As of this week, MIT’s 77 Massachusetts Avenue entrance is beautifully adorned with three giant, intricately decorated holiday wreaths. They’re the work of the MIT Women’s League, one the longest-running groups on campus, which has been organizing its annual wreath-making event for the community since the 1930s — offering a reminder that MIT is not just a place, but a community of people working together with a common purpose.
The League has changed a lot since its founding in 1913, but its general mission has remained the same: to connect women at MIT and to foster a sense of community across the Institute.
The Women’s League has long adapted to meet the evolving needs of MIT and women in the community. Today its mission is carried out through a wide array of activities, interest groups, and volunteer work.
Some of the group’s most popular initiatives include monthly book discussions, the MIT Women’s Chorale, and the Fiber Crafts Group. The Women’s League also hosts lecture series and networking events, facilitates clothing drives, and offers scholarships to students.
“We’ve never been afraid to try new things, but there are some things that we’ve been doing since the 1920s and 1930s,” Women’s League Chair Nancye Mims says.
Indeed, honoring the group’s long history of achievements is another key aspect of the Women’s League today. At its 110th anniversary celebration in October, the group displayed milestones in the League’s history side by side with key moments of MIT’s past, to educate community members about how the histories intersect.
“Even though MIT was not always welcoming to female students and faculty, women have always been very supportive of MIT’s mission and a part of the MIT story,” Mims says. “I’m very proud of the history of women at MIT and the way they’ve supported students, faculty, staff, and everything that happens at MIT. We take pride in what is accomplished here, and we need to continue to acknowledge the support that women have given to MIT.”
The Women’s League has roots in the earliest days of the Institute. Alice Maclaurin, the wife of former President Richard C. Maclaurin, officially founded the Women's League in 1913. The group consisted of the wives of MIT professors back then, as there were very few female students or faculty. It was expanded to include the wives of students in 1922. The League now welcomes all women and female-identifying and nonbinary people in MIT’s community, and has a very active staff presence.
Over the ensuing decades, a number of activities were started by the Women’s League that are still active today. The Women’s Chorale was started in 1923. The group still rehearses weekly and hosts two concerts a year and recently recruited 20 new members. The wreaths first went up over 77 Massachusetts Avenue in the 1930s. The following decades saw the formation of other interest groups, including the book discussions and fiber crafts. In 1987, the Women’s League started the Stratton Lecture series, named for former MIT first lady Catherine “Kay” Stratton, which featured in-depth lectures by faculty members, initially about the process of aging and criticial issues in society. The Stratton Lectures stopped during the Covid-19 pandemic, but this spring they will restart with a lecture exploring how women will be affected by artificial intelligence.
The League started a used furniture exchange in 1958. The MIT FX, as it is now known, has a permanent home on West Campus, and proceeds from its sales help support the League’s scholarships, which have given out more than $1 million. The FX is open to all MIT ID holders and accepts donations of household goods and furniture. The Women’s League also supports a clothing drive to help students in partnership with MIT’s Student Support Services, and offers two annual fellowships in partnership with MIT’s Priscilla King Gray (PKG) Public Service Center
“We’re really interested in how we can enrich the lives of all people at MIT,” Women’s League manager Kirsty Bennett says. “If anyone is looking for new events or programming, tell us and we can try to set it up. We want to be place for everyone to come, and where people can try out their ideas and suggestions.”
Fostering a sense of community is an overarching theme of the group’s work.
“Sometimes when you work at MIT, you end up knowing loads about exactly where you are, but there are these siloes, so people don’t end up working together,” Bennett says. “We want to forge connections for people on campus.”
The pandemic forced many of the group’s activities to go virtual, but they’ve rebounded with events like the 110th anniversary celebration. The goal with that event and others is to raise awareness of the group and encourage people to join whichever activity sounds fun.
“Some people wonder if they should be here, or if the space is for them,” Bennett says. “Our answer is always yes. The space is for everyone. We’re a very welcoming community.”