Baylor Faculty Help Bring Boundary Breaking Women to Life

By Courtney Doucet

Baylor faculty members have once again used a public forum to raise awareness about unsung women who have made significant contributions to society.

The theme of the fourth annual Boundary Breaking Women’s Panel on Sept. 13, sponsored by Baylor’s Women’s and Gender Studies Program, was “Redefining Womanhood,” celebrating the 200th birthday and social activism of Amelia Bloomer. Ten Baylor faculty members highlighted the lives of Bloomer and nine other outstanding, yet lesser-known, women in history who redefined their eras and respective fields. Here’s a closer look at four of the women whose lives were presented.

Amelia Bloomer: Women’s Rights Activist

Dr. Lorynn Divita, associate professor of family and consumer sciences, referred to Amelia Bloomer as a trendsetter. Bloomer (1818-1894) was an activist for women’s rights, and is primarily known for her focus on dress reform. (After she began wearing and advocating a more comfortable type of woman’s dress developed in the 19th century, many people began calling the garments “bloomers” in her honor).

Divita said Bloomer made the decision to frame dress as a health issue rather than a social reform issue, in an effort to limit criticism to her progressive ideas. The results of Bloomer’s efforts are apparent today, as women –– including other boundary breakers presented by panel members –– have had the option to opt out of wearing the corsets and multiple petticoats of Bloomer’s time and can instead indulge in the less restrictive modern dress that is now the norm.

Anne Bradstreet: Pioneering Poet

Dr. Sarah Ford, professor of English, presented the life of America’s first published poet, Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672). Bradstreet migrated to America and settled in Salem, Massachusetts, where she found the time to write poetry while raising eight children. A comment once made by Bradstreet defined what all of the women described by the panel had in common –– that each had the audacity to rebel in despite of fear, politics and social constraints and norms.

“Bradstreet admits, ‘I came into this country where I found a new world and new manners at which my heart rose’ –– which is Puritan speak for, ‘I rebelled,’” Ford said.

Rita-Levi Montalcini: Nobel Laureate

The life of Dr. Rita-Levi Montalcini (1909-2012) served as an example of this type of staunch rebellion and determination to surpass societal perceptions of what women could accomplish. Dr. Marcie Moehnke, senior lecturer in biology, said Montalcini was discouraged from pursuing a career in medicine, notably by her father, who believed a professional career would interfere with his daughter’s duties as a wife and mother.

Moehnke shared a quote from Montalcini’s autobiography: “My experience in childhood and adolescence of the subordinate role played by the female in a society run entirely by men had convinced me that I was not cut out to be a wife.”

Montalcini did go on to medical school in her native Italy, graduating summa cum laude. She remained at the school until she was forced to leave after Jews were barred from practicing in academic and professional settings. Despite this setback, Montalcini continued her research, for which she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1986.

Frances Willard: Groundbreaking Educator

It was no coincidence that Dr. Linda Livingstone, Baylor’s first female president, chose to make the panel’s final presentation by telling the inspirational story of Dr. Frances Willard (1839-1898).

Livingstone shared a personal story about her freshman year of college at Oklahoma State University, when she lived in a girl’s dormitory named after Willard. Livingstone recalled that she had no idea who Willard was at the time, but learned of her importance years later. She discovered that Willard was an educator who made history by becoming the president of Evanston College for Ladies, making her the first woman to serve as the president of a university in the United States.

“The sad thing is when I was there I didn’t actually realize it, I didn’t know who [Willard] was, and I didn’t realize that she was the first [female] college president,” Livingstone said. “So, then they asked who I wanted to talk about here and I was looking at women and realized she was the first I thought, ‘That’s very cool because I lived in her residence hall.’”

Livingstone was asked why she believed it was important to shine a light on Willard and other boundary breaking women of history through the panel’s presentations.

“I think it’s always a wonderful opportunity when we can highlight the amazing accomplishments of people who aren’t typically recognized, whether that’s women or people of color or others from other underrepresented groups,” she said. “I was quite impressed and moved by some of the stories today. I knew some of the women but not all of them and I just think it’s a tremendous privilege to highlight some really amazing people, particularly women, who’ve accomplished so much.”

The other six boundary breaking women covered by panel members included: civil rights activist Ella Baker (presented by Dr. Lakia Scott, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction); industrial engineer Lillian Gilbreth (presented by Dr. Ivy Hamerly, senior lecturer in political science); Continental Army soldier Deborah Sampson (presented by Dr. Julie Sweet, professor of history); artist Nikki S. Lee (presented by Jennings Sheffield, associate professor of art and art history); journalist Svetlana Alexievich (presented by Dr. Steven Jug, lecturer in history); and Mexican-American writer Sandra Cisneros (presented by Macarena Hernandez, The Fred Hartman Distinguished Professor of Journalism).

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