The Women Who Made New York

New York City’s iconic culture and rich history have been shaped and influenced by countless individuals, many of whom have been left out of the history books. Journalist and New York resident Julie Scelfo changed that when she wrote “The Women Who Made New York,” a book comprised of the untold stories of the talented, courageous and imaginative women who helped make “The Big Apple” the city it is today.  

Ms. Scelfo is a Fall 2018 TED Resident in New York City, a former staff writer/current contributor to The New York Times, and a former Newsweek correspondent. She attended Barnard College, where she created her own major, political communications. As she shared with our students during a recent presentation at Upper School News, Ms. Scelfo has “always been interested in how we live. Our behaviors, our language… why do we do certain things in our society?” This interest has guided her work throughout her impressive journalistic career, and led her to writing “The Women Who Made New York.”

“I love New York City; I went to college here and now I live here. So I agreed to write the book in nine months, with a goal of covering 25 different women,” the writer explained to the attentive students. But as she began her research, Ms. Scelfo found it extremely difficult to narrow down her list.

“I began thinking about how we define New York City. What does it mean to other people, and what does it mean to me?” The author decided the best way to proceed would be to reach out to experts in various fields and ask them which influential women they would choose. She ended up with over 400 women!

“I had to proceed carefully because by omitting women I would be doing the same thing that has been done to them for centuries… not seeing them and not feeling they are important enough to include,” Ms. Scelfo noted. “I didn’t want to make a mistake.”

In the end, the writer determined that in order to be featured in her book the woman would have to be someone New York City just wouldn’t be the same without.  She created 25 categories of things that make New York the vibrant city it is today, and included three to four women per category. She shared a few of these remarkable women’s stories with Chapin’s Upper School.

Clare Hale was a mother of three in 1930’s Harlem. When her husband passed away she was left a single parent during the Great Depression, and she needed employment close to home. So, Ms. Hale opened a childcare center out of her apartment and quickly discovered she had a knack for nurturing children. Eventually, she became a foster parent and offered childcare classes to struggling parents. During the drug epidemic of the 1970’s, Ms. Hale began caring for babies born with drug addictions, opening a care facility known as the Hale House. She then went on to work with children born with HIV, and even partnered with the New York City Department of Health, conducting trainings in hospitals. Without Clara Hale’s unwavering determination, courage and love, the lives of countless families in New York would certainly have been less bright.

Another powerhouse from the early 1900s, Sara Josephine Baker was one of the first female physicians in New York City. She cut her hair short and wore shirts and ties to blend in with her male colleagues. Even still, she was given the most undesirable jobs, namely working in the impoverished immigrant communities known as tenements. As she visited these tenements, Dr. Baker noticed that a severe lack of ventilation and hygiene was causing disease to spread, so she worked to come up with solutions. She created a nurses’ league that trained children in childcare – since most infants in the tenements were cared for by their older siblings. The doctor also set up a station where tenement families could collect sterilized milk, one of countless other improvements she made to the immigrant communities. Dr. Baker is remembered for making notable contributions to public health by creating programs that served as national models for years to come. New York’s health and wellbeing would not be the same without her.

Ms. Scelfo then described a brave woman named Barbara Gittings who made great strides for the nation’s LGBT community in the 1960s and ’70s. When she began exploring her lesbian identity as a teenager in Pennsylvania, Ms. Gittings noticed that she couldn’t find any books or information on sexuality. Years later she moved to New York City and became the editor for lesbian magazine The Ladder. She was so unhappy with the content the magazine presented that she took matters into her own hands, turning the publication into something that empowered and encouraged homosexual women to take pride in who they were. Ms. Gittings also participated in other early LGBT activism, including lobbying against the American Psychiatric Association’s classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder. Her leadership and determination inspired all who knew her and affected the lives of so many in New York’s LGBT community and beyond.

“These kinds of stories truly shaped the history of this city.” Ms. Scelfo concluded. “Change often starts in New York, and so often it starts with women.” The Upper School students filed out of the Assembly Room and into the Gordon Room for snacks, where Ms. Scelfo was stationed to answer any questions they may have had. The accomplished, courageous women the author described truly embodied Chapin’s theme of the year, “Listen with Compassion, Act with Courage,” and will surely continue to inspire our community in the days ahead.