Ruth Simmons made history in 2001 as the first female president of the prestigious Brown University, and the first African American woman to serve as president of an Ivy League institution. But Simmons had much smaller ambitions as a girl, with hopes only to work in an office one day.
“I had one goal: if only I could one day work in an office, because every woman that I knew was a maid,” Simmons said in an interview. “The farthest I could think was working in an office. That was it.”
Born in 1945 into what was likely a very racially oppressive Texas, working at a desk in an office was probably a dream come true for Simmons, youngest of 12 children raised on a sharecropping farm.
Little did she know, she would far surpass her modest goal. Leading the university through the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks and the economic collapse of 2008, Simmons sustained a meaningful 11-year legacy of progress and growth during her tenure at Brown. Among her many achievements and mission to bolster the financial resources for her student body, she created and championed one of the most successful fundraising campaigns in Brown’s history, all during the economic collapse. Simmons has also served within university administration at Spelman College, Princeton University, and as president at Smith College, the largest women’s college.
At the 2014 commencement celebration of Smith College, Simmons urged graduates to, “take care of your voice,” to “take the time to discover who you are in the fullness of your intellect, identity and abilities because you will need to stand your ground effectively to be credible leaders.”
While emphasizing the importance of standing one’s ground, Simmons has said the most meaningful advice she ever received was from her mother who, in contrast, told her: “Never consider yourself better than another human being. Always act as if you have respect for another person, even when you disagree with them, even when they oppress you.”
A role model for young ambitious girls across the world, Simmons is an icon of black pioneers, a trailblazer who learned to balance having the confidence and determination to rise above her oppression, while still having compassion and respect for her adversaries.
Ruth Simmons’ legacy exemplifies to young Black girls that they aspire to more than they ever imagined, and much more than the limited success the world around them may dictate as their future.