By Shawn Kornegay
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.
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 while 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, which would later become officially known as the Permanent 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 — looking at women in leadership positions — got replicated many times, becoming a source of inspiration for others.
Dr. Bargnesi, who at the time was one of just a few women on a career path in education administration, found Taylor’s work fascinating. “It was both instructive and dismaying to find 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.”
Prior to pursing a Ph.D. at UConn, where Taylor was one of the first educational leadership women graduates, she also earned a BA from UConn. Originally she chose pharmacy, which only had seven women in the program at the time. But after holding an apprenticeship at a drugstore in her hometown, she realized it wasn’t the right career path.
“I preferred more of an environment of working with people,” Taylor recalled. She ended up getting a bachelor’s degree in industrial relations from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, with a minor in business. After graduating in 1965, she taught English and drama at a high school, where she also helped start a theater.
Taylor wanted to start a family and decided to adopt two children through Catholic Charities in Hartford. Work at this point wasn’t a viable option for Taylor, but seeing her friend Jane O’Neil from Meriden, CT, earn a Ph.D. made Taylor eager to do the same. “Jane finished, and I started my program in educational administration,” she said.
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 and began to lobby for the need for a “permanent” Commission on the Status of Women.
“My most vivid memory came as a result of being invited by then-Gov. Thomas Meskill to be present at the signing ceremony to create the Permanent Commission on Women,” Taylor recalled. “It was my biggest claim to fame.”
In addition to her efforts with the Permanent Commission on Women, Taylor focused on research and retirement efforts for the CEA. She worked for the organization for 22 years and was only 35 when she became head of research and planning, which included negotiating contracts and managing the office for the K-12 faculty advocacy organization. She was the first woman to hold the position: “Sometimes I couldn’t understand why I was in charge, because primarily it was a man’s job back then. Thankfully, that’s changing.”
Although retired from CEA, Taylor still goes to events and stays abreast of issues. After her career with CEA, she joined the Charles T. Schmidt Research Center at the University of Rhode Island (URI), where she teaches about pensions and health insurance. She is also the author of Public Employee Retirement Systems and Negotiating Health Insurance in the Workplace, along with numerous articles on the fields of retirement, education, conflict resolution and sex discrimination. In Connecticut, she also chaired the Old Saybrook Pension and Benefits Board for more than 10 years, as well as served on the Board of the Connecticut Public Pension Firm for several years.
Most recently, she retired as executive director of the URI Chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) after a successful career. She was also named a standing committee member of Women in the Academic Profession for AAUP, which formulates policy statements, provides resources and reports on matters of interest to women faculty.
Just one month after retirement from URI, she married her second husband, George R. Brown ‘50, who she met through a fellow alumnus at a Christmas party two years prior. They married at St. Thomas Aquinas on the Storrs campus, followed by a reception at the Alumni House.
Taylor still advocates for women’s equality and empowerment. As a mentor with the local American Association of University Women (AAUW), she also encourages women to get and stay connected with each other. “I like to help other women, especially with investing,” Taylor said. She was instrumental in setting up a local scholarship for the group that has been “empowering women since 1881.”
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), Alexandra Baldwin (UConn education professor), and former Secretary of State Shirley Bysiewicz (friend of her mother and past law professor), among others.
“We were breaking ground, and we needed to help and support each other, which we did,” she said.
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.”
In addition to paying it forward through her professional and philanthropic work, Taylor today spends as much time as possible with her two adult children, Stephanie and Heather Hawkins, who live in Mansfield, CT.
UConn, the Neag School of Education and women across Connecticut are better due to her efforts—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.”