For most of MIT’s existence, women represented a tiny percentage of its student enrollment. In the earliest days, they struggled, first to be allowed to study here at all, and then to create a welcoming and supportive community for their successors. Ellen Swallow Richards, Class of 1873, the first woman graduate of the Institute, fought ardently for the right of women to attend MIT. It was one of her students, Margaret Swan Cheney 1882, who inspired the means to the community the women sought.
Cheney began her chemistry studies with Richards in the early 1870s through the Lowell Institute, a Boston-area organization dedicated to adult public education; she then moved into the Women’s Laboratory, which opened at MIT in 1876, where she studied off and on until 1881. “Her zeal and her love of her work were of great importance to the setting of a standard in the early days of scientific study by women,” Richards said later. Cheney elected to take an extended trip to California with her family in 1881 and never returned to the Institute. She died, possibly from tuberculosis, the following year.
At about the same time, Richards and a group of local women, some affiliated with the Institute, decided to raise money to ensure that a private reception room and toilets for women would be included in the new Walker Building, which opened in 1884. Professor M. D. Ross, who had known Cheney as a child, suggested the room be named in her memory. Cheney’s family enthusiastically embraced the idea, sending in a $500 contribution, and the Margaret Cheney Reading Room was established.
Ever since then, the Cheney Room has provided women an exclusive haven in a world dominated by men. After opening in Walker, it moved in 1898 to the new Pierce Building, and then in 1916 to a spacious suite overlooking Killian Court, where it remains today. Upon her death in 1904, Cheney’s mother left the room nearly $14,000 and a portrait of her daughter, which still hangs in the suite.
Over the decades, the Cheney Room has been an oasis for MIT coeds. “Everybody came there,” recalls Emily Wick, PhD ‘51. “It was our place. The rest of MIT wasn’t too welcoming.” Women ate lunch there–the suite includes a kitchen–played bridge, and even stayed overnight when they had experiments that needed frequent monitoring. Elisabeth Drake ‘58, ScD ‘66, who attended MIT at a time when only about 2 percent of its students were women, says the room “created a community when there wasn’t one otherwise.” The opening of the first women’s dormitory, McCormick Hall, in 1963 meant that MIT undergraduates had less need for the Cheney Room. Graduate students, who were left to fend for themselves, however, still found it invaluable.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Cheney Room was a hotbed of feminist activity. There were weekly meetings with speakers who talked about violence against women, lesbianism, and the politics of women’s biology. There was a series on women’s health issues and a letter-writing campaign against legislation restricting access to birth control and abortion.
Drake says the room looks much the same today as it did during her student days in the 1950s, but adds it may not be as central for today’s students. Rena Nassr ‘01 says there are so many women at MIT now that the room has not been important in her life. But according to Lynn Roberson, a program administrator in student support services who oversees use of the Cheney Room, it still provides a sanctuary for many women who seek quiet time, study, and a place to commune with other women, just as it has for MIT coeds for nearly 125 years. – By Sally Atwood