Helen Bohen O'Bannon graduated from Wellesley in 1961 with a B.A. in economics and went on to earn her master’s degree at Stanford University. While at Stanford, she met and married George O’Bannon, a political science student. After two years, George took a job at the University of Pittsburgh, and the family moved to Pennsylvania. Helen taught economics at Robert Morris College, but she yearned for a job that allowed her to be more self-sufficient.
When she applied for a securities job at Merrill Lynch, Dr. O’Bannon encountered unabashed discrimination. After receiving a letter that read, “Dear Mr. O’Bannon, we’re sorry we can’t take more young men like you,” she decided to sue the firm, prompting a class-action law suit. In 1976 the courts ruled in favor of Dr. O’Bannon and Merrill Lynch was forced pay nearly four million dollars in restitutions, mainly to women who had been denied sales jobs and other positions.
While awaiting the court’s decision, O’Bannon wrote an economics text and took doctoral courses at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Business. In 1973, O’Bannon began a three-year term as an associate dean at the Carnegie Institute, the engineering school of Carnegie Mellon University, where she was responsible for the budget and financial affairs.
In 1975, O’Bannon was appointed to Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission, and in 1979, she became Pennsylvania’s secretary of public welfare. In 1983, O’Bannon returned to academia, becoming the first woman to serve as vice president at the University of Pennsylvania. The university’s president, Sheldon Hackney, said of her, “She was never deterred by the challenges, stepping in where others fear to tread. On top of that, she had a wonderful sense of humor.” She died in October 1988.
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