Martha Van Rensselaer, was one of the first two full time female professors hired by Cornell University. Born in 1864, she was inspired by her mother’s involvement in the suffrage movement. After working as a school commissioner in Cattaraugus County, she was passionate about improving the lives of rural farming families. This led to her accepting an invitation in 1900 from Liberty Hyde Bailey of Cornell to create a program specifically for rural women in the area. After more than 20,000 women enrolled in the program, Cornell realized how important home economics courses were and went on to offer these courses full time in 1908. Van Rensselaer worked alongside Flora Rose, who had been employed by Cornell in the previous year, to co-run the Department of Home Economics. The department flourished under their guidance and by 1919, the department expanded into the School of Home Economics.
Van Rensselaer worked diligently to ensure the knowledge she was teaching students at Cornell was accessible to women everywhere. She co-wrote A Manual of Home Making, in 1919 which was widely read. She also often held talks for the Ithaca community, the contents of which were often written about in the Ithaca Journal which aided in further circulating her ideas. Van Rensselaer was also very active outside of the education realm, illustrated by her work as director of the Home Conservation Division of the United States Food Administration during World War I. She was a member of the 1930 White House Conference on Child Health and Protection, which advocated for the education and health of children in the United States. Due to her involvement in so many national level organizations she was named one of the twelve most important women in America in 1923 by the @League of Women Voters.
Back home in Ithaca, Van Rensselaer lived with her co-director, and life partner Flora Rose for 25 years until her death in 1932. Van Rensselaer and Rose’s relationship was well known, marked by one colleague's reference to them as “Miss Van Rose”. After her death, Cornell dedicated a building in the college of Human Ecology to her, and at it’s naming ceremony, Rose described Van Rensselaer as having “indomitable zeal, unswerving purpose, courage, a great interest in people and an understanding and respect for them”.
Learn more about her life through our Ithaca LGBTQ History Walking Tour.
This article was written in February 2021 by Writing Intern Kate Delaney