Our History

An Open Home and Open Heart

As MIT's first First Lady, Emma Rogers was quick to realize the importance of gathering campus women together in a social setting for the benefit of friendship and sisterhood. She was a tireless supporter of the Institute her husband William Barton Rogers founded in 1861. For fifty years, until her death in 1911, she never hesitated to offer her home, her heart, and her resources, to make a burgeoning technical school into friendlier and more welcoming place for all.

Matrons and Dames and A Room of Their Own

It was Alice Maclaurin, wife of President Richard C. Maclaurin (1909 to 1920), who saw the need to formalize the network in support of women and the Institute. In 1913 she spearheaded the establishment of the The Emma Rogers Organization of Technology Matrons in 1913, complete with constitution and bylaws. (It only took a month for the name to be abbreviated to the more succinct Technology Matrons.)

When MIT moved from its original Boston campus to Cambridge in 1916, the Emma Rogers Room became—and remains—the Matrons’ home base. That same year, board member Emma Moore endowed a fund for the Matrons' use, ensuring that the organization has never had to charge membership dues. In 1922, Eleanor Jack, wife of Professor James R. Jack, moved to bring students’ wives into the fold and founded the Technology Dames.

Service and Friendship on Campus

The Technology Matrons served with MIT War Services Auxiliary in 1917 to collect and package “comfort bags” for MIT servicemen during World War I. During the 1918 flu epidemic, they helped staff four MIT convalescent homes. And in 1919, they created the Foreign Students Committee, beginning a tradition of helping new arrivals find their footing at MIT and in the community.

The 1930s saw the social side of the Matrons’ mission begin to grow. The first Christmas wreaths to decorate the 77 Mass Ave entrance went up in 1930, a tradition that continues to this day. MIT First Lady Margaret Compton prompts the founding of Interest Groups—Bridge, Book Club, Chorale, Crafts, and Current Events—to help Matrons get acquainted. (Chorale has met regularly ever since.)

"MIT Woman" Takes on a New Meaning

For many decades, a woman at MIT was more likely to be the wife of a faculty member or student than a staff member or student herself. It wasn’t until 1952 that Elspeth Rostow, assistant professor of Economic and Social Science, became the Institute’s first female professor. 

The mid-20th century marks a time of slow but steady evolution as the Matrons began branching into more entrepreneurial initiatives. Matrons founded the Furniture Exchange in a Westgate apartment in 1958 and two years later they established the Student Loan Fund with the proceeds. A Financial Resources and Investment club was added to the roster of Interest Groups in 1959, followed by the Careerists group in 1964.

English Conversation Classes were first launched in 1963 (and have continued ever since). That same year, the Matrons opened the Technology Nursery School, partly in response to the increasing number of women in the workforce.

Make New Friends, but Keep the Old

The Matrons saw a need for work-life balance long before it became a wellness trend and created ways to encourage inter-school and inter-lab networking and socializing. They began hosting mixers in 1962 to encourage people to take a break from work and meet colleagues, classmates, and MIT spouses from all corners of campus. Then as now they recognized that diversity in all its forms is a source of MIT’s strength.

A new group, the Honorary Matrons, was created in 1964 to give Matrons whose spouses had retired or passed away an opportunity to maintain their relationships with MIT and with each other. To this day, the Honorary Matrons are invited to luncheons and lectures as special guests of the MIT president.

Hobby Interest Groups like Birdwatching and Art remain popular among members of all ages, but the Matrons continue to evolve to reflect women’s expanding role at MIT and throughout the country. (In 1972 Mary Frances Wagley, '47, was named the first female MIT Corporation member. Two years later Lotte Bailyn became the first female faculty member in the Sloan School of Management.)

Brown Bag Seminars about current affairs, local and national social concerns, and women’s issues become popular among working women at MIT who can join during their lunch hour.

New Names and New Faces

After more than 60 years as the Technology Matrons, members voted in 1975 to change the organization’s name to the MIT Women’s League. A decade later the bylaws are again amended to open membership to all MIT women—staff, faculty, spouses, students, post-docs, and alumni.

Names change and programs come and go as the times demand, but social connection and public service have always been at the heart of the MIT Women’s League’s mission.

The Host to International Students Program, ESL for Service Employees, and the Furniture Exchange all began as League initiatives. We’ve raised funds for AIDS research, the American Cancer Society, families working to escape domestic violence, and victims of Hurricane Katrina and the 2011 Japanese tsunami—just to name a few from the recent past.

This brief history barely scratches the surface of all that the League has contributed to MIT and the broader community. For a deeper look at the League’s long history and many accomplishments, download a PDF of MIT Women’s League: A Century of Community Service, produced in 2013 for the League’s 100th anniversary.