Collecting Old Stories at MIT Provides Map for the Future

Margery ResnickProfessor Margery Resnick. Photo by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

While MIT is mostly known for developments in mathematics and the hard sciences, the university’s libraries and special collections have an ever-expanding cache of oral histories, particularly about the institution itself.

One collection documents the diverse experiences of women at MIT. Undergraduate students interview alumnae, and then transcripts of their conversations are submitted to the Margaret MacVicar Memorial AMITA Oral History Project, named for a physicist and MIT graduate who served as the Institute’s Dean of Undergraduate Studies.

Margery Resnick, an associate professor of foreign languages and literature, has been the chair of the project since its inception in 1990. When she arrived at MIT in the late 1970s, she became housemaster of McCormick Hall, then the Institute’s only dorm for women. It was the namesake of that dormitory that got her interested in women’s unique role at the school.

“I was always interested in women’s and gender studies,” says the languages professor. “At that time, there were no co-ed dorms. So all the women at MIT were at McCormick Hall.”

The hall was named for Katharine Dexter McCormick, an MIT graduate in biology. “It’s a very interesting story,” says Resnick. “They made her go to college for four years at Smith before she came here, so she already had a bachelor’s degree.”

A wealthy suffragette, McCormick decided to fund research into the biological causes of mental illnesses when her husband became sick with schizophrenia. “This was the apogee of Freudian thought, so she had to fight to get him treated as if he had a medical disease,” Resnick explains. 

Later in life, McCormick dedicated her money to birth control development, figuring that unless women could control when they could have children, they would never be able to control their own lives. “She didn’t trust men very much,” says Resnick, noting that it was McCormick who almost single-handedly funded the work of Gregory Pincus and Dr. John Rock, who invented the birth control pill in Worcester, Mass. in the middle of the 20th century.

While McCormick passed away too early to have her own story included in the oral histories, the Institute does have a vast collection of her letters and interviews with people who knew her. “She wrote these incredible freshman essays about MIT men and how awful they were,” laughs Resnick.

From that one story of an MIT graduate, Resnick wondered how many other stories of MIT women there must be. And that’s how the project was born.

Funded entirely by the Association of MIT Alumnae, the Women’s Oral History Project serves three main functions, according to Resnick.

First, she wanted to know how women from the earlier days of MIT used their education, and whether they followed their undergraduate focus or not.

“MIT women don’t always follow their fields,” Resnick says. “Some of them, because of conventions at the time, had to follow their husbands, but they still used their MIT educations to do really interesting things,” she adds, noting women who made breakthroughs in varied fields such as medicine and Central American potato farming.

“Some of it is Cambridge history,” Resnick notes, pointing out an interview the project did with Marjorie Pierce, an architect and 1922 MIT graduate. “She says in the oral interview that, had she stayed with the big architectural firms, she would’ve never gotten anywhere.” After opening her own office in Weston, Pierce went on to design more than 90 buildings all over Massachusetts, making her a good example of the impact many MIT graduates have had on the area.

The second impetus for the project, Resnick says, was “to redress the lacuna in MIT’s history about women.” After clarifying that “lacuna” is a fancy word for “void” or “gap,” Resnick explains that, though there are many reasons for MIT’s history to sometimes have an exclusionary tilt, one of the problems she wants to combat is a tendency among some women not to take ownership of their own success.

“A student named Rellen Hardke interviewed Leona Zarsky, who was one of the inventors of the pacemaker,” Resnick recalls. “I remember calling her and asking her if she would participate in the project, and she said, ‘Why me?’”

Through stories like those of Zarsky, who passed away in 1993, the interviewing students come to recognize behaviors of their own that are, in Resnick’s view, “silly … like not acknowledging one’s expertise.”

The third reason for the project was to get undergraduate women at MIT to meet older, accomplished women and encourage mentoring relationships.

Resnick estimates that there will be between 85 and 90 oral histories in the collection by the end of the year, more than 50 of which are available online for free.

To Resnick, the process of creating these oral histories is also an end in itself.  “At a time when there were four women here,” she asks, “who told you to come to MIT?” These are the questions she wants current undergraduates to ask MIT alumnae, and see if they can’t see some of themselves in the answers.

Before McCormick Hall was built, there were only about 15 women admitted to MIT each year. The oral history project digs into how these women got here, who their mentors were, how their professors treated them, what social life was like, and other questions that a current undergraduate might wonder about.

The woman’s oral history project is one of many undertaken and housed in MIT’s special collections, most of which are freely available to the public onsite and online.

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