Suzanne Saunders Taylor: A Leader and Advocate for Women

Forty years ago, Suzanne Taylor was one of the key players in getting the Commission on the Status of Women launched in Connecticut. Just a few years prior, in the summer of 1970, she completed a Ph.D. at UConn and at the same time became divorced and responsible for two children, ages 10 and 12. On Oct. 1, 2013,  the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women will receive the prestigious award “One Woman Makes a Difference”  to mark their four decades as the state’s leading force for women’s equality.

Along the way, she became involved in the women’s movement as she researched women’s history in education and studied attitudes toward women in leadership through her doctorate program. Taylor met and interacted with many women leaders who were—or would become—superintendents, law professors, university provosts, and other selected officials.

While experiencing personal discrimination in trying to gain access to credit and employment, she worked with women leaders who collectively believed that in order to gain equal rights for women, legislative action was required. They began to publish ALERT, Women’s Legislative Review, and lobbied to create the Commission on the Status of Women.

Her dissertation “Attitudes of Superintendents and Board Members in Connecticut Toward Employment and Effectiveness of Women as Public School Administrators” would serve as a grounded focus and inspiration for her and women around her.  A fellow Ph.D. student, Mary Lou Bargnesi,’71, ‘75, replicated her research and went on to become a Connecticut schools superintendent. Taylor’s thesis did not gather library dust but was replicated in many other states over the ensuing years and reposes in Harvard yard by being included in the archives of Radcliffe College’s Murray Research Center.

Bargnesi, who at the time was one of just a few women on a career path in education administration, found Taylor’s work  both instructive and dismaying learning that attitudes at the time (especially among women board members) were a little shy of Neanderthal.”

Bargnesi also found Taylor to be not just a good friend, but a source of support and knowledge: “She shared her expertise and experience generously, especially during early years when I basically knew nothing.”

Taylor considers herself fortunate to have worked in the College of Education Dean’s office with a noted school finance colleague, Harry Hartley, who later became president of UConn.  She also found valuable inspiration from Professors Pritzkau and Gruhn as well as working with the former US Commissioner of Education, Sam Brownell.  Taylor was the first woman to receive the Ph.D. in educational leadership.

Taylor’s professional career began at UConn where she received a BA with a major in English and a minor in Industrial Relations along with several courses in Landscape Architecture.

“Not allowed to be fully employed after she and her first husband adopted their two children she did go back to school and studied English at the University of Scranton and then moving back to Connecticut pursued an MS degree at Southern Connecticut State University. After graduating in 1965, she taught English and drama at a high school, where she also helped start a theater program.  Then she left to become the director of the Lower School at Williams in New London which led her to starting the UConn Ph.D. program.

In 1972 with doctorate in hand, Taylor was hired as the first professional woman on the staff of the Connecticut Education Association (CEA). While directing the CEA’s research and retirement planning department, she became involved with providing educational data to state legislators as well as to members for use in collective bargaining.  She also focused on women’s issues for teachers and sponsored a major conference on the status of women called the 51% Majority which was published by the National Education Association and headlined by Matina Horner, president of Radcliffe College.

She also focused on retirement issues and was granted a sabbatical where she spent a year at Wharton, University of Pennsylvania under the sponsorship of the Pension Research Council where she conducted major research on teacher retirement systems across the entire United States.  Her work was subsequently published by Cornell University, ILR Press.

Following  her career with CEA Taylor was hired as the executive director of the University of Rhode Island American Association of University Professors in 1992.  She was familiar with the campus as she had been hired in 1988 as a full professor to teach a class on pensions and  health insurance for the Labor Research Center.  She continues teaching graduate students in the center and also continues doing research on pensions, health insurance, and retirement issues. She also practices what she preaches as she has chaired the town of Old Saybrook’s Pension and Benefits Board for more than the past 10 years.  She is the author of a book on Health Insurance as well as a study of how faculty retire in the UK and US.  She is invited to speak on these topics at various national conferences.

Taylor’s interest in equality for women continued throughout her various careers.  Before retiring from her position as executive director at URI AAUP she was instrumental in resolving a major sex discrimination complaint against the URI College of Engineering.  The settlement resulted in improved working conditions and support for female faculty and students.   She continues her interest in women in higher education by serving on the national AAUP Committee for Women in the Academic Profession.

Her professional life is blessed with her marriage on March 17, 2001 to George R. Brown, a former UConn alum and trustee.   They live in Old Saybrook, and are staunch supporters of both the athletic and art programs of UConn. Taylor is also a URI and a Connecticut Master Gardener.   Taylor’s children continue to live in Storrs and her granddaughter will be married on the campus this fall.

Over the years, she’s been inspired by many women, and has had numerous women mentors, including Gail Shea (past UConn assistant provost), Sheila Tobias (past provost at Wesleyan), Audrey Beck (past state representative from Mansfield, CT), She is also listed in Feminists Who Changed America 1963-1975, edited by Barbara J. Love, University of Illinois Press, 2006.

Taylor’s mother, who was a nurse, was also inspirational, though she passed away when Taylor was only 30. Taylor became close to her aunt, Edna May Sole, who started her career as a teacher in 1921 in a rural school in Monroe, CT. Her aunt taught for 48 ½ years at Central Connecticut State University and held numerous leadership positions in local and statewide organizations.

Taylor’s aunt also fought throughout her life to protect the rights of women and children. Although she passed away in 1996, she and Taylor had a close relationship, and Taylor saw her as “not only inspirational, but a role model.” Forthcoming is a new book, edited by Taylor, about Edna May Sole and her late husband’s Williams College roommate, who became an Episcopalian monk.

Edna Mae Sole’s life was an extraordinary one as she married for the first time at the age of 45 and when her husband died 25 years later she renewed a friendship with his college roommate for the next 20 years.  Their correspondence, letters to her from him and from her to him, is to be published as Love Letters to a Monk.  The letters reveal their thoughts and friendship as they often met near and far in such places as: Santa Barbara, London, and even New York City as well as in Connecticut and at Williams College reunions. When Rev. Spencer was sent to Ghana in his 80s to teach seminarians the discussions are most intriguing. Taylor noted that she did not read the letters until after Aunt’s death, as she had been asked to keep track of them during her aunt’s later years. The book is well over 200 pages.

UConn, the Neag School of Education and women across Connecticut  and Rhode Island are better due to the efforts of  Taylor, sentiments that Taylor’s colleague and friend Bargnesi has repeated several times: “Suzanne is a genuine ‘true believer’ who’s never waivered from her efforts to do right by people for whom she was responsible. She was focused on her tireless work for women and for educators.”





One thought on “Suzanne Saunders Taylor: A Leader and Advocate for Women

  1. For me personally reading this article brought tears to my eyes. The hard work, dedication, commitment, inspiration, and leadership that Dr. Taylor possesses and her story she has shared to all is truly amazing. This wonderful woman has always held a special place in my heart from when I first met her in the 70’s. I wish her only the very best.

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