Marching towards equality for women at HSPH

Ann Hoague Stewart and her granddaughter
Ann Hoague Stewart, MPH '36, the first woman to receive a degree from HSPH, with her granddaughter

HSPH is proud to have been the first program at Harvard to admit and credential women on the same basis as men during its early years as the Harvard-MIT School for Health Officers. But it wasn’t until nearly two decades after Linda Frances James received her certificate in public health (CPH) that a woman received a degree from the School. And even then, the first female graduates were not allowed to march in the academic procession at Harvard’s Commencement to receive their historic degrees.

Documentation from the University Marshal’s office shows that women candidates across the schools were instructed to go directly to their seats, while men assembled in the Yard to be a part of the procession. Ann Hoague Stewart completed her requirements for the master of public health (MPH) in 1934, but she had to wait for the diploma until 1936, when it was awarded along with one to Hester Balch Curtis by vote of the Harvard Corporation in the University’s 300th year.

Stewart was conditionally accepted to the School in 1933. She obtained permission to complete the MPH degree requirements in order to ensure she would be eligible for the degree should the policy towards women be changed, and fortunately her foresight paid off. She would be listed in alumni records as Ann Hoague Stewart, MPH ’36 (Class of ’34). Curtis attended two years later, and she was long under the impression that the Corporation broke with tradition and awarded the degrees in honor of the 300th anniversary. But it was actually pressure from influential pediatrician Martha May Eliot, who sponsored Curtis’s attendance at HSPH long before she joined the School’s faculty herself, that persuaded the Corporation to vote in favor of Curtis and Stewart.

It is quite a different scene compared to the HSPH we know today. Since 1994, women have consistently made up approximately 60% of the student body every year—a dramatic increase less than six decades after Stewart and Curtis had to fight for their inclusion.

Photo: Ann Hoague Stewart and her granddaughter, from a 1982 HSPH Alumni Bulletin

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