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A Class Apart

The first in their field, here's 10 Baylor alumna who have made history

Of its many achievements, Baylor particularly enjoys two distinctions: that of being the oldest university in Texas (established by the Republic of Texas in 1845, before statehood) and the first university west of the Mississippi to go coed, 75 years before American women were guaranteed the right to vote. Though Baylor’s gender history may be complicated—the university segregated for about 35 years in 1851—there is no surer sign of its inclusivity than the legions of female Baylor graduates who continue to honor the university through their accomplishments. 

It all started with Mary Gentry Kavanaugh, the first woman to graduate from Baylor. As the daughter of one of the university’s original trustees, Kavanaugh began her collegiate studies at the age of seven and, in 1855, received a degree at age 16. (Life was different then, and Kavanaugh purportedly hung out with Sam Houston so she holds superstar status.) 

Since the university broke ground, many Baylor women have gone on to break glass ceilings, becoming first in their fields and making the world a better place for all of us. Here is a look at 10 women who left Baylor and made history (herstory!).

The turn of the twentieth century witnessed the triple-degree achievement of Dr. Hallie Earle, the first woman to graduate from Baylor Medical School. After completing both her Bachelor and Master of Science at Baylor—1901 and 1902, respectively—Earle earned her medical degree in 1907 and eventually became the first licensed female physician in Waco. In addition to her medical interests, Earle was fascinated by weather. She maintained comprehensive weather observation journals and was named a Cooperative Weather Observer by the U.S. government in 1916. Her legacy lives on at Earle Hall, home to the Science and Health Living Learning Center and the university’s next generation of aspiring doctors. 

A double major from Baylor in Math and Education secured Leah Moncure (‘25) a teaching position in Houston, but Moncure knew she wanted to be a civil engineer. After practicing drafting and design at the Howe & Wise engineering firm in Houston, Moncure earned her civil engineering degree at the University of Texas and, a year after her graduation, became the state’s first female licensed professional engineer. During her thirty-year career with the Texas Highway Department (TxDOT), she worked all over the state and designed Harris County’s plans for Highway 38, now known as State Highway 6, the quickest way for those in the Houston-area to get back to Waco. 

Velvety, frost-free ice cream and artificial blood plasma may seem an unlikely pairing, but both advancements sprang from the research of Allene Rosalind Jeanes (‘28), holder of 10 patents and the first woman to receive a Distinguished Service Award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (1953). After earning her master’s degree at Berkeley and a PhD in organic chemistry at the University of Illinois, Jeanes began researching polysaccharides, large molecules composed of chains of thousands of sugar molecules. Her discovery of how to mass produce the polysaccharide dextran facilitated the treatment of wounded Korean War soldiers, who would receive dextran-derived artificial blood plasma to slow bleeding. Jeanes also developed a process for mass-producing xanthan gum, a polysaccharide used in many automotive, healthcare, and food products, such as ice cream. Jeanes was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2017. 

Asserting that the Houston Post’s male writers (i.e. the entire news staff) would be called to impending war in Europe, aspiring journalist Bess Whitehead Scott (‘12) became the paper’s first female news reporter, one of the first female reporters in Houston. During her 77-year career in journalism, Scott covered major events such as the Galveston floods of 1915 and the Democratic Convention of 1928, and she developed personal relationships with those she interviewed, most notably Eleanor Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Clark Gable. In addition to being inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame, Scott’s legacy endures in the Bess Whitehead Scott Journalism Scholarship, awarded each year to upper-level journalism students at eligible Texas universities. Recipients have not only Scott to thank but also Dr. Dorothy Scarborough (1896, M.A. 1899), one of the founders of Baylor’s journalism department, the first in the southwest. Scarborough went on to earn her Ph.D. at Columbia, practice dual careers in education (emphasizing folklore and Black folk songs) and creative writing. She published multiple novels, including the esteemed, controversial novel The Wind.

The only female graduate of Baylor Law in 1937, Margaret G. Harris Amsler went on to achieve many firsts. After holding a tenure-track position in a law school (1941)—the first woman in Texas (and third in the nation) to do so, Amsler became the first woman employed by the Texas Supreme Court (1942) and the first recipient (male or female) of the State Bar of Texas’ Presidents’ Award (1961). She is most gratefully remembered for drafting the Texas Married Women’s Act (1963), which gives women legal management and control of their property. 

As you recover from the reminder that women weren’t allowed to enter contracts until the sixties, let us hold a moment of reverence for Ann Richards, governor, trailblazer, feminist figurehead, and Baylor legend (‘54). One of only two female governors in the state, Richards developed her quick wit, spirited personality and political acumen while participating in Baylor’s debate team. She later became the first woman elected to the Travis County Commissioners Court and, as state treasurer, one of the first female statewide-officeholders. No other university has educated more chief executives of the Lone Star State than Baylor—five Bear alumni have served as governor of Texas—and Ann’s leadership reminds us that “Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.” 

Legendary Texas women’s basketball coach Jody Conradt (‘63, M.S. ‘69) did much of her trailblazing in sneakers. Her successful collegiate basketball career led to a teaching and coaching position at Waco Midway High School and then head coaching positions at both Sam Houston State University and the University of Texas at Arlington. Shortly after the Title IX anti discrimination ruling, Conradt became head coach of the UT Austin women’s basketball team and, over her 30 year leadership, guided the Longhorns to over 900 wins and an undefeated 34-0 national championship in 1986. Inducted into both the Basketball Hall of Fame (1998) and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame (1999), Conradt retired from coaching in 2007 but continues to work for UT as special assistant to the women’s athletic director. 

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of all these legendary Baylor women is their support of future generations of Baylor women. University President Linda Livingstone, Ph.D. didn’t attend Baylor as a student, but as the saying goes, she got here as fast as she could—in 2017 to be precise. A distinguished scholar and academic leader, Livingstone taught in Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business before becoming dean of the business schools at Pepperdine and then George Washington University. Determined to make Baylor a preeminent Christian research facility, Livingstone oversees the development of the university’s academic strategic plan, Illuminate, and leads the successful $1.1 billion Give Light campaign. 

In our university and its students, Livingston recognizes an embedded desire “to do something different, something that matters, that makes a difference in the world.” In this way, Livingston and the female trailblazers who preceded her are not shooting stars but beacons of light, guiding other women to continue breaking their own glass ceilings. 

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