Home Flashback Photos Mary Jean Simpson, Breaker of Glass Ceilings

Mary Jean Simpson, Breaker of Glass Ceilings

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Mary Jean Simpson, the prim clerk pictured below, was  a driven woman who shattered several glass ceilings in her lifetime.

Mary Jean Simpson

Mary Jean Simpson

The photo shows her in her position as bill clerk in the Office of the Secretary of the U.S. Senate, the first woman appointed to the position, which she held from 1926 to 1933.

She was also the first woman to introduce a bill in the Vermont Legislature – that was in 1921 — and the first women’s dean at the University of Vermont.

Mary Jean Simpson

She was born in East Craftsbury, Vt., on July 18, 1988, graduating from St. Johnsbury Academy in 1908. She graduated from the University of Vermont in 1913, taught for a few years and did graduate work at Columbia University in New York City.

In 1924, back in Vermont, she ran for state representative as a Republican and won. That first bill was to tighten a 1921 billboard law.

Fellow Vermonter Calvin Coolidge was president of the United States when she worked as the Senate clerk.

In 1932, Democrats won Congress and the presidency, and Mary Jean Simpson went back to Vermont.

During the Great Depression she administered New Deal programs for women, including the Civil Works Administration, the professional programs of the Vermont Emergency Relief Administration, the Women’s and Professional Division of the Vermont Works Progress Administration and the Vermont’s Civilian Conservation Corps.

University of Vermont

From 1937-54  she served as dean of women at the University of Vermont, where she recruited students for the university’s first nursing program. During World War II she established a scholarship program for returning veterans.

At graduation every year, UVM presents the Mary Jean Simpson Award to a senior woman who best exemplifies her qualities of character, leadership and scholarship. The Simpson Hall dormitory is named in her honor.

A portrait of her hangs in the Fleming Museum.  The explanatory text includes an excerpt from a letter she wrote to the parents of daughters entering UVM in 1945. A daughter, she wrote,

…should not let her work pile up, nor sacrifice regular study hours to pleasant social demands, nor give more time than she can afford to ‘dates,’ sports, or other extra-curricular activities… It is expected that the women of the university shall at all times conduct themselves with dignity and good taste.

One suspects those are words she lived by.

Mary Jean Simpson also had a cousin, Jean Simpson, who was quite different and left her mark on Vermont by establishing the John Woodruff Simpson Memorial Library in East Craftsbury. Mary Jean Simpson died in East Craftsbury in 1977.

This story last updated in 2022.

Photo via Shorpy.


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