Girl Power! Women of Rochester Making History

Genesee Valley Parent - March 2011

Genesee Valley Parent - March 2011

You are making history as you read this, and your children are making history by doing whatever they do today because what we do today becomes history tomorrow. Women's History Month is a great opportunity to cultivate your children's interest in history and help them recognize history in the making all around them.

When I was a child I thought I didn't like history. "History" to me meant boring lectures about things that happened a bazillion years ago, researching some obscure person or event I'd never heard of, and having to stand up in front of my class and deliver an oral report from memory. I'm glad those days are over! But somewhere along the way I realized that history isn't just about dictatorships or cubism. It's about how the everyday lives of people - some extraordinary and others quite ordinary - intertwine into a giant collection of fascinating stories.

You can make history meaningful to your children by telling them stories, starting with historical women of the Rochester area. From athletes to activists, scientists to soloists, manufacturers, musicians, and ministers, the Rochester area is jam-packed with history-making women: Susan B. Anthony, Renée Fleming, Maggie Brooks, Mary Jemison, Abby Wambach. Each of these women is important in our collective history. Our lives are richer because of the actions of women and girls who lived hundreds of years ago and those who live, work, compete, and achieve among us today. That includes the women and future women in your family!

Meet the Ladies of Rochester

Renée Fleming, dubbed "America's Beautiful Voice," is a world-renowned soprano specializing in opera and lieder. Fleming attended Churchville-Chili schools and later completed her graduate studies at Rochester's Eastman School of Music. I grew up down the street from the Fleming family, and even as a child I recognized history in the making every time I heard Renée sing. Both her parents were music teachers and they supported and nurtured Renee's talent and encouraged her dreams. I sometimes wonder how Renee's life might be different if they hadn't.

Mary Abigail "Abby" Wambach continues to inspire girls and young women to excel and dream big in sports. Wambach was born in Pittsford and graduated from Our Lady of Mercy High School. She grew up playing soccer and went on to achieve Olympic Gold in the sport. In fact, Wambach scored the gold-medal-winning goal in the 2004 Olympics. Just think, one of the girls in your soccer carpool may be an Olympian in the making!

Although not a contemporary, Shirley Jackson is another historical woman of Rochester. Jackson (December 14, 1916 - August 8, 1965) was an American author best known for the short story, "The Lottery" (1948). She graduated from Brighton High School and later attended the University of Rochester. Is there a young writer in your family? Learning about famous writers from our area may inspire her (or him) to seriously consider writing professionally.

Is there a drama queen in the house? You may want to encourage her creativity. She may follow in the footsteps of one of our regional stars like Lauren Michael Holly, an actress who was raised in Geneva, or Mimi Kennedy, an actress, author and activist from Rochester. Kennedy was raised in the Browncroft Neighborhood of Rochester and graduated from Our Lady of Mercy High School. Kristen Carroll Wiig, a contemporary American film and television actress, was born in Canandaigua. Her family later moved to Rochester, where she lived until she graduated from Brighton High School.

An impressive number of women from in and around Rochester have staked their claim in the arena of professional and Olympic sports. Jennifer "Jenn" Suhr, a graduate of Roberts Wesleyan College has been the number one ranked American pole vaulter since 2006, bringing home a silver medal from the Beijing Olympics. (Janna) Wendy Wyland, American diver and bronze medal winner at the 1984 Summer Olympics, spent some of her childhood years in Penfield. Wyland later ran the Webster Aquatic Center and worked as a swimming and diving coach at the Rochester Institute of Technology. And swimmer and four-time Olympic Silver Medalist Kara Lynn Joyce spent some of her teenage years in the pools of Webster schools.

I don't know if our frigid Western New York winters had anything to do with Cathy Turner's success, but the short track speed skater and gold medalist at the 1992 and 1994 Winter Olympics, was born in Rochester, as was Kim Insalaco, an American ice hockey player who won bronze at the 2006 Winter Olympics. Lyndsay Wall, another accomplished ice hockey player, graduated from Churchville-Chili High School.

Business women in history? Oh yes, we've got them. Diane Greene, founder and CEO of VMware from 1998 to 2008, was born in Rochester.

And Catherine Anselm "Kate" Gleason (November 25, 1865 - January 9, 1933) was born and raised here, much to the benefit of our community. Gleason was an American engineer and businesswoman known both for her philanthropy and for being a revolutionary in the predominantly male field of engineering. In 1918, Kate became the first woman elected to membership in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). She was the first woman to serve as president of a national bank, serving as president of the First Bank of Rochester from 1917 to 1919. Kate had many business interests. She developed a new method for pouring concrete and, in 1921, she began selling low-cost concrete box houses in East Rochester. As a result of her work, Kate became the first female member of the American Concrete Institute. When she died in 1933, she left an estate of $1.4 million for charity and education. One of the beneficiaries was the Rochester Institute of Technology, which named its College of Engineering after her.

Susan B. Anthony did some of her most important work in the Rochester area. In 1868 she began publishing her newspaper, "The Revolution in Rochester," and despite threats and attacks by hostile mobs, Anthony campaigned tirelessly for equal rights for all American citizens. In the 1890s she raised $50,000 in pledges to ensure the admittance of women to the University of Rochester. In a last-minute effort to meet the deadline, she put up the cash value of her life insurance policy. The University was forced to make good its promise and women were admitted for the first time in 1900. It's difficult to imagine how different our lives would likely be if not for the work of Anthony and her contemporaries.

Women of Rochester have made and continue to make history through prayer and politics. Antoinette Louisa Brown, later Antoinette Brown Blackwell (May 20, 1825 - November 5, 1921), born in Henrietta, was the first woman to be ordained as a minister in the United States. Maggie Brooks is familiar to many, first as a broadcaster and then as a politician. Brooks, the first female County Executive of Monroe County, graduated from Ithaca College and worked as a reporter for WHAM (AM) in Rochester and later for WHEC-TV before launching her political career in 1995. And Louise Slaughter, U.S. Representative for New York's 28th congressional district, serving since 1993, and Chair of the House Rules Committee from 2007 until 2011, is a member of the Democratic Party based in Rochester and Buffalo.

All of these women are part of the history we share as women, as Americans, and as citizens of the Genesee Valley. Women's History Month represents a great opportunity to cultivate your children's interest in history and to help them recognize history in the making all around them - especially the history they are making themselves!

Originally published in the March 2011 issue of Rochester Area & Genesee Valley Parent Magazine. Copyright 2011 Sally Bacchetta. All rights reserved.

Sally Bacchetta is a contributing writer to Rochester Area & Genesee Valley Parent Magazine. She made history while in the 6th grade when she was selected as the first female Safety Patrol Captain at Fairbanks Road Elementary School in Chili. She is also an adoptive parent and author of a best-belling adoption book on the adoption experience. You can contact her at or visit or for more information.