
Carrie Tirado Bramen, director
Gender Institute

Nineteenth-century inventor and visionary Nikola Tesla is being honored on Sept. 22 at the inaugural Buffalo Niagara Tesla Festival.

That celebration of Tesla —best known for his design of the modern AC electrical system and efforts to harness Niagara Falls hydropower — prompted Carrie Tirado Bramen, associate professor of English and director of UB’s Gender Institute, and Kelly Hayes McAlonie, director of UB’s Capital Planning Group, to reflect on the wealth of local women innovators during that same time period. And they wondered: What about the women?

To address that question, the Gender Institute will present “She Persists: Women Innovators in Buffalo, Then and Now,” a symposium celebrating the accomplishments of major women in Buffalo’s past, as well as prominent women in the community today. It will take place from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sept. 26 in the Greatbatch Pavilion at the Darwin Martin House, 125 Jewett Parkway, Buffalo.

The event is free and open to the public; RSVP for lunch to rburke2@buffalo.edu.

The symposium is associated with the Tesla festival, and is also part of programming celebrating the Gender Institute’s 20th anniversary.

Although the Tesla festival provided the impetus for the symposium, organizers decided to advance the idea of women innovators beyond the 19th century by featuring women who are carrying on this legacy today, Bramen says.

The symposium’s morning session will focus on women innovators of the late 19th-century. Among them are Louise Bethune, America’s first professional female architect who designed Buffalo’s Lafayette Hotel; social services pioneer Maria Love, who opened the first day care center for poor working women in the U.S. in 1881 at 159 Swan St. in Buffalo; and urban reformer Helen Townsend, founder of the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union of Buffalo in 1884 and for whom UB’s Townsend Hall was named.

The session will be led by McAlonie, a fellow of the American Institute of Architects who has worked to promote the work and legacy of Louise Bethune, and Despina Stratigakos, UB professor of architecture and an expert on women and diversity in architecture.

The symposium will turn during the afternoon session to four prominent contemporary women in Buffalo: Norma Nowak, executive director of UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences, and a pioneer in human genomics research; Joan Bozer, longtime Erie County lawmaker; Rahwa Ghirmatzion, an environmental activist and deputy director of PUSH Buffalo; and preservationist Bernice Radle, owner of Buffalove Development and a member of the Buffalo Zoning Board of Appeals.

Teresa Miller, vice provost for equity and inclusion, will moderate a panel discussion featuring the contemporary innovators.

Bramen says the panelists will talk about their mentors, the challenges women in general face today, their own personal and professional challenges, the notion of women in the public sphere having to “grow a thick skin,” and advice they have for young women.

To bring some immediacy to the event, Bramen says the title of the symposium references “Nevertheless, she persisted” — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s explanation for using a little-know Senate rule to silence Sen. Elizabeth Warren while she was delivering a speech last winter criticizing then-attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions. But, Bramen points out, the idea of women persisting has a much longer history.

Suffragettes such as Susan B. Anthony were commended by some women for their persistence — and criticized by others for being overly insistent, she notes.

“Persistence is a feminist practice,” she argues, “one that has ruffled feathers as well as achieved major victories. And what is interesting is to see how women leaders today negotiate this legacy.”

Bramen says former University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman came up with the phrase “relentlessly pleasant” to describe her leadership style, which combines feminine niceness with persistence.

“One goal of the symposium,” she says, “will be to discuss the theme of persistence in terms of women and leadership today.”