The XX Factor: A Century of Women at UTEP
Last Updated on April 12, 2017 at 12:00 AM
Originally published April 12, 2017
By Christina Rodriguez and PJ Vierra, Ph.D.
The University of Texas at El Paso prides itself on its mission of access and excellence to men and women from all walks of life pursuing higher education. For 100 years, women have played an important role in making UTEP the diverse and accessible campus it is today.
In 1914, the State School of Mines and Metallurgy, now UTEP, was a small school serving as a branch of The University of Texas. Women were eligible to enroll at the school and could even study to be mining engineers.
Although Dean Steve Worrell received a letter shortly after the school opened from a female expressing interest in attending, no females enrolled at that time.
The school was founded as an engineering school. At the time, there were very few engineering programs in the United States that admitted female students, and as a whole, very few women were interested in pursuing an engineering career.
In June 1916, Rabbi Maurice Faber, a member of The University of Texas Board of Regents, visited the School of Mines and recommended that The University of Texas immediately revise the school’s first- and second-year curricula to include courses in the liberal arts.
The revision mirrored the first two years of study at the university’s main branch in Austin. This made enrolling at the school much more appealing to both men and women since they could pursue their education tuition-free and stay local versus moving to Austin.
Around this time, Charles H. Brown, a mechanical engineer and owner of an El Paso metalworking company, worked with Dean Worrell to provide new courses for the academic program and began to promote the admission of women.
Brown enrolled his daughter Ruth Brown at the school the fall of 1916. Grace Odell, an El Paso High School alumna and daughter of a ranching and retail merchant family, also enrolled.
Despite the School of Mines’ openness to female students, the bias of the time still limited the number of professions open to women. One popular field available to women was teaching.
In 1917, the state legislature amended the teacher certification law to make it easier for teachers to receive their certification: future teachers were allowed to take their required pedagogy classes at a junior college instead of a university. This amendment led to the development of the College of the City of El Paso (CCEP) that would work in close collaboration with the School of Mines to issue teaching credentials. In 1917-18, 12 women enrolled in the School of Mines/CCEP program.
In 1927, the renamed College of Mines and Metallurgy once again expanded its curriculum by adding more liberal arts courses as well as courses in education, business and science. This change readily increased female enrollment.
During the 1927-28 academic year, there were 26 women enrolled, making up 19 percent of the student body. In the academic year following the curriculum change, there were 247 females registered – an 850 percent increase. After World War II, female enrollment decreased, and it wasn’t until the 1980s when female enrollment would again be comparable to male enrollment.
In the span of a century, many female Miners contributed to making the University what it is today. Donna Ekal, Ph.D., associate provost for Undergraduate Studies at UTEP, and Gina Núñez-Mchiri, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and director of Women’s and Gender Studies at UTEP, co-edited a book titled “100 Years of Women at UTEP” with UTEP alumnus PJ Vierra, Ph.D. The book commemorates the contributions of women affiliated with the University and tells their stories.
“When we started looking back, we found that there were so many women over the past 100 years who really made significant contributions, not only to the University but the community and world at large,” Ekal said. “We wanted to permanently acknowledge these contributions with a book.”
One of Ekal’s favorite stories from the book is about Patricia McCormick, a female bullfighter who came to the University to be closer to Juárez, where bullfighting was very popular. She ended up becoming one of the most famous female bullfighters in the world.
“There are a lot of hidden stories of women who have been helping students succeed and who often were the first female in their programs or first to have received an engineering degree … These were the women who were trailblazers,” Núñez-Mchiri said.
Three such trailblazers were Brown, Odell and Dorothy Clark; the first women who graduated from the CCEP at a joint commencement with the School of Mines. All three women completed the teaching courses sponsored by the School of Mines/CCEP program in 1918 and received their diplomas and state teaching credentials. The School of Mines hired Brown as a chemistry assistant in 1919 because she had done so well in her chemistry classes. She was the first woman employed in a teaching role at the school.
In 1932, UTEP’s first Bachelor of Arts degrees were all awarded to women. The same was the case in 1942, when the University’s first Master of Arts degrees were awarded to a group of women.
The first woman to graduate from Texas Western College (TWC), now UTEP, with an engineering degree was Martha Sue Schooler in 1957. She enrolled at the college in 1953 to study radio technology. Since TWC did not offer such a degree, she opted for the closest related field: electrical engineering. Schooler went on to become the only female engineer at the White Sands Proving Ground.
Kathryn Evans was the first female Ph.D. recipient at TWC in 1981. She received her Ph.D. in geology. In 2013-14, for the first time at UTEP, the number of doctoral degrees awarded to women exceeded those of men, 56 to 51.
Other accolades for female Miners include the first female faculty member. Susan Buck received the first female faculty appointment for a teacher of record. She taught English, sociology and history from 1920-21. Buck had earned a B.S. from Baylor University and a master’s degree from the University of Chicago.
Abi Elizabeth Beynon, an associate professor of business at the College of Mines in 1927, was the first tenured female faculty member. Her $3,000 annual salary was equal to that of her male colleagues. She also served as the first female department head and the first dean of women.
UTEP Professor of English and Theatre Arts Mimi Gladstein, Ph.D., was the first director of the Women's Studies Program as well as the first female chair of the English Department at the University. She recalls a time when things were very different for women in the world of academia.
Upon completing her master’s degree in English at TWC, she asked the chair of the English department if she could be considered for a teaching position. She remembered him looking at her with disdain and responding crossly with, “We don’t hire housewives.” Gladstein asked what she had to do to be a contender and he told her to get a Ph.D. from another university, which she did.
“There were always women at UTEP doing some great stuff, they just had to jump higher and dodge more obstacles than men,” Gladstein said. “I am very pleased with the fact that there are so many more opportunities for women, our daughters and granddaughters. If I was in any way responsible for paving the way, I am extremely delighted.”
One significant milestone for women at UTEP was in 1988 when Diana Natalicio was named the University’s first female president. She is the longest-serving sitting president of a U.S. major public research university.
“You can’t look at UTEP as a leading institution that has had a female president for 30 years and not recognize that there have been a whole lot of women supporting the effort to move this University forward,” Núñez-Mchiri said. “To know we’re a leading institution in the nation because we have women who have invested and contributed to their fields and professions is pretty amazing.”