Barbara Miller Solomon, educator and pioneer in women’s history, suggests the transformative role that education could play in individual women’s lives, a theme that also shaped much of her writing. Her insights about the rich history of educated women helped lay the foundations of modern women’s history.
Born Barbara Leah Miller in Boston on February 12, 1919, she was the only child of Bessie (Pinsky) and Benjamin Allen Miller, second-generation Russian Jewish immigrants. Growing up in an aspiring middle-class family (her father was an insurance salesman), she graduated from Boston Girls’ Latin School and then entered Radcliffe College in 1936. Radcliffe opened new worlds for her, intellectually and socially. Just before her 1940 graduation, she eloped with Peter Herman Solomon, Harvard ’40, the son of Harry Solomon, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and Maida Herman Solomon, a pioneer in psychiatric social work. Rabbi Stephen Wise married the couple in New York.
On their return to Cambridge, Peter began his career as a shoe company executive and Barbara took graduate classes at Harvard, while they raised three children, Peter Jr., (b. 1942), Maida (b. 1946), and Daniel (b. 1950). Under the direction of Oscar Handlin, she earned her doctorate in American history from Harvard in 1953. Her revised dissertation, which was published in 1956 as Ancestors and Immigrants: A Changing New England Tradition, examined the attitudes of New England Brahmins toward recent immigrants, including Jews, from the 1850s to the 1920s.
Solomon remembered little antisemitism at Radcliffe and remained grateful to the school for providing her with generous scholarship support after her father died unexpectedly during her freshman year. Yet, after graduation, she was dismayed to see herself described in her employment file as “one of the better kind” of Jewish students. While Jewish history was never her primary focus, in 1956 she published a history of the Associated Jewish Philanthropies of Boston, entitled Pioneers in Service.
Demonstrating how many women combined family life with careers in the 1950s, Barbara Miller Solomon began teaching at Wheelock College in 1957. In 1959, she became head of the Women’s Archives at Radcliffe, later the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. In 1963, she was named associate dean of Radcliffe College, and in 1970, she became the first woman dean at Harvard College, an event that received national publicity.
Teaching and research were just as important to Solomon as administration. In 1972, she offered the first lecture course on the history of American women at Harvard, laying the groundwork for the formal establishment of women’s studies there in 1983. The importance of higher education for women was a central theme in her prize-winning book In the Company of Educated Women: A History of Women and Higher Education in America, published in 1985, the year she retired from Harvard. She died of cancer on August 20, 1992.
Barbara Miller Solomon’s significant impact on the emergence of women’s history was matched by her role as a mentor to several generations of graduate and undergraduate students at Harvard and Radcliffe. She forged a professional style that was consciously feminist, but also effective within male-dominated institutions. Being Jewish was a formative part of her intellectual identity throughout her life, although her professional work followed broader themes inclusive of this strand. Her scholarship, first on the history of immigration and then on women’s history, continues to influence new generations of readers and students.
SELECTED WORKS BY BARBARA MILLER SOLOMON
Ancestors and Immigrants: A Changing New England Tradition (1956); The Evolution of an Educator: An Anthology of Published Writings of Ada Louise Comstock, editor (1987); In the Company of Educated Women: A History of Women and Higher Education in America (1985); “Memories of a Jewish Undergraduate at Radcliffe in the 1930’s.” In The Jewish Experience at Harvard and Radcliffe, edited by Nitza Rosovsky (1986); Pioneers in Service (1956); Travels in New England and New York by Timothy Dwight, 1752–1817, editor (1969).
Boston Globe, August 21, 1992; Obituary. NYTimes, August 23, 1992; Solomon, Barbara Miller. Papers. Radcliffe College Archives; Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, MA.
How to cite this page
Ware, Susan. "Barbara Miller Solomon." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on November 27, 2020) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/solomon-barbara-miller>.