Celebrating Women’s History

| August 4, 2013

Occasions such as Women’s History Month allow us to reflect on yesterday’s pioneers, as well as contemporary happenings that history will ultimately record. In that spirit, the College published a series of stories in March related to the 2013 theme, “Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.” It began with a remembrance of Connie Myers Guion, which is excerpted below.

The series
Science: A pioneering doctor begins her career teaching science at Sweet Briar
Technology: A 2001 graduate’s Internet company soars
Engineering: Sweet Briar’s engineering program is part of changing the profession
Math: A Sweet Briar professor pushes boundaries in math and biology

Connie Guion in the chemistry lab in 1908.

Practical Visionary: Sweet Briar’s pioneering woman

When Guion Science Center was dedicated on April 22, 1966, President Anne Gary Pannell introduced Connie Guion, saying her life epitomized a belief in women’s education.

“She stands as an ideal of the goal toward which every woman must aspire — to educate herself to the limit of her abilities and contribute her talents to the betterment of society wherever she finds herself.”

Pannell could cite ample evidence for the statement, including that Sweet Briar’s new science hall was the second building to bear her name.

A few years earlier, the new outpatient wing of the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center was named the Connie Guion Building — a first for a living woman doctor. It was the new home of the Cornell Pay Clinic, which she had helped establish in 1922 and later led as its chief.

The clinic revolutionized outpatient care for New York’s poor and working-class residents, creating a model that was implemented across the country and is evident today.

By then, Guion was already noted for shaking things up, with characteristic wit and common sense. In 1918 at Bellevue Hospital, she challenged the long ambulance shifts required of her as an intern, and succeeded in getting them changed from 24 to 12 hours.

“I think it is inhuman to make interns hang on the back of an ambulance 24 hours at a time,” she told the superintendent, according to a profile in Look magazine (“The amazing Doctor Guion,” Sept. 12, 1961).

He told her it had been that way for 100 years. “Well,” she replied, “the century’s up.”

During the internship, she began teaching at Cornell University Weill Medical College, where she had graduated at the top of her class. Guion taught in addition to running a private practice in New York, which she maintained into her late 80s. She became the nation’s first woman to be promoted to full professor of clinical  medicine in 1946.

Of course, all that happened after she made her first  impression on Sweet Briar as a chemistry and physics teacher from 1908 to 1913. The Lincolnton, N.C., native had delayed medical school to help put two younger sisters through school, as an older sister had helped her. She was the ninth of 12 children. According to Look, she did not learn to read until age 10.

Guion appreciated founding president Mary Benedict’s determination to make Sweet Briar viable without compromising her vision for its mission. When Benedict arrived in June 1906, there were four impressive new buildings — but only two faculty members and one student enrolled for the coming fall.

In a 1959 Founders’ Day keynote address, Guion said, “How simply Mary Benedict could have answered all the problems that confronted her — both financial and academic — had she decided to build here a stylish boarding school where girls could be prepared to cook, to sew, to paint, to become musicians, linguists — in short to be accomplished young ladies and promising wives. This she would not do because she believed that Indiana Fletcher had higher ideals for the education of women.”

Although Guion’s time at Sweet Briar was short, she recognized that she and her colleagues were building something special. She saw it among the students, about whom she wrote, “Everywhere I was conscious of a spirit of ownership or a better word is partnership, a spirit of jealousy for this growing young college.”

If memories of Guion have faded, her path is nonetheless well-traveled by Sweet Briar women such as Dr. Laura Lee Rihl Joiner ’96. Joiner was her class valedictorian and the Presidential Medalist, among other honors. She attended medical school on an Army scholarship and served until 2007.

As an OB-GYN , Joiner has devoted her career to women’s health, often working with underserved groups — the Iraqi Women’s Initiative while deployed, caring for women veterans in a system built for men, and directing a clinic for lower-income clients. She also held numerous teaching positions and recently left the University of Alabama to work in private practice.

And she is raising three children.

Joiner admires Guion’s pluck — and appreciates it. “She would have been unusual in her time,” she says. “It is because of trailblazers like Dr. Guion that women are so readily a part of medicine today. … I have met no resistance during my career to the idea that I could not only be a doctor and an Army officer, but also a wife and mother.”

Jennifer McManamay

Category: Features, Features Summer 2013, Summer 2013