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Honoring Those Who Came before Us

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For Women’s History Month, AU Now talked with female professors from each of AU’s schools and colleges about the women who inspired their careers.  

Kogod senior professorial lecturer Caroline Bruckner, managing director of the Kogod Tax Policy Center

In April 2021, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), chair of the finance committee, introduced new legislation to help women business owners access capital. That bill was inspired by the research of Caroline Bruckner.

“When I came to Kogod, I knew that the tax issues impacting women business owners were overlooked and understudied by entrepreneurship academics,” Bruckner said. “I knew that I could help bring attention to women business owners and their struggles accessing capital through a tax lens.”

Bruckner’s passion for making a difference was shaped by her work with powerful women like Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA).

“While working for the Landrieu team, I developed a network of women who continue to inspire me and, just as importantly, support me,” Bruckner said. “It has been the most important part of my professional development to build a tribe of women from shared professional experiences.”

Those friends include Kevin Wheeler, who Bruckner shared an office with for five years on Capitol Hill.

“I swear that by the end we shared a brain, and she knew me better than my husband,” Bruckner said. “She taught me how to navigate challenging personalities and find compromise.”

WCL Distinguished Professor of Law Angela J. Davis

Judge Bernice Donald—who in 1982 became the first African American woman judge in Tennessee history—set the example for Angela Davis.

Nominated by President Barack Obama to serve on the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in 2011, Donald—who got her start as a public defender—served as a federal judge for 30 years before retiring in 2023.

Davis, who got her start with the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, came to AU in 1997 and became a leading expert in prosecutorial power and racism in the criminal justice system.

Donald, who worked to promote diversity and inclusion in the legal profession, inspired Davis to work to make the criminal justice system fairer.  “Seeing her go on to be such a leader made me know what was possible,” Davis said.

While working in the public defender’s office, Davis met Kim Taylor-Thompson. Taylor-Thompson became the agency’s director and Davis was appointed to be her deputy. Taylor-Thompson later went on to become a noted law professor and scholar, and Davis followed in her footsteps.

“What keeps me up at night is the fact that we lock up too many people in this country, and we lock up too many Black and Brown people and treat them poorly,” Davis said. “That’s what my work is about, and Kim has inspired and guided me in that work.”

SOE antiracist pedagogy scholar Annice Fisher

When she was nine years old, an adult at the Boys and Girls Club in Chicago told Annice Fisher she could be the next Shirley Chisholm.

“Who?” Fisher replied.

In 1972, Fisher learned later, Chisholm became the first Black woman to run for president of the United States. Fisher, a vocal kid who volunteered tutoring immigrants, took the comparison as a compliment.

While she didn’t harbor any political aspirations, Fisher learned from Chisholm that sometimes you must reach across the aisle to create the world you want to see.

Chisholm famously said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” That became Fisher’s philosophy.

“I don’t wait for someone to invite me to the table,” she said. 

Fisher also credits her mother, Darlene, with fueling her passion for education and encouraging her to remember the three Ls: look, listen, and learn.

“My mother taught me that when you go into a space, pay attention to what’s happening,” Fisher said. “Look, listen, and learn, and let that guide you.”

Darlene’s advice helped her daughter be more attuned to bias—a starting point for making more equitable spaces for all learners. It’s a lesson that continues to guide Fisher’s changemaking work as an antiracist pedagogy scholar.

SPA professor Taryn Morrissey

Taryn Morrissey described the pipeline for female academics as “really leaky.”

“We tend to lose people at every stage,” Morrissey said. “When we lose people with different perspectives, we lose as a society in terms of research and the kinds of questions people are asking.”

But the women she met throughout her academic career—including mentors like Rachel Dunifon, now the dean of the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University—helped solidify that Morrissey belonged.

From 2003 to 2008, while Morrissey studied at Cornell, she met often with Dunifon, who reviewed drafts of her papers and connected her with “stars in the field” like Ariel Kalil from the University of Chicago. In 2011, Dunifon, Kalil, and Morrissey authored a paper together.

“[Dunifon] is a model in [terms of] conducting strong, rigorous research and supporting particularly female students,” Morrissey said. “She’s a great researcher, a great person, and supporter.”

While learning from those two mentors, Morrissey also found inspiration in Claudia Goldin, the first woman to solely win the Nobel Prize in economics in 2023.

“There aren’t many economists who are women—full stop,” Morrissey said. “It was a big deal. She won, at least in part, for her work on studying gender in the labor force, which used to be seen as a less valuable area to study.” 

SIS professor Sarah Cleeland Knight

When Sarah Cleeland Knight embarked on a career studying politics, government, and economics, the field was dominated by men.

At the Peterson Institute for International Economics, where Knight was a research assistant, Catherine Mann, now on the board of advisors for the Bank of England, was an early mentor who showed her how to navigate that reality. Mann taught Knight key lessons about everything from quantitative data analysis to how to speak up—even when you’re the only woman in the room. 

“I noticed every meeting we went into, she found something to contribute, important questions to ask, important feedback to give,” Knight said. “She was really good at never turning down an opportunity.”

When Knight later attended Georgetown, where she earned her master’s and PhD while raising two kids, she gleaned even more lessons from her thesis advisor, Kathleen McNamara.

“She was a really good example and a great motivator for how to balance family and career,” Knight said.

When she came to AU in 2008, another colleague, fellow SIS professor Nanette Levinson, made sure Knight felt part of the community.

“She really bent over backwards to welcome new faculty members,” Knight said. “She would check in regularly to ask how I was doing and troubleshoot any issues I might be having.”

CAS professor Elizabeth Rule

Elizabeth Rule’s scholarship on Native American issues like reproductive justice follows in the Indigenous feminist tradition.

While many scholars have contributed to her research, three Native scholars in particular—Sarah Deer, Audra Simpson, and Mishuana Goeman—have inspired Rule’s work in transformative ways.

As an enrolled citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, Rule learned by reading Deer’s work how to investigate the reasons why violence is perpetrated against Indigenous women. Native women are 10 times more likely than their non-Indigenous peers to die by homicide.

“[Deer] has really shaped the way I think about the language I use when talking about this violence,” Rule said. “For example, making sure that we understand this is not an epidemic. It’s not a short-term wave of violence, but rather something that’s been ongoing since contact.”

Simpson, a political anthropologist, taught Rule how to frame her thinking about Indigenous nationhood and how to straddle the line between working with Indigenous communities and writing for an academic audience. Goeman, on the other hand, showed Rule a different way to examine the lived experiences of Native women.

“One of the things I love about her work is that she really centers Indigenous women’s creative work,” Rule said. “That’s something I also do in my scholarship. She talks about how creative forms of expression hold power.”

SOC professor Maggie Stogner, director of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking

Even at just 5-feet tall, Maggie Stogner’s mother was a giant.

Betty Ann Barnett was an influential environmental activist and water researcher in the San Francisco Bay area who shared her committment to protecting nature with her children.

“Nature was our playground,” Stogner said. “We would take backpacking trips when we were little that [instilled an] appreciation for how beautiful nature is.”

While falling in love with photography and film, Stogner's appreciation for the great outdoors is where her career as a documentary filmmaker took root.

At 19, she joined a group for women in communication that helped Stogner find her footing in the documentary filmmaking industry, which was then dominated by men. Her career has since taken her to Apple, National Geographic, and now AU.

“Sometimes it’s not what we’re told, it’s what you feel and what you see,” said Stogner, founder of Blue Bear Films. “Actually seeing a group of women coming together, networking, and being encouraged to pursue this [path in documentary filmmaking] was very important.”