March 23 2017
March is Women’s History Month, and throughout the month, we are celebrating the women, like alumna Rena Rockwell '05, who made an impact on the Elmira College community.
Rockwell fought for equal pay, specifically for female teachers, in the 1920s. She herself was a teacher and the head of the history department at the Elmira Free Academy. Rockwell was also the president of the Elmira Teachers’ Association and used her term to advocate for equal pay legislation.
In 1924, she went to the state capitol in Albany to advocate for equal pay. One of her famous quotes is, “We in Elmira are not to reap immediate fruits of victory in any increased pay. But there is a much bigger victory than the financial, the victory of principle.”
The following year, she took the Elmira Board of Education to court, where Justice Leon C. Rhodes decided Rockwell was entitled to pay equal to that of her male colleagues. She asked the court to force the Board to increase her annual pay. However, the Board claimed that the Legislature had no right to decide the details of teacher contracts. A few days later, the Elmira Board of Education voted unanimously to appeal the decision. Consequently, Rockwell was ordered to pay approximately $150 in court fees.
Despite these setbacks in Elmira, Rockwell continued to inspire other cases, particularly in Syracuse. She continued advocating for teachers and in October 1926 she was elected president of the Teachers’ Welfare League of New York State. She dove into politics even further, and continued her mission of equal pay for the rest of her life.
When she passed away in 1947, she was honored for her political action. The Elmira Star-Gazette wrote:
“No one knew better than she that many disregard with her opinions; but everyone respected her faithful, spirited adherence to what she believed to be right.”
Story contributed by Alissa Abbott '17.