The Achievement Award Series: Women Who Brought the Ancient World into Modern Times

September 23, 2016

It always makes for a fascinating afternoon when we dip into the AAUW archives. Recently, while looking at the files of impressive AAUW Achievement Awardees, we noticed a trend among women who studied archaeology, the classics, and history in the 1940s and early 1950s. Four women in particular jumped out: Gisela Richter, Sirarpie Der Nersessian, Mary Swindler, and Lily Ross Taylor. Little did we know that they would have more in common than their fields of study.

All four were AAUW members who served on the AAUW Committee on Fellowship Awards, both before and after being honored by the organization. And after furthering their own research, they all went out of their way to help other women pursue their own graduate degrees. All four contributed to the war effort, both in World War I and World War II. And they all served as interpreters and teachers in different ways.

Through these Achievement Awards, AAUW celebrated women studying in all fields in an era when women were rarely given equal recognition to their male colleagues.


Gisela M. A. Richter (1882–1972)

Gisela Richter (1944 AAUW Achievement Awardee)

Gisela M. A. Richter received the second-ever AAUW Achievement Award in 1944 for her contributions to the field of Greek and Roman art. In addition to producing important writings and lectures, she was the first female curator of Greek and Roman art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She began her career at the Met as an assistant in 1906 and worked her way through assistant and associate curator positions before becoming curator in 1925. Richter held this position until her retirement in 1948, and continued as honorary curator until her death. She served as visiting lecturer at many prestigious universities.

The aid she received from AAUW was invaluable in her academic and professional pursuits, giving her the time and resources to travel to Italy for her continued research for several books and lectures.

“Research takes time and concentration, and so there can be no research in the true sense of the word without opportunity. In supplying women with such precious opportunities, the American Association of University Women has played an important part. It has helped [women] generously and wisely at often crucial stages of their work.”

— Gisela Richter, from her Achievement Award acceptance speech, 1944


Sirarpie Der Nersessian (1896–1989)

Sirarpie Der Nersessian, 1948 AAUW Achievement Awardee
The 1948 Achievement Award was presented by Richter to Sirarpie Der Nersessian, a professor of Byzantine art and archaeology at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection of Harvard University. Richter described Der Nersessian as an inspiring teacher, a distinguished scholar, and a successful administrator” in her introductory remarks.

“May I congratulate not only Miss Der Nersessian on receiving this distinction, but also the American Association of University Women on its enlightened policy. By helping both aspiring scholars in their early years of struggle, and mature scholars who have proved their ability to make real contributions to knowledge, the association has shown, I think, great wisdom. They have evinced concern not only for the workers in the field but for the actual furtherance of knowledge.”

— Gisela Richter, introducing Achievement Awardee Sirarpie Der Nersessian, 1948

Der Nersessian was born in Constantinople,  escaped the Ottoman Empire in 1915 because of persecution of her Armenian family, and studied in Geneva and Paris before going on to study in the United States. Unlike many women of her time whose careers did not pass administration, Der Nersessian advanced from her role as a visiting lecturer at Wellesley in 1930 to that of full professor and chair of the art department in 1937. There, she became the first woman to teach Byzantine art at a women’s college. In 1944 she became the first female fellow at Harvard University’s Dumbarton Oaks Research Library, and soon after broke another barrier as the school’s first female full professor of Byzantine art and archaeology in 1946.


Mary Swindler (1884–1967)

Mary Swindler, 1951 AAUW Achievement Awardee

Mary Swindler, the 1951 Achievement Awardee, taught archaeology and classics at Bryn Mawr College from 1912 to 1949 and became a full professor in 1931. She was also the first woman editor for the American Journal of Archaeology.

The AAUW award allowed her to gather materials to finish her book, The Beginnings of Greek Art: 1600–600 B.C. After her retirement, she continued to act as a visiting professor of archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania and as a visiting curator in the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

“I am more proud of my students and what they have done than of anything that has come to me. In them, some part of the future of scholarship reposes. Many of them have won scholarships in the American School at Athens, AAUW fellowships, Carnegie Grants, Guggenheims, Fulbrights. … I am personally interested in my students and anything that I have done has involved this personal interest.”

— Mary Swindler in a letter to Margaret Elliott Tracy, chair of the
AAUW Fellowship Awards Committee


Lily Ross Taylor (1886–1969)

Lily Ross Taylor, 1952 AAUW Achievement AwardeeLily Ross Taylor used her 1952 award to fund a trip to Italy, where she purchased a car and drove around the country completing research for her publications. She also learned the place of the Italians in the Roman voting system and become acquainted with Italian geography.

Taylor was a vocal proponent of students learning languages from a young age:

“We are trying in our education to gain a greater understanding of other peoples, their cultures, their attitudes, their values. But at the same time we are neglecting the most important means of acquiring such understanding — the study of languages and literatures which reveal the real character of other peoples. Other barriers have disappeared, but the barrier of language, at least on our side, is higher than it used to be. The study of foreign languages has not increased, but diminished. In this respect, our curriculum in high school and college has become isolationist in a time of internationalism.”

— Lily Ross Taylor, in her 1952 Achievement Award acceptance speech

Taylor went on to become the dean of Bryn Mawr’s graduate school and a visiting professor at several universities.

In addition to lifting up important women scholars in the arts, AAUW has also supported many deserving women in STEM over the years. Learn about more history making women who have grabbed our attention in the past, and come see the next Achievement Awardee at AAUW National Convention!


This post was written by Senior Program Officer Lesley Perry and Fellowships and Grants Intern Theresa Romualdez.



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