In addition to being a superb educator and researcher, Dr. Mildred (Millie) Dresselhaus was a key player in creating an MIT that welcomed women. A firm believer that women were as capable as men and should be treated in the same way, most of her research teams had as many women as men.
Millie promoted women in science and engineering, encouraging her students to work in industry and government as well as academia. She often took time to speak with women students and always left them with renewed confidence in their own ability to tackle the challenges they were facing.
Millie left her research post at Lincoln Lab to accept the Abbe Rockefeller Mauzé visiting professorship at MIT in 1967. The professorship was established in support of scholarship of women in science and engineering. Millie was the first woman professor on the Electrical Engineering faculty and also taught courses in Physics. She engaged students, encouraged them to listen and ask questions, and provided them with constructive personal feedback.
Beginning in 1968, Millie worked with Associate Dean Emily Wick and her assistant, Dottie Bowe. Women made up only 4% of students. One project was the review of women applicants. They reported to the Administration that admission of “co-eds” was restricted due to the lack of housing.
In 1972, Millie co-chaired the Ad Hoc Committee on the Role of Women at MIT, groundbreaking work by 14 students and faculty that clearly identified women’s challenges and laid out a path forward. Over the following year, two women were granted tenure in engineering/science, Sheila Widnall, Aero&Astro, and Vera Kistiakowsky, physics, bringing the faculty total to 4.
Millie and Professor Emily Wick founded the Women’s Forum, as an IAP activity in 1972. It endured for a decade as a forum for improving the quality of life for women working at MIT Millie also initiated a faculty women’s committee, at the request of MIT President Wiesner.
“[I was part of] the Women's Forum, when Millie started to get active in committees on behalf of women at MIT. She was just starting to "evolve her consciousness" in that she was at first actually quite intolerant of women who needed even small concessions to the needs of small children. After all, she was a woman who was known for taking off no more than a couple of days of work after each of her babies was born. However, I saw her change her opinions as she began to recall incidents …that she'd previously managed to ignore. I think that that sort of blindness had served a useful purpose for her in the first part of her career when there must have been many, many obstacles.
“Millie became an extraordinary voice for women, and I feel privileged that I had a chance to know her. She'll certainly be missed.” SUNY Professor Susan Udin ’69, PhD ‘75
“I felt greatly honored to be co-chair with Millie on the committee charged by the Institute in 1972 to explore — and improve — the role of women at MIT. Millie was deeply committed to MIT’s women. On the committee, she asked hard questions; had a clarity of purpose and vision; and with a twinkle in her eye, was also quick witted, incisive and always approachable. But perhaps what I most remember about her was who she was as a person — a brilliant, caring and confident woman who had created a life for herself built on her passions, for her career and for her husband and family. She embodied life’s possibilities for us with grace and ease — emboldening us to reach for the best within ourselves and to do so not because we, as women in science and engineering, were “special” or “different,” but because we were equals in all realms of life.” Dr. Paula Stone ‘72, PhD ‘77
The climate for MIT women in academics, housing, athletics, family policies, health, and admissions was not easy to change. Women students and the Admissions Office produced two special booklets for applicants.
Millie and Sheila Widnall developed a course “What is Engineering” to explain the profession to women students. Hundreds attended. Enrollment of women and minorities in the School of Engineering increased significantly.
“As an undergraduate… we had a 10 to 1 male:female ratio. Just knowing that Millie was there provided some inspiration and encouragement.” CUNY Professor Carol Steiner ’76
“She talked about having her first child and going back to work at Lincoln Lab three days later. It made me appreciate how hard her life was as a female researcher.” U.Colorado Professor Juliet Gopinath ’00
“… Hearing that story while still an undergrad helped me imagine that it would be possible to combine a career with kids.” Melissa Weiksnar ’76
“I have many fond memories of Millie making use of every moment - sewing on buttons during meetings, bringing sandwiches from home so she could spend conference breaks reviewing papers. She always committed to the time it would take to do a thing and to follow it through.” Sandy Yulke ’74, SM ’77
Millie donated well over $1M in award money to benefit women at MIT. She also declined honoraria and asked that the funds be donated for her discretionary use at MIT to support women.
“Millie wasn't just my academic advisor; she was a mentor and guide who was there for me during very challenging times. She encouraged me to keep pursuing a double major… helping me navigate the logistical and bureaucratic details. When my thesis [presentation was faltering], she was there to support me all the way. I never would have succeeded at MIT without her.” Srimal Choi ’95
“I first learned about Millie from an article in the Tech Review in 2013, when I was still the only woman in my lab. I was so inspired by her, I wrote "what would Millie do?" across the top of my monitor so that I would see it every day. Throughout my PhD, I would consider that question during times of uncertainty. I continue to be inspired by her perseverance, creativity, and kindness.“ Dr. Emily Tow ’12, PhD ’17
AMITA made Professor Mildred Dresselhaus an honorary member more than 30 years ago, in recognition of her great influence on and outstanding support of MIT’s women students and alumnae.
“Our Millie” is one of only five honorary members in AMITA’s 118 year history.
AMITA: Sarah Simon ’72, Sandra Yulke ’74, Bonny Kellermann ’72, Dorothy Curtis ’73 and other alumnae and friends who contributed remembrances of Millie.
MIT Archives: Elizabeth Andrews and Myles Crowley
MIT Museum: Debbie Douglas