8 Famous Women Who Went Back to School

8 Famous Women Who Went Back to School
Beth Dumbauld

As we celebrate women's history month, we'd like to offer a special tribute to working women who went back to school to earn their college degree. We hope you will be inspired by these empowering stories of famous women who returned to further their education while working, raising children, and pursuing their dreams.

Working women who “drop back into” school may come from all walks of life, but they share these important traits: strength, discipline, and dedication to the ideals of success and knowledge.

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J.K. Rowling

J.K. Rowling needs no introduction. As author of the immortal Harry Potter series, her enduring fame is assured. But it hadn’t always been that way for the woman who was first a welfare mother, and then a struggling, unknown author. She had been a teacher in Portugal before the breakup of her first marriage, after which she moved to Scotland. But if she wanted to teach there, she needed a postgraduate certificate of education. So in the fall of 1995, she went back to school.

Although the idea had occurred to her five years earlier, it was while she was back in school that she began writing the first Harry Potter novel, mostly in local coffee shops, with her baby daughter in tow. The seven-book series is the best selling series of all time (as well as the highest grossing movie series of all time) and appears to be destined for the ages, to go down in history with the masterworks of Carroll, Tolkien, and Lewis.

Christy Turlington

She is one of the world’s top supermodels, though she is not comfortable with that term. She achieved huge professional success as early as 1987 representing Calvin Klein (doing so for 20 years), and with several million-dollar contracts, 500 magazine covers, plus documentaries, music videos, and photo books, one would be hard pressed to find a better description. In 2010, Turlington founded Every Mother Counts, a non-profit dedicated to making pregnancy and childbirth safe for every mother.

Christy is also a working mom who has returned to school, both before she was married and again a decade later. Her interest in yoga and Eastern religions brought her back to school in 1994 and she graduated cum laude with a degree in Comparative Religion and Eastern philosophy. She is married with two children, and returned again to college in 2009, studying for a master’s degree in public health at Columbia University.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown: Margaret Tobin Brown

A survivor of the Titanic disaster, and having assisted in the evacuation and protesting for her lifeboat to return to search for survivors, Margaret Brown became known as “the Unsinkable Molly Brown”. She was a daughter of immigrants and married a poor man who subsequently made good and created a fortune in the mining business. She became prominent locally, helping out the families of minors and joining the Women’s Suffrage movement, helping to establish the local chapter.

The family then moved to Denver, where she became a charter member of a leading philanthropic group active in women’s rights, and had two children. And in 1901, she also went back to school , becoming one of the first students of the Carnegie Institute, and became educated in the arts, and fluent in French, German, and Russian. She went on to help establish the first U.S. juvenile court, which was the blueprint for critically needed judicial reform. She remained a strong advocate of feminism, education, workers’ rights and historical preservation throughout the remainder of her life.

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Phyllis Godwin

Phyllis Godwin got her start playing with machinery in her father’s store, Granite City Electric Supply Co., during the 1930s. But in those days, women were not expected to be well-educated, much less run businesses. She did attend college at Pembrooke College (the women’s college at Brown University) and completed a one-year business program at Radcliffe (Harvard didn’t admit women) and got a job as a research assistant. But then she married and quit work and had two daughters.

Eventually, her father’s health began to fail and in 1969 he transferred his Granite City Electric Supply Co. stock to her. She decided to run the business herself rather than sell out or turn over management to others. So at age 43, she went back to school, earning a master's degree in business administration from Suffolk University. She then became involved in marketing projects and eventually began to expand the business. Since then, the $18 million company has grown to a $130 million concern, supplying lighting and other electrical services to the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park and the New England Patriots, among others, and Phyllis has become known as “the First Lady of the South Shore”.

Wilma Rudolph

Also known as “The Tornado”, Wilma Rudolph was one of the great American Olympic athletes. In 1956, at age 16, she took home a bronze medal. In 1960, she became the first American to win 3 gold medals in track and field in a single Olympics. She became world-famous as “the fastest woman alive”.

She overcame unbelievable odds, being born prematurely and afflicted by polio. At that time, proper treatment was not easily available to African Americans, and it appeared she would be handicapped for life. But her parents drove her regularly from Clarksville to Nashville where there were doctors willing to treat her. The devotion of her parents is all the more impressive when one considers she had 21 brothers and sisters. She joined her school basketball team but sat on the bench for three years before getting a break. Subsequently, she set records for scoring and led her school to the state championship.

And, yes, she was a working mom who went back to school. She had her first of four children in 1958. She retired in 1962 after winning two events against the Soviet Union. In 1963, she received a full scholarship from Tennessee State University and earned a BA in elementary education. She then worked for many years as a teacher, track coach, and national TV sports commentator. She is the recipient of numerous awards and citations and was inducted into the US Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983.

Mary Higgins Clark

The author of 42 bestselling novels, with over 100 million copies sold worldwide, Mary Higgins Clark is known as “The Queen of Suspense”. She worked for several years as a copy editor and copywriter before her marriage in 1949. She had already returned to school in 1950, while pregnant with her first child, to study literature at NYU, which inspired her to pursue her talents as a writer. After six years of effort, she got her first short story published. Then after the death of her husband, she began writing short radio scripts. Her agent recognized her talent and convinced her to move on to novels and began a fantastically successful career as a bestselling author.

She is a mother who returned to school specifically to serve as an example to her children. In 1979 she graduated summa cum laude from Fordham University with a Bachelor’s in philosophy. All five of her children have taken up her example and have gone on to achieve great professional success, including her youngest daughter, who has followed in her mother’s footsteps as a successful author. She was named Grand Master of the 2000 Edgar Awards, and an annual Mary Higgins Clark Award has been created by her publisher to recognize authors of suspense.

Pearl Bailey

Although she never received any formal training in music, Pearl Bailey was a singer at age 15 and traveled with the USO during WWII. She didn’t stop there, starring on stage, screen, and in her own TV show, as well as writing five books. But above all, she was a singer (her Emmy and Tony notwithstanding). A dedicated republican, she was appointed “Ambassador of Love” in 1970 and campaigned for Gerald Ford in 1976.

In 1952, she married and over the years adopted two children. And she also went back to school. In 1985, she earned a B.A. in theology from Georgetown University. Winner of too many awards to enumerate, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan, it is said, “Pearl Bailey signs her autograph, “All Love, Pearl” – and she means it. This rare treasure has a heart as big as the world.”

Carly Fiorina

She is regarded as one of the most powerful women in the business world, being the first woman CEO of a Fortune-20 company. Many credit her with being the one who smashed the glass ceiling. Carly Fiorina was a top executive at AT&T and Lucent, then became CEO of Hewlett-Packard during its hard-fought merger with Compaq. Despite harsh criticism from some, according to her own lights, she simply made the necessary, tough decisions that saved the company.

After heading up H-P, she became a commentator for the FOX Business Network. She also was a mother who went back to school. She started out with a B.A. in history and philosophy from Stanford in 1976, then, to her father’s disappointment, dropped out after one year of law school. But by 1980 she held an MBA in marketing from the University of Maryland. That wasn’t enough. She married her second husband in 1985, and helped bring up two step-daughters. And in 1989 she went back to school and received a B.S. in management from M.I.T. In 2008, she was an advisor to the presidential campaign of John McCain. She is a breast cancer survivor, diagnosed in 2009. Yet in 2010, she had recovered enough to run in a famous but unsuccessful attempt to unseat Sen. Barbara Boxer. She is now the board chair of Good360, a nonprofit that "help companies help charities."

Going back to school as an adult isn't always easy, but these women have shown that getting your college degree is worth it. For those of you who are just starting to think about going back to school, and for those of you who have already earned your degree, StraighterLine congratulates you!

Need to know how to get started? Download our free guide on How to Go back to College today!

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