Schlesinger, Marian (Cannon)
Shea, Mary Rose (Merlesena)
Simmons, E. Denise
Smith, Alice (Kimball)
Sprague, Joan (Forrester)
Saavedra-Keber (b. Dec. 27, 1948)
Factory worker, educator, counselor, community leader
Born in Chile, Sylvia Saavedra-Keber finished the first three years of college, and then planned to work in southern Chile with the poor and disenfranchised. When Salvadore Allende’s socialist government was overthrown, Sylvia’s parents were concerned for her safety, and she emigrated from Chile to the United States in 1970.
After arriving in Watertown, MA, she worked at factory jobs: first, she spent a year at Fenton Shoe in Cambridgeport, gluing shoe soles with a hot glue that aggravated her asthma; then she worked at Fanny Farmer, breaking up pieces of warm chocolate. As this also began to affect her health, she left the company and was trained for professional work through the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) programs. After CETA, she taught at Bunker Hill Community College and was later the head of affirmative action for the Massachusetts Department of Employment and Training.
In the late 1970s, Sylvia began her career in Cambridge as a bilingual youth employment counselor at the city’s Economic Opportunity Commission. She became a board member of Concilio Hispano in Cambridge (the area’s Latino community resource center), which was established in 1967. Sylvia credits Mayor Alfred Vellucci, an immigrant himself, as the main force behind the founding of Concilio. After seven years on the board, she became president. Around 1997, a member of the board recruited her to become the executive director. Sylvia also helped create the Commission of Latino Affairs for the City of Cambridge. In September 2000, she received the Beryl H. Bunker Award.
Sylvia Saavedra-Keber describes the purpose of Concilio: “As Latinos at Concilio, we are trying to build human beings [who are] independent from the system, from welfare, from anyone, because we might not be here tomorrow. We have to create independence rather than dependency around our service.”
Sylvia has spoken about her feelings about being an immigrant: “The pain that you always carry as an immigrant about not being born here, you will always carry it...You will always miss that comfort that you have about being born in your own country. You are never going to feel one hundred percent part of it...I think at some point you have to let go. That is the point which is so important for you as an immigrant, to really continue to contribute to your society here.”
Reference: Oral interview by Sarah Boyer
Return to Top of Page
Sarton aka Eleanore Marie Sarton (b. May 3, 1912, in Wondelgem,
Belgium, d. July 16, 1995, York Hospital, Maine)
Poet and novelist
May Sarton was born Eleanore Marie Sarton, the daughter of George Sarton, a historian of science, and his Welsh wife, Eleanor Mabel Elwes. In 1915, at the beginning of the World War I, the Sarton family fled from Belgium to England. After a few peripatetic years in the States, George Sarton accepted an appointment at Harvard University, which led the family to settle in Cambridge, in 1918. May attended Shady Hill School, where she began writing poetry. When her family moved back to Belgium for a few years, May attended the Institute Belge de Culture Française in Brussels. On returning to Cambridge and settling with her parents on Channing Place, May attended Cambridge High and Latin School.
After graduating from high school in 1929, May studied in New York at the Civic Repertory Theater. She returned to Boston, where she taught creative writing and choral speaking, and directed plays at the old Stuart School in the Fenway. She also lectured on poetry at the Winsor School and Milton Academy. Her first book, Encounter in April, was published in 1937, and a year later she published The Single Hound. Sarton at first wanted to be an actress, and spent the years 1927-ca.1935 at the New York Civic Repertory Theater and in Paris. When she proved unsuccessful as an actress, she turned to writing fiction. Her first short stories did not sell, and in 1936 she moved to London where she met the poet Elizabeth Bowen, who was to become a passionate friend and lover for the next decades.
May Sarton began to write poetry seriously and in 1939 returned to the United States. Her collection of poems, Inner Landscape, was published that year, and she began to earn her living lecturing and giving poetry readings at various colleges and schools. During World War II, she worked for the Office of War Information in the film department. In 1945, she won the Gold Rose for Poetry and the Edward Bland Memorial prize. After the war, with publication of the novel, The Bridge of Years, and a poetry collection, The Lion and the Rose (1948), Sarton’s reputation began to grow. Her short stories were published in The New Yorker and Harper’s Bazaar, and she wrote several articles for the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, The Kenyan Review, The Reporter, and others. She supported herself by teaching in universities from 1950 to 1955, serving as Briggs-Copeland instructor in composition at Harvard from 1950 to 1952. In 1954 he wrote a biography of her father, I Knew a Phoenix, depicting Cambridge and the academic world in which she grew up.
After 1958, when both her parents died, she sold her family home in Cambridge and moved to Nelson, New Hampshire, where she wrote The Small Room and Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. Because this second book depicted a lesbian affair, she was required to excise some passages before her publisher would agree to accept it. This book is considered the author’s most intense study of the feminine artist as a misunderstood and solitary individual. Sarton lectured at Harvard, Radcliffe, and Wellesley colleges, and many other educational institutions. She was a Guggenheim fellow in poetry and a fellow in poetry at Bryn Mawr College, and was awarded honorary degrees from the University of New Hampshire, Clark University, and Colby, Bates, and Russell Sage colleges. She held the Golden Rose Award for poetry, the Edward Bland Memorial Prize from Poetry Magazine, the Reynolds Lyric Award of the Poetry Society of America, the Alexandrine Medal of the College of St. Catherine, and the Perkins Memorial Award of Eastern Connecticut’s Thoreau School of Holistic Education.
In 1973, Sarton moved to New York. Later, she published two autobiographies, Plant Dreaming Deep and A World of Light, published in 1968 and 1976, respectively. In the 1980s, she suffered a stroke, which left her unable to write for over nine months; later she published, After the Stroke (1988). A year before her death, May published a last volume of poems, Coming into Eighty (1994). She died of breast cancer on Sunday, July 17, 1993, in York Hospital, Maine.
Sarton published more than fifty books of poetry, memoirs, novels, and essays. In 1982, the first comprehensive scholarly look at her work, May Sarton: Woman and Poet by Constance Hunting, was published by the National Poetry Foundation. In 1996, a plaque commemorating her life and work, was erected on the grounds of the main branch of the Cambridge Public Library.
References: May Sarton, I Knew a Phoenix; Plant Dreaming Deep; A World of Light. Constance Hunting May Sarton: Woman and Poet. National Poetry Foundation, 1982; Great Women Writers. Henry Holt, 1994; Cambridge Historical Commission files
Return to Top of Page
(Cannon) Schlesinger (b. 1913 in Cambridge)
Marian Cannon was the fourth and youngest daughter of the well-known Harvard physiologist, Walter B. Cannon, and his wife, Cornelia James Cannon. After graduating from Radcliffe College in 1934, Marian spent a year traveling in China and studying Chinese painting in Peking. On her return home, she wrote and illustrated San Bao and His Adventures in Peking, a classic children's book of the 1930s. In 1940 she married the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., whom she had met during his junior year at Harvard; they had four children. The couple divorced in 1970. In 1979, she published an autobiography, Snatched From Oblivion, that described growing up in an academic household in Cambridge dominated by strong-minded women, including her novelist mother. In this book she also depicted an assortment of Cambridge characters of the 1920s and 1930s, the politics of the time, and town-gown confrontations.
References: Marian Cannon Schlesinger, Snatched from Oblivion, (Little Brown, 1979)
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. A Life in the 20th Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950. Houghton Mifflin, 2000
Return to Top of Page
Rose (Merlesena) Shea (d. 2005)
Activist; Childcare provider
Mary Shea was a wife, mother, and grandmother, as well as a childcare teacher and tireless activist for affordable housing and tenants’ rights.
When Mary Shea joined the Simplex Steering Committee, which pressured MIT to include affordable housing and parks in the development of the former Simplex site, she had a personal stake in the fight. Her father had worked at the Simplex Wire & Cable Company for twenty years and contracted silicosis (chalk on the lungs) on the job. In 1946 Mary had married, and she and her husband moved to her father’s house, where Mary cared for him. She said, “That’s when I decided if there was anything I had to do in my life, it was going to be helping people have a better life, rather than seeing someone come out of a garage all full of chalk and ready to die.” After her father passed away and her children grew up, Mary organized with people in her community and joined the Cambridgeport Homeowner and Tenant Association, which helped people who had fallen on hard times.
Mary explained that everyone in the Cambridgeport neighborhood was affiliated with the fight against the conflicting plans developed by MIT, the owner of the Simplex property. Mary, her daughter Nancy, and Nancy’s daughter, Jillian, picketed at an M.I.T. graduation. Although the Simplex Steering Committee obtained some affordable housing concessions from M.I.T., when the City of Cambridge approved MIT’s proposals in 1988, many activists, including Mary, agreed that this was not enough after 18 years of protests.
In a very personal way, Mary Shea took care of her neighbors, shopping and doing errands, giving money to homeless people, and being a force for positive action in her community.
References: Oral interview by Sarah Boyer. For information on the Simplex Steering Committee, see The Tech, 1990; Christopher Montgomery, “Boston project creates new niche,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, November 28, 2005.
Return to Top of Page
E. Denise Simmons (b. October 2, 1951 in Cambridge, Mass.)
City Councilor, Former Mayor and School Committee Member, City of Cambridge
First African American Woman Mayor in Massachusetts
First African American Openly Lesbian Mayor in the Nation
Photo Credit: Stephen Maclone
E. Denise Simmons is a lifelong resident of Cambridge, MA. Simmons was one of only two African American students during her nine years at St. Mary’s, a parochial school in Cambridge, before entering the public school system, which was much more diverse. She graduated from Cambridge High and Latin in 1971. Simmons went on to receive a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from the University of Massachusetts Boston, followed by a Master’s Degree in Psychotherapy from Antioch College. In 2009, she earned her honorary PhD from the Episcopal Divinity School.
In the early 1980s, Simmons was hired as the executive director of the Cambridge Civic Unity Committee, an organization formed in 1945 to help WWII veterans facing racial discrimination after returning from service. The Committee’s ongoing mission was to promote equality and unity across racial and religious lines and addressing civic issues like community-police relations, employment, education and housing. In 1982, concerned about job stability and providing for her children, Simmons started her own small business, the Cambridgeport Insurance Agency, which has operated for over thirty five years.In 2018, that agency became affiliated with Allstate Insurance Company.
Passionate about her civic work, Simmons decided that she could affect more change in municipal governance and ran for local office in the early 1990s, losing two times before winning a seat on the School Committee in 1991. Simmons was a strong advocate for minority representation in Cambridge, pushing for more teachers of color, expanded opportunities for students of color, increasing literacy across the city and helping non-English speaking families. She worked to institute the family engagement policy, which mandated that the Cambridge Schools administrators promote, increase, and implement family involvement in their children’s educational experience. The policy is still in effect.
In 2001, Simmons successfully ran for a seat on the Cambridge City Council, and in 2008, she was unanimously elected Mayor by fellow Council members, making national headlines as the the first African American openly lesbian mayor in the country (and the first African American female mayor in Massachusetts). She served again as Mayor from 2016 to 2017. In January 2018, she began her ninth term on the City Council. The hallmarks of her tenure have been affordable housing, inclusionary zoning, public safety, green jobs, wage equity, and continually addressing issues of equality in the City. While Mayor, she made government accessibility to citizens a priority, holding weekly walk-in hours, opening the Mayor’s Parlor for public ceremonies, and hosting Town Hall meetings at City Hall on issues pertaining to senior citizens, affordable housing, immigrants' rights in an era of national divisiveness, and to the LGBTQ community. Simmons founded a free after school leadership program for 8th grade girls, which now is run in partnership with YWCA Cambridge, called the Girls Only Leadership Development program (GOLD). During her second term as Mayor, Simmons also successfully pushed for greater historic representation of women in City Hall, which throughout more than 130 years had previously only featured portraits of prominent men who had contributed to the community. Simmons is deeply invested in the ongoing development of this project.
Simmons describes herself as her family historian and archivist and has spent time in Georgia and Alabama researching her family roots. Her political activism on behalf of racial equality and her historical research led her to successfully push for the creation of a memorial to Prince Hall on the Cambridge Common in 2010. Hall was a freed slave, founder of Black Freemasonry, and an orator who fought to end the slave trade and slavery, integrate the Revolutionary Army and provide education and rights to citizens of African descent. In 2008, Simmons introduced a resolution, R-20, in the City Council to recognize Prince Hall as a Founding Father of the United States, which passed. She sees the memorial as a monument to all civil rights activists that followed in Hall’s footsteps. Simmons is also behind an effort to create a Cambridge museum, which would document the city’s rich and diverse history.
Simmons is a mother to four children, Jada, Nadene, Atieno, and Anthony (deceased), and a grandmother to five. In August 2009, she married her longtime partner Mattie B. Hayes of Brooklyn, NY. They became the first same-sex couple to marry at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, one of the oldest African American churches in Cambridge, known for its social justice activism. Their marriage was officiated by Rev. Leslie Sterling, Reverend Irene Monroe, and Simmons’ daughter, Jada D. Simmons who, like her mother, is a Justice of the Peace.
MIT Oral history interview with Joe McMaster, video and transcript, 2/25/2016, https://infinitehistory.mit.edu/video/denise-simmons
Ratigan, Evelyn. "Cambridge Officials Unveil Monument to Prince Hall," Cambridge Chronicle, 5/18/2010, https://cambridge.wickedlocal.com/x1035104115/Cambridge-officials-unveil-monument-to-Prince-Hall
Cambridge City Council Resolution to Name Prince Hall a Founding Father, 10/20/2008, https://www2.cambridgema.gov/CityOfCambridge_Content/documents/Prince_Hall_infor_Mayor.pdf
Denise Simmons Election Website and Bio, http://www.denisesimmons.com
Monroe, Rev. Irene.“Black Episcopal Congregation Celebrates Lesbian Marriage,” Huffington Post, 11/10/2009, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/irene-monroe/black-episcopal-congregat_b_281261.html
Return to Top of Page
(Kimball) Smith (b. 1908 in Oak Park, Illinois, d. 6 February
2001 in Ellensburg, Washington)
Historian, Editor, Administrator
Born Alice Marchant Kimball in Illinois, she attended Mount Holyoke College, graduating in 1928. She continued her education, studying English social history at Yale, where she met and married the physicist and metallurgist Cyril Stanley Smith in 1931. Marriage did not prevent her from completing her PhD in 1936. She and the couples' two children then accompanied Cyril to Los Alamos, New Mexico in the early forties where he worked on the creation of the first atomic bomb as part of the famous “Manhattan Project,” under the direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer. While in New Mexico, Alice Smith taught at the Los Alamos High School from 1943 to 1945. Her acquaintance with the excitement of the scientific community at Los Alamos led her to edit the letters of Oppenheimer many years later.
After the war, the family moved to Chicago while her husband taught at the University of Chicago. There she served as assistant editor of the renowned Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a journal that opposed the future use of atomic weapons. In 1961, she and her husband moved to Cambridge where her husband was named Professor of Metallurgy at MIT, jointly holding a position in Humanities where he taught the history of his subject.
Alice Kimball Smith became one of the first Radcliffe Institute (Bunting) Fellows in 1963 and later became director of the Institute from 1971 to 1973. She also served as director of the Radcliffe Seminars from 1963-1971. She wrote two books that reflected her experiences at Los Alamos as well as her knowledge of the science and the scientists and their varied reactions to the creation of the atomic bomb, A Peril and a Hope: the Scientists’ Movement in America 1945-1947 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), and (with Charles Weiner), J. Robert Oppenheimer: Letters and Recollections. (Harvard University Press, 1980). For the last six years of her life, she moved to the state of Washington to be near her daughter.
Obituary, Resonance June 2006
Oral interview in Schlesinger Library
DMSE News (MIT). April 2001
Return to Top of Page
(Forrester) Sprague (b.1935, d. April 6, 1998, in Cambridge)
Born Joan Forrester in New York City in 1935, she received a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Cornell in 1953 and a master’s degree in education from Harvard in 1976. At the beginning of her career, she worked in furniture design (producing a butcher block couch) and consulted with companies, including Sprague Associates, Architectural Resources, Inc., and Benjamin Thompson & Associates, Inc. In 1957, she married Chester Sprague, a professor of architecture at MIT, with whom she shared an interest in exploring the architecture of Native American pueblos.
In Cambridge she co-founded a non-hierarchical practice for women architects, Open Design Office. With a group of feminist architects (Katrin Adam, Noel Phyllis Birkby, Ellen Perry Berkeley, Bobbie Sue Hood, Marie I. Kennedy, and Leslie Kanes Weisman), she organized the Women’s School of Planning and Architecture (WSAP), which offered summer sessions around the country between 1974 and 1981. She was a successful feminist architect and planner, who focused on developing low-income housing for women and children. She was involved in the Women’s Design Center and Women’s Development Corporation in Rhode Island, and Women’s Housing for Housing and Economic Development in Boston. She also worked as a consultant for the Better Homes Foundation, Save the Children, and the Women’s Housing Coalition in Albuquerque.
Sprague wrote two manuals, A Development Primer: Starting Housing or Business Ventures by and/or for Women (1984), and A Manual on Transitional Housing (1986). She also wrote two major books, Taking Action: A Comprehensive Approach to Housing Women and Children in Massachusetts (1988), and More than Housing: Lifeboats for Women and Children (1991). She lectured at Columbia, MIT, Arizona State University, and in the Netherlands, Canada, the People’s Republic of China, and the former Soviet Union. She won the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus’s Abigail Adams award in 1988. She died of brain cancer in Cambridge. Her papers are held at Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute.
References: Finding aid, Joan Forrester Sprague papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute.
Return to Top of Page
Sachem of Misticke, widow of Nanapashemet (b. ca. 1585, d. 1650
in what is now part of Medford)
Native American chief (of Massachuset tribes)
No birth date or name has been discovered for the Squaw Sachem (or female ruler), widow of Nanpashemet, who ruled over the Massachuset federation of tribes. She married Nanapashemet sometime between 1600 and 1608, during which time her first son was born. She had three living sons and a daughter, born over the next ten years. Her husband was killed in a devastating raid by the Micmac Indians in 1619, following which she was named Squaw Sachem with four tribes still loyal to her. Her territory extended from Charlestown (including areas that are now Cambridge, Somerville, Medford, and Arlington) to Concord and up to Marblehead. Sometime in the 1620s she married her husband’s medicine man, Webcowit, but retained her power. She placed her sons in control of different parts of her territory. Her oldest son, Wonohaquaham (called by the English Sagamore John), gave the English the right to settle in the area of Charlestown along the Charles River in 1627. He was to die a few years later from smallpox, as was one of her other sons, while the youngest (called by the English, Sagamore James) was badly disfigured. In 1639, Squaw Sachem and Webcowit signed over to the English a large tract of land “within the bounds of Watertowne (sic) Cambridge and Boston” for the sum of 21 coats, 19 fathom of wampum, and 3 bushels of corn. She reserved a large parcel of land bordering the west side of the Mystic Lakes for her use until her death, and also for the use of the Indians for planting, hunting, and fishing, "while the Squaw liveth." She marked the treaty with the symbol of a bow and arrow. In 1644, she signed a treaty of submission to the English, agreeing to place her land and people under the control of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. She died around 1650 and is buried somewhere in what is now Medford.
References: Benjamin Bussey Thatcher, Indian Biography. New York (1832); Lucius R. Paige. History of Cambridge 1630-1877, Boston 1877; www.menotomyjournal.com/massachuset/timeline.html (Arlington-based on-line magazine); Frederick J Lund (compiler), “Brief History of Somerville,” Somerville Planning Board, 1996.
Return to Top of Page
Return to Alphabetical Index
Women's Heritage Project
March 27, 2007