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Architecture and Urban Planning

Celebrating U-M alumnae for Women's History Month

Scythian Media

Throughout the month of March 2021, we’re celebrating Women’s History Month by highlighting trailblazing University of Michigan alumnae in a variety of arts and cultural fields. From the Brady Bunch to Saturday Night Live, and Superman, bookmark this tab or follow us on Instagram to learn more about how these pioneering U-M women have shaped our culture.


Renowned opera singer Jessye Norman (1945–2019). Norman, who earned her Master of Music at the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance in 1968, was one of the world’s most celebrated performing artists, acclaimed for her performances in a wide range of leading roles with the world’s premier opera companies, in solo recitals, and in concerts of her cherished classical repertoire with preeminent orchestras all over the globe.

A bonafide opera star who was unafraid to venture onto stages beyond the genre, Norman was often called upon to perform at many of the world’s most important events. She sang at the second inaugurations of Presidents Ronald Regan and Bill Clinton; at Queen Elizabeth’s 60th birthday celebration; at the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta; at the 200th anniversary celebration of the French Revolution; and at a ceremony honoring the victims of 9/11 when two monumental columns of light were unveiled at the site of the former World Trade Center. Read more.


Ann B. Davis (1926–2014) was an American actress who achieved prominence for her role in the NBC situation comedy The Bob Cummings Show (1955–59), ahead of playing the part she was best known for: Alice Nelson, the housekeeper in ABC’s “The Brady Bunch” (1969–74).

As Alice, Davis, a 1948 U-M graduate, carved out a special place in pop culture history. She would go on to reprise the role in spinoffs and specials once the show ended its five-season run; she would create a cookbook based on recipes related to the show; she would star in a Swiffer ad. 

Davis’s journey to fame and a 1970’s version of fortune is highlighted throughout the collection of her papers and photographs that were recently added to the U-M Bentley Historical Library’s collection. She grew up in Schenectady, New York, where she, her twin sister, and their brother and parents performed variety shows in their living room. The twin Davis girls then moved to Ann Arbor, where Ann decided to study pre-med before switching to speech and drama. The rest is history.


Nancy Pearl is an American librarian, best-selling author, and literary critic who graduated with her BA at U-M in 1965 before going on to earn her master’s in library science in 1967. In addition to having her own action figure, which comes with a stack of books and her finger to her lips mouthing “Shhhhh,” she is known for her reviews books on NPR’s “Morning Edition”; was named Librarian of the Year in 2011 by Library Journal; and, at 72, saw the publication of her first novel, “George & Lizzie,” set in Ann Arbor. She is well known for recommending books to readers through her “Book Lust” series.

Pearl was raised in Detroit, Michigan and, by her own account, spent much time of her childhood at the public library. Her decision to become a librarian started at the age of 10 with the inspiration of the children’s librarian at her local public library. She credits books and librarians with helping her through a difficult childhood: “It’s not too much of an exaggeration—if it’s one at all—to say that reading saved my life.” She earned her master’s in library science at the University of Michigan (1967) and became a children’s librarian in her hometown library system before moving on to other libraries.


Gilda Radner (1946–1989) was an actress and comedienne who was one of the seven original cast members for Saturday Night Live (SNL). In her routines, Radner created unforgettable characters, including misinformed news commentator Roseanne Roseannadanna. In 1978, she won an Emmy Award for her performances on the show. She also portrayed those characters in her highly successful one-woman show “Gilda Live” on Broadway in 1979. Radner’s SNL work established her as an iconic figure in the history of American comedy.

Radner was born and raised in Detroit, MI, and attended U-M from 1964–1970 while studying education. After she lost her life to ovarian cancer in 1989, her husband Gene Wilder carried out her personal wish that information about her illness would help other cancer victims. He established the Gilda Radner Hereditary Cancer Program at Cedars-Sinai to screen high-risk candidates (such as women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent) and to run basic diagnostic tests. He testified before a Congressional committee that Radner’s condition had been misdiagnosed and that if doctors had inquired more deeply into her family background, they might have attacked the disease earlier.

She was posthumously awarded a Grammy Award in 1990; was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 1992; and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2003.


Barbara Ess (1944–2021), who passed away earlier this month, was an avant-garde musician and photographer who was widely known for her large-scale ambient works shot with a pinhole camera.

Ess graduated from U-M in 1969 with a degree in philosophy and English literature. In a varied career rooted in the downtown Manhattan art scene of the 1970s and ’80s, Ms. Ess sang and played guitar and bass in Y Pants, The Static and other “No Wave” bands, and was also known for publishing an influential mixed-media zine.

She taught at Bard College from 1997 until her death and continued to release music, playing in the three-woman band Ultra Vulva and participating in a project called “Radio Guitar” with her friend, the video artist Peggy Ahwesh.


Christine Dakin is an American dancer, teacher, director, and a foremost exponent of the Martha Graham repertory and technique. Dakin graduated from U-M in 1972, and in addition to dance, she majored in French and Russian studies. She is known for her performances of Ms. Graham’s roles and for those created for her by Martha Graham and artists such as Robert Wilson, Twyla Tharp and Martha Clarke.

Performing in the principal theaters of the world, partnered by renowned artists such as Rudolf Nureyev, she was chosen by Graham for the company in 1976. Dakin became its associate artistic director in 1997 and was named artistic director with Terese Capucilli in 2002. Leading the company to its rebirth, they are credited with bringing the artistic excellence and repertory of the Company to a level not seen since Martha Graham’s death. They were both named Artistic Directors Laureate.

On the faculty of The Juilliard School since 1993, she is currently also on faculty at The Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater School in New York, and is known internationally as a teacher and guest artist.


Celeste Ng is an award-winning writer and novelist. Her first novel, “Everything I Never Told You” (2014), was a New York Times bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book of 2014, Amazon’s #1 Best Book of 2014, and named “best book of the year” by over a dozen publications. The novel, which drew on her personal experiences of racism as well as her relationships with family and friends, took six years to write. It was the winner of the Massachusetts Book Award, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, and the ALA’s Alex Award. It has been translated into over thirty languages and is currently being adapted for the screen.

Celeste’s second novel, “Little Fires Everywhere(2017) was a #1 New York Times bestseller, a #1 Indie Next bestseller, and Amazon’s Best Fiction Book of 2017. It has spent over a year on the New York Times bestseller list, in part due to the well-known mini-series of the same name released on Hulu last year, which stars Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington. Ng is one of the show’s producers.

Ng grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, the setting of her second novel. She attended graduate school at U-M, where she earned her Master of Fine Arts in writing in 2004 (now the Helen Zell Writers’ Program). While at U-M, Ng won the Hopwood Award for her short story “What Passes Over.”


Lucy Liu is an award-winning actress, producer, director, artist and social justice advocate who has worked in both television and film. 

Liu was a transfer student and a member of the Chi Omega sorority at U-M, where she graduated with a BA in Asian languages and cultures in 1990. Without prior acting experience, she auditioned for a small part in a Basement Arts production of “Alice in Wonderland” at U-M and walked away with the lead during her senior year.

After beginning her career by guest-starring on numerous television series episodes, including “The X-Files,” “NYPD Blue,” and “ER,” Liu has gained popularity through many other characters such as ill-mannered lawyer Ling Woo in “Ally McBeal,” and Viper in the “Kung Fu Panda” animated movies. She once said in a 1990 New York Times interview that “There aren’t many Asian roles, and it’s very difficult to get your foot in the door.” She went on to star in many blockbuster films like “Kill Bill,” “Charlie’s Angels”, “Chicago,” “Lucky Number Slevin,” “Domino”…the list goes on. Lucy Liu became the second Asian-American woman with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

Liu is also an accomplished visual artist, often producing art and exhibitions under the pseudonym Lu Ying, her Chinese name. She given to, raised money for, and has served a spokesperson for many different causes, including breast cancer research, global human trafficking, UNICEF, and The Human Rights Campaign.


Jesmyn Ward is a novelist, scholar, MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, and is the only woman and only African American to win the National Book Award for Fiction twice. 

Ward received her MFA in Creative Writing from the U-M Helen Zell Writers Program in 2005. Shortly afterwards, she and her family became victims of Hurricane Katrina. Empathizing with the struggle of the survivors and coming to terms with her own experience during the storm, Ward was unable to write creatively for three years – the time it took her to find a publisher for her first novel, “Where the Line Bleeds.” In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called Ward “a fresh new voice in American literature” who “unflinchingly describes a world full of despair but not devoid of hope.” Her second novel “Salvage the Bones” drew from her experiences of surviving Katrina, and won her a 2012 Alex Award and the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction. She also won the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction for her novel “Sing, Unburied, Sing.”

Ward, who wrote a memoir about the loss of her brother “The Men We Reap” (2013), recently penned an essay in Vanity Fair about the recent loss of her husband:  “Even in a pandemic, even in grief, I found myself commanded to amplify the voices of the dead that sing to me, from their boat to my boat, on the sea of time.”

She is currently an associate professor of English at Tulane University.


Kapila Vatsyayan (1928–2020) was a leading educator and scholar of Indian classical dance, art, architecture and art history. Vatsyayan, who has been described as the ‘grand matriarch’ of cultural research, served as a former member of parliament and bureaucrat in India, and was a lifetime trustee of the Indian International Centre.

Apart from being scholar and dancer – trained in Kathak and Manipuri – she also advised several governments on education and culture. She held several posts in the Government of India and in institutions such as the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, of which she was the founding director.

In 1970, Vatsyayan received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship, the highest honor conferred by the Sangeet Natak Akademi, India’s national academy for music, dance and drama; and in 1995, was awarded the Lalit Kala Akademi Fellowship, the highest honor in the fine arts conferred by Lalit Kala Akademi, India’s national academy for fine arts. In 2011, the Government of India bestowed upon her the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian honor.

Vatsyayan completed her MA in education at U-M and wrote nearly 20 books on different forms of art and their histories during her storied career. Notable works include “The Square and the Circle of Indian Arts” (1997), “Bharata: The Natya Sastra” (2006), “Dance in Indian Painting” (2004), “Classical Indian Dance in Literature and the Arts” (2007), and “Transmissions and Transformations: Learning Through the Arts in Asia” (2011).


Leslie Newman (1939–2021) is a screenwriter and author who co-wrote the first three Superman films with her husband and collaborator David Newman.

 She also wrote a novel titled “Gathering Force” (Simon & Schuster, 1974), and a best-selling cookbook titled “Feasts: Menus for Home-cooked Celebrations” (HarperCollins, 1990). 

She graduated from U-M in 1960—which is where she met her husband—and they went on to write more than a dozen motion pictures together. According to U-M FTVM professor emeritus Frank Beaver, “their collective interpretation of Jerome Siegel’s and Joseph Shuster’s original comic-book characters dared to mix narrative styles: action-adventure, satire, and screwball comedy with mythic and religious themes,” and all went on to enjoy commercial success.

In a 1981 interview with People Magazine following the summer after the release of Superman II, which grossed $190M, Newman said: “I identify with Lois Lane because it’s possible to be madly in love with a guy and want to settle down, and still want to have a career.” Sadly, Newman passed away in January this year.


Julia Wolfe is a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer whose music has been said to “reimagine classical forms by mixing minimalist patterns and the driving energy of folk and rock genres.”

Wolfe learned piano as a teenager but only began to study music seriously after taking a musicianship class at U-M, where she received a B.A. in music and theater from @umichrc as a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 1980. 

Distinguished by an intense physicality and a relentless power, Wolfe’s music pushes performers to extremes and demands attention from anyone who listens. Her 2019 large-scale work for orchestra and women’s chorus, “Fire in my mouth,” has received extensive acclaim for being “commandingly imaginative and emotively potent.” 

A 2016 MacArthur Fellow, Wolfe is also co-founder/co-artistic director of New York’s legendary music collective Bang on a Can. Founded in 1987 and called “the country’s most important vehicle for contemporary music” by the San Francisco Chronicle, the organization focuses on the presentation of new concert music, and has presented hundreds of musical events worldwide. 

Wolfe is the current artistic director and professor of music at NYU Steinhardt Music Composition.


Nina Davuluri is a television host, public speaker, and advocate who won Miss America 2014. She was the first contestant of Indian descent to win the competition, and only the second Asian American to be crowned. 

While at U-M, she was a Sigma Kappa/Alpha Mu, was on the Dean’s List, and in 2011, graduated with a B.S. in brain behavior and cognitive science.

Though Davuluri competed and won as Miss New York, the first pageant she won was Miss St. Joseph at age 16 in St. Joseph, MI—where she moved to at age 10. This period of her life would influence her future Miss American platform, “Celebrating Diversity Through Cultural Competency,” as its goal is to confront bullying by actively learning to talk about diversity in an open and respectful way. 

Drawing on her background in Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam, Davuluri danced to the song “Dhoom Taana” from the film “Om Shanti Om” for her Miss America talent performance. Her routine marked the first time Bollywood appeared on the Miss America stage. After being crowned Miss America, she said that she was told that she was “never going to win with a Bollywood talent” and was encouraged to “go back to singing” if she was serious about winning.”

Since her 2014 win, Davuluri has worked as a public speaker and advocate for diversity, gender equality, and the promotion of STEM education. In this capacity, she has spoken in both political and diplomatic venues. She is currently the host of the reality show “Made in America” on Zee TV America.


Esmé Weijun Wang is a Taiwanese-American writer. She is the author of “The Border of Paradise, A Novel” (2016) and “The Collected Schizophrenias” (2019). She is the recipient of a 2018 Whiting Award and in 2017 was selected by Granta Magazine for their once-a-decade Best of Young American Novelists list of 21 authors under 40.

Wang received her MFA from the U-M Helen Zell Writers’ Program in 2010—her thesis became the basis for a chapter in her first novel, which was a gothic drama about a family whose patriarch committed suicide, leaving the mother to raise her two children alone. The Chicago Review of Books noted the careful handling of mental illness in each of the characters, concluding that “the novel raises interesting questions about child rearing, culture, and isolation”.

Wang’s 2019 essay collection, “The Collected Schizophrenias” focuses on her experiences related to her struggles with schizoaffective disorder. It won starred reviews from a variety of publications, and was a New York Times bestseller. 

Wang was diagnosed with late-stage Lyme disease in 2015. The combination of living with chronic illness and schizoaffective disorder inspired her to found The Unexpected Shape Community, a resource for “ambitious writers living with limitations, chronic conditions, and disabilities.”

I believe in resilience. My enthusiasm for both the practice and the living-out of resilience are borne out by my own daily existence with illness—I choose to live as best as I can, and I encourage others living with chronic illness and other forms of limitation to do the same.”


Diane Gromala is a Canada Research Chair and a Professor in the Simon Fraser University School of Interactive Arts and Technology. Her research lies at the intersection of computer science, media art and design, and has focused on the cultural, visceral, and embodied implications of digital technologies—particularly in the realm of chronic pain.

Gromala received her bachelor’s degree (BFA) in Design & Photography from Stamps School of Art & Design in 1982. After graduating from U-M, Gromala worked in industry as art director for both MacWorld and Apple Computer. She was one of the first artists to work with immersive virtual reality (VR), beginning with Dancing with the Virtual Dervish, a landmark artwork co-created with choreographer Yacov Sharir. They created it as part of a 1990 Banff Centre for the Arts’ Art & Virtual Environments residency and it went on to be exhibited worldwide from 1993–2004. 

Gromala subsequently designed immersive VR for patients to promote stress-reduction, anxiety-reduction and pain distraction during their chemotherapy while at Georgia Tech. Her work has been used in over 20 hospitals and clinics.

Gromala is the Founding Director of the Chronic Pain Research Institute, an interdisciplinary team of artists, designers, computer scientists, neuroscientists, and medical doctors investigating how new technologies—ranging from virtual reality and visualization to social media—may be used as a technological form of analgesia and pain management.

In recent months, Gramala has made the news for her work to study patient needs for COVID-19 vaccine distribution software.


All illustrations in this series are by Sophie Herdrich. Captions are by Sydney Hawkins, Natsume Ono and Lilian Varner.

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