The Margaret Cheney Room celebrated its reopening last month after significant updates and remodeling over the last several months. The celebration was led by Lauryn McNair, assistant dean of LBGTQ+ Women and Gender Services, and attended by MIT Chancellor Melissa Nobles, Provost Cynthia Barnhart, and numerous students, staff, and alumni.
In 1884, MIT founded the Margaret Cheney Reading Room as a space for women on campus to gather. The room was named after Margaret Swan Cheney, a member of the Class of 1882 who tragically died that year after a brief illness. Cheney had been a devoted student of Ellen Swallow Richards, who was both the first woman to graduate from MIT, in 1873, and the Institute’s first female instructor.
Since its founding, the Cheney Room has moved and changed with the Institute, landing on the third floor of Building 3 after MIT’s move to Cambridge in 1916. The Cheney Room subsequently evolved as the needs of women at the Institute evolved. Today, it is a space where women-identifying community members gather to relax, study, connect, and build connections. The Association of MIT Alumnae celebrates 50th reunions in the Cheney Room, where returning alumnae receive commemorative cardinal-and-gray scarves to embellish MIT’s traditional cardinal blazers.
The entire space has been repainted in warmer colors, complemented by new furniture and fixtures. A former locker area was converted into a lounge that includes a lactation/wellness room, Zoom room, conference room, and an expanded and updated kitchen/pantry area. Colorful artwork created by women and non-binary artists adorns the walls.
“As chancellor, I talk a lot about the whole student — the education students get inside and outside of the classroom. It’s important to give weight to the whole student experience,” says Nobles. “There are parts of ourselves we may want to explore in a safe, quiet place, and the Cheney Room is the perfect space for that. I plan to stop by often and say hello.”
Barnhart adds, “The room is amazing, and it will provide a place where we can come together, learn from each other, and work together. This is a very welcoming environment and I hope everyone takes time to visit the room and enjoy the space.”
Isabella Salinas, a senior in biological engineering, says, “The Cheney Room really has been there for me whenever and for whatever I needed it to be. When I first came by, I immediately felt at home and safe inside an inclusive female-identifying space. Whether I come by to study, make a quick meal, chat with friends, or take a nap, the Cheney Room has truly been a home to me right in the middle of the infinite on campus. When there was a time in my life that I was struggling, even if no one was in the Cheney Room, I felt the immense support of the other women who had used the room in the past and I felt like I could truly relax and be myself.”
“It was a great place to sit there in between classes, play the piano, lie down, or study quietly. To this day, I think [the] Cheney Room is one of the islands of refuge for women at MIT who are under pressure — and a great place to make friends,” says Aviva Brecher ’68, who was an undergraduate when only 5 percent of MIT students were women. “The Cheney Room was really a refuge for women students in those days, where I met and befriended women students from all schools and exchanged useful advice or provided moral support.”
The space also has plans to host enhanced programming, which is in the process of being developed. According to Lauryn McNair, “In addition to being a space of quiet, calm, and relaxation for women-identifying students, there are a variety of books available to borrow, and we will host lunch-and-learn programs for everyone in the coming months. The room is gender nuanced and brings a women’s center to support the intersectional identities of women and the nuanced experiences of gender.”
Also known as WXGS, MIT’s Women and Gender Services supports all undergraduate, graduate, and postdoc women through student club programs, workshops, education, and advocacy. For example, WXGS programs for Women’s History Month last March included a workshop about creating more inclusive women-oriented spaces, an art night focused on painting, and a screening of Vietnamese-British filmmaker Marion Hill’s “Ma Belle, My Beauty,” which was co-sponsored by the Program in Women and Gender Studies.
“The Cheney Room is a wonderful campus resource. We are delighted by the support and encouragement of stakeholders across MIT as we work to continue to make this amazing space even better,” says Gustavo Burkett, senior associate dean for diversity and community involvement.
“We are working with the Alumni Association to create an art series featuring notable alumnae throughout MIT history,” Burkett adds. “Some of the artwork will be selected by current MIT students.”
“The Division of Student Life is proud to contribute to the Cheney Room’s renewal,” says Suzy Nelson, vice chancellor and dean for student life. “Renewal of this space and updates to its programming are key to growing Women and Gender Services now and in the future.”
Visit the Cheney Room website for more information about WXGS and upcoming programs.