June 24, 2024


Advocacy. Mediation. Success.

EC 200 | Honoring Five Female Trailblazers in Art, Business, Community, Law, and Tech

On April 2, 2021, Erie County celebrated its bicentennial anniversary, kicking off a year of celebration. This significant milestone is an opportunity for the community to reflect on the history, stories, and legacies of the many men and women who came before us.

March is Women’s History Month. The origins of this designation date back to 1911 and the celebration of the first International Women’s Day. By 1978, a high school in Sonoma, California would celebrate Women’s History Week, centered around the week of March 8th, which is International Women’s Day. As experts from the Women’s Action Alliance, Smithsonian Institution and Sarah Lawrence College heard of the success of this one school district in California, they began to implement a Women’s History Week in districts across the country. By February 1980, President Jimmy Carter issued a presidential proclamation that stated:

From the first settlers who came to our shores, from the first American Indian families who befriended them, men and women have worked together to build this nation. Too often the women were unsung and sometimes their contributions went unnoticed. But the achievements, leadership, courage, strength and love of the women who built America was as vital as that of the men whose names we know so well.

President Jimmy Carter

In response to the growing popularity of Women’s History Week, Senators Orrin Hatch, a Republican, and Barbara Mikulski, a democrat, cosponsored the first Joint Congressional Resolution that proclaimed Women’s History Week. By 1987, after being petitioned by the National Women’s History Project Congress passed L. 100-9 designating March as Women’s History Month. After this state departments around the country began to encourage the celebration of Women’s History Month as a way to promote equality in the classroom.

Women have, throughout the history of the world, played an important role in every aspect of the human experience. In addition to being our mothers, wives and caregivers, women have become prominent actresses, civil rights activists, authors, executives, and just about everything in between. Women have always played an important role in the history of Erie County. Here are just a few of the many women who have contributed through their work to make our lives and community better.

Katherine Cornell

I drifted into acting. My grandfather had a house in Buffalo in which there was a stage and his friends met every two weeks or so to put on plays. So it was natural for me to put on plays too when I went to boarding school. I put on everything in the drama – I was indiscriminate. I put on Yeats and Shaw and Lady Gregory.

Katherine Cornell

Audition print of Katherine Cornell
Audition print taken by Buffalo photographer Howard Beach on display outside Katherine Cornell Theater at SUNY at Buffalo in 2003

One of the greatest actresses of American Theatre was from right here in Buffalo. Katherine Cornell was born February 16, 1893 in Berlin, Germany but at 6 months old was brought back to Buffalo and raised here. As a child, young Katherine would use play acting in her backyard as a means of escape from her contentious relationship with her parents, especially her alcoholic mother. This love of acting would carry over into her boarding school years. When her mother passed away in 1915, she left Katherine enough money so that she could live independently. Katherine saw an opportunity to move to New York City to pursue a career acting. She joined the Jesse Bonstelle Company, where she received glowing reviews. She would make her Broadway debut alongside Tallulah Bankhead in Nice People.

She rose to stardom in 1925 when she appeared in George Bernard Shaw’s Candida. She had made the title character the core character of the play. The Theatre Guild, which controlled the rights to Shaw’s plays would later stipulate that Cornell was the only actress allowed to play Candida as long as she was alive. She would go on to reprise the role several more times over the course of her career.

She was best known for her role as in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, in which she played poet Elizabeth Barret Browning. The play initially opened in Cleveland, then played in Buffalo before going on to Broadway in 1931. She received critical acclaim, theatre critic Brooks Atkinson stated

By the crescendo of her playing, by the wild sensitivity that lurks behind her ardent gestures and her piercing stares across the footlights, she charges the drama with a meaning beyond the facts it records. Her acting is quite as remarkable for the carefulness of its design as for the fire of her presence…. The Barretts of Wimpole Street is a triumph for Miss Cornell and the splendid company with which she has surrounded herself.

Brooks Atkinson

Cornell would go on to star in productions of Romeo & Juliet, St. Joan, The Wingless Victory, No Time For Comedy, The Doctor’s Dilemma and Antony & Cleopatra. She would win the Tony Award for Best Actress in Play alongside Judith Anderson and Jessica Tandy in 1948. She also won the New York Drama League Award in 1935 for her role as Juliet in Romeo & Juliet. On January 10, 1974 she was awarded the American National Theatre and Academy’s National Artist Award for “her incomparable acting ability” and for “having elevated the theater throughout the world.” She was also one of the original members elected into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1972.

Cornell never forgot her roots. Even after she became famous, she would still bring her productions to Buffalo, many of which played at the Erlanger Theatre, across from the Statler Hotel. (The Erlanger was demolished in 2007). Throughout her career she would be greeted by friends, family and fans from Buffalo on opening nights, who she would receive backstage. Cornell was married to Guthrie McClintic, who would direct many of the shows she starred in. Its been widely acknowledged that this was a lavender marriage, since he was gay and she was a lesbian. She would pass away in 1974 at the age of 81. Her legacy lives on with a theatre space at the University of Buffalo bearing her name as well as at Katharine Cornell-Guthrie McClintic Special Collections Reading Room at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.

Mary Burnett Talbert

The greatness of nations is shown by their strict regard for human rights, rigid enforcement of the law without bias, and just administration of the affairs of life.

Mary Burnett Talbert

Mary Burnett Talbert
Source:  Uncrowned Queens: “Mary Morris Burnett Talbert”

When we think of the quest for civil rights, we often go to people like Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., likewise when we think of the quest for women’s suffrage we think of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Ida B. Wells. Mary Burnett Talbert is one person we should all know because she falls into both categories.

Mary Morris Burnett was born in Oberlin, Ohio on September 17, 1866. It was evident in her early years that she would go on to do great things. She attended Oberlin College, graduating in 1886 with a Bachelor degree at a time when it was controversial for women to attend college and nearly unheard of for an African American woman. Her early career saw her teaching at Bethel University before taking a position as an assistant principal in Little Rock, Arkansas, both relatively unheard of during this period of time. She would marry William H. Talbert in 1891 and move to Buffalo, where she joined the Michigan Avenue Baptist Church.

In 1905, played a large role in the founding of the Niagara Movement, which would be the forerunner to the founding of the NAACP. Five years later she would go on to be one of the co-founders of Buffalo’s first chapter of the NAACP. Among the things that she on included the treatment of black people, especially in the South, where Jim Crow and lynching had taken root.

When World War I broke out, she served the YMCA secretary in Romagne, France where she offered classes to African American soldiers (who still had to serve in separate regiments from their white counterparts) and sold thousands of dollars of Liberty Bonds to help fund the war effort. After the war, she was appointed to the Women’s Committee on International Relations, which selected female nominees for positions within the newly created League of Nations. She also lectured in many European countries about the treatment of African Americans in the US, bringing these issues to global audience.

When talking about the Civil Rights movement, Mary Talbert’s name should be included with other activists. She passed away at the age of 57 on October 15, 1923. She would be laid to rest in Forest Lawn Cemetery. Her legacy lives on posthumously. In 2005 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls. There are several branches of the National Association of Colored Women named for her here in Buffalo and Detroit, Michigan, Gary, Indiana and New Haven Connecticut. On the North Campus of the University at Buffalo, Talbert Hall was named in her honor. Also, because of her efforts, the home of Frederick Douglass in Anacostia, Washington, D.C., was preserved.

Lorna C. Hill

Listen, sis, you got this. Remember to always tell your True Story and keep going forward.

Lorna C. Hill

Lorna C. Hill

Lorna C. Hill, although born in Philadelphia, adopted Buffalo as her home and Buffalo adopted her right back. Prior to becoming a resident of the area, Hill studied political science at Wellesley College from 1969-1971 before transferring to Dartmouth College, where she became the first African American woman to graduate, getting her Bachelor’s in American Intellectual History. She attended the University at Buffalo where she obtained her Masters and Doctorate degrees.

While working at the UB Theatre Department, she founded Ujima in 1978. Ujima, which is Swahili for collective work and responsibility” would become a force of nature within the Buffalo theatre community. Ujima specializes in performing plays written by people of color. Her play “Yalla Bitch” was selected to be performed at the the First International Women Playwright’s Conference at UB in 1988. It was the only play written by a Buffalo playwright to be performed at the conference.

Lorna Hill’s contributions to our area weren’t just limited to elevating voices of color within the Buffalo theatre community. She taught at Studio Arena’s theatre school during the 1980s. In the early 2000s she worked for the Center for the Development of Human Resources in the Department of Curriculum and Education, where she produced training videos for Child Welfare and Child Protective Services. She would go on to produce “”Uncrowned Queens: Voices of African American Women” for WNED, which featured local community builders and would go on to win awards from the Associated Press and the Alliance for Women in Media.

Lorna passed away on June 30, 2020 but her legacy lives on in Ujima Theatre Company and indeed in the Buffalo theatre community as a whole. Dartmouth College renamed its Black Baccalaureate, The Lorna C. Hill ’73 Graduation and Awards Celebration in honor of her accomplishments.

Colleen Heidinger

Colleen Heidinger of 43North

In January 2020, Colleen Heidinger was appointed President of 43North by the Board of Directors. Heidinger is a graduate of Nichols School. Heidinger’s business acumen was apparent as a student at Nichols where she interviewed small business owners along Elmwood Avenue for a senior project. Upon her graduation from Babson College, which is a top rated university for entrepreneurship.

Prior to returning back to Buffalo, she spent over a decade working in New York City and Los Angeles where she worked in film, managing global event production and brand partnerships. Prior to being promoted to President, she was Vice President of Programming Strategy and Community Engagement.

Heidinger’s engagement with Erie County isn’t just limited to her duties as President of 43North. She founded Ignite Buffalo, a small business program which brought $1million in investment from a range of national partners to our area, creating local jobs. She is also a professor of entrepreneurship at Daemen College. She’s a founding board member for Teach for America Buffalo and the Buffalo Collegiate Charter School.

Colleen Heidinger embodies everything that’s great about this area and her position as President of 43North enables her to promote this area in the best light. “Attracting these companies and ensuring that they do well here from a business perspective as well as falling in love with Buffalo is still at the top of our list…but what we do here is so special, I think we can do a better job telling our story beyond the Shea’s stage and beyond Buffalo.”

Aviva Abramovsky

Legal education in the United States is at an inflection point, and UB School of Law is perfectly poised to take the lead in providing innovative, multidisciplinary and modern legal education in a world where the practice of law is radically changing.

Aviva Abramovsky

Headshot of Aviva Abramovsky

2017 saw the University at Buffalo Law School install Aviva Abramovsky as its first female dean. Abramovsky is the daughter of two UB alumni. Her father Abraham earned his law degree from there in 1970 while her mother earned a bachelor of fine arts.

Aviva Abramovsky earned her undergraduate degree from Cornell University in industrial and labor relations before moving on the the University of Pennsylvania to get her law degree. She served as an academic evaluator for the American Bar Association’s federal judiciary committees for Supreme Court nominees Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor. Prior to her appointment as UB’s first female dean of the law school, Abramovsky was a professor of law at Syracuse University College of Law where she was instrumental in helping the school’s internationalization efforts.

She is an expert in insurance law, commercial law, and the regulation of financial entities and legal ethics. She has written a number of treatises and articles.  She is the current editor of LSN Insurance Law, Legislation, & Policy, and she served as the editor and academic advisor for the Connecticut Insurance Law Journal from 2010 to 2011. She also contributed to the British Insurance Law Association’s (BILA) 2013 Book Prize winner, Research Handbook on International Insurance and Regulation, and her scholarship has been recognized as a “litigation essential” by LexisNexis.