Women’s Access to Education at Baylor University, 1931-1940

By: Jessica Roshak

Higher education in America was coming off of a troubled time in the 1930s. Institutions had undergone a period of what Thelin (2011) described as “hedonistic behaviors” from students in the previous decade, with alcohol-related activities and high importance placed on students’ social lives dominating the media. In order to potentially regain their favorable image with the public, college administrators across the country created initiatives to change the face of the collegiate experience (Thelin, 2011). One of those initiatives included greater access for women to an education.

The development of women’s colleges across the country was increased and many policy changes favored coeducation, which generated a dramatically heightened enrollment of women at institutions everywhere. In fact, by 1940, women made up about 40 percent of the total undergraduate enrollment in America (Thelin, 2011). Baylor University was the second institution in the country to becomecoeducational and it would seem that they were very encouraging of women bettering their lives through education. The 1938 Baylor Bulletin describes the student experience by saying, “Thus men and women are prepared by training and experience in an atmosphere of mutual understanding and good will for harmonious living and serviceable citizenship,” (The Baylor Bulletin, 1938, pg. 25).1

This statement may have implied a stride in the direction of gender equality for the institution, but due to the combination of limitations set in place for women and the financial state of the country during the Great Depression, women were far from having equal access to education when compared to their male counterparts. Inequality for women was exemplified most prominently in curriculum, means of financing their education, dormitories, and student organizations.

Educational Opportunities

Baylor University was advanced in the sense that they offered co-educational opportunities for men and women, but there was still a separate college for women located in Belton, Texas—Baylor Women’s College—and it was neglected in comparison to the main campus. The school had been suffering financially and found themselves in significant debt as of 1932. Through a generous gift of $125,000 to the permanent endowment of the college from Mr. John G. Hardin and Mary C. Hardin, the university was able to get out of debt and the women’s college was re-named Mary Hardin-Baylor College in 1934 (Walter Hale McKenzie, #1, Folder #3). The appreciation of the university is evident in the following letter to Walter H. McKenzie from the Board of Trustees of Mary Hardin-Baylor College for his work in securing the funds from Mr. and Mrs. Hardin.


It may have seemed as if education was becoming overall more accessible to women in the 1930s, but because of the lack of cohesiveness in curriculum for women amongst universities across the country, women were not necessarily being educated well. Baylor was no exception to this trend. Institutions such as Vassar College placed a strong emphasis on preparing women to become housewives and civic volunteers, while at institutions such as Sarah Lawrence, women were being treated as though gaining an education was enlightening and served as a new beginning for them (Thelin, 2011). Farnham (1994) provides insight on a potential reason for women being siloed into specific fields in universities across the country, namely the differences in why women wanted to attend a university—to climb the social latter or to perpetuate the idea of Republican Motherhood, depending on their geographical location. Baylor did not necessarily regulate or push what studies women should pursue, but it is evident from issues of the Round-Up that women were dominating in some fields and relatively non-existent in others.

Flipping through the pages of the any edition of the Round-Up during this era, readers will see that many of the majors next to the faces of women from seniors all the way to freshman include English, Music, and the Arts (Round-Up, 1932, 1935, 1939). These fields were also filled with women faculty members and instructors, which may have been one of many reasons that influenced the students that chose to take those courses. Another factor that may have led to a lack of support for women and their education in other fields could have been the lack of a female presence on the Board of Trustees. In 1935, the only woman on the board was Mrs. R. B. Spencer, but by 1939, there was not another woman appointed to take her place (Round-Up, 1935).

The amount of women pursuing a degree in the professional studies such as medicine and law was limited, but a female presence did come to exist as the decade continued. In 1931, there were 23 third-year law students, 27 second-year, and 47 first-year, but out of all of those, only four women were represented (The Baylor Bulletin, 1931). Similarly, only ten of the 341 medical students were female and there were no women pursuing a career in dentistry (The Baylor Bulletin, 1931). By 1939, there was one woman among the 35 law students, 17 of 307 medical students, and still no women studying law (The Baylor Bulletin, 1938). These statistics emphasize that although women were pursuing equality in higher education, significant progress had not made in women’s access to some part of the curriculum at Baylor University.


Opportunities for women to finance their education during this era included help from families, scholarships, and student employment. A woman asking her parents for money to fund their education does not seem plausible because The Great Depression was a troubled time for most financially. This being said, during this time there was an increased interest in student employment for women entering into the university.

If women showed a significant need for financial assistance, they were able to write to the Dean of Women asking for on-campus employment. Priority was given to underclassmen rather than upperclassmen who had worked on-campus before because in the opinion of Lilly Russell, Dean of Women (1931-1950), the upperclassmen had already had the opportunity to work to fund their education and are now able to apply for loans, which the younger members cannot do (BU Records: Dean of Women, Box #18, Folder #3).


Women who lived in more expensive rooms were also denied employment from the university because the institution inferred that, if a student could afford a more expensive room, then they could afford to pay their tuition without student employment. Lilly Russell explains in a letter to women living in the more expensive rooms in Memorial Hall, “We are assuming, therefore, that you will not need work for the 1938-39 session as you chose room (number __ Memorial Dormitory) which is priced at __ dollars per month. We are now making assignments of work for the fall and cannot consider your application for employment in view of the above facets,” (BU Records: Dean of Women, Box #18, Folder #3).


Women could also choose to apply for a position as an office girl or working in one of the dining halls. The expectations for work were strict for women serving in the dining halls: be aware of posture at all times, use light, quick steps when walking, be sure their appearance was neat and tidy, and have a queenly manner (BU Records: Dean of Women, Box #18, Folder #2). They were not permitted to engage in personal conversations during their shifts and were given only one weekend off (BU Records: Dean of Women, Box #18, Folder #2). Office girls found themselves in the same situation: voices must be low and pleasant at all times, do not put people on hold, and be courteous no matter what (BU Records: Dean of Women, Box #18, Folder #2).

Family contributions, loans, and employment all offered women who wanted to study at Baylor University a chance to fund their education, but the emphasis seemed to be placed on the underclassmen more than the upperclassmen. The lack of focus on upperclassmen creates a gap between these students and getting to graduation because as they continue on throughout their collegiate experience, the funds that were once available to them to pay for their education had been allocated elsewhere. From an outside perspective, it may appear that the university wanted to get the women in the door to satisfice women’s colleges and policies, but then paid little time or attention to being sure they could afford the luxury of matriculating properly.

One source of financial aid that was available to any student, regardless of class standing, was scholarships. Scholarships, although not plentiful at the time, were available to young men and women from various constituents on campus. The Peer Club on campus offered one scholarship, which was exclusively for women. This student organization’s purpose was to bring together women’s social clubs at Baylor University and planned in their budget to offer one full year scholarship each academic year (Round-Up, 1939).

Dorm Life

Housing was a point of contention during this time because there were many different rules for men and women, with moer strict regulations placed on the women. For example, young men were permitted to live off-campus with private families, however, women were not. The men were charged $25.00 per month and up, the arrangement needed to be approved by the Boarding House Committee, and the families with which these young men would be staying were required to comply with the university’s disciplinary policies and procedures (The Baylor Bulletin, 1935). With all of these regulations in place for living in private residences, it is unclear as to why young women were not permitted to make such arrangements as well.

Young women also were not permitted to make their own decisions about some of their social activities on the weekend. A parental permission form had to be submitted if women wished to receive weekend riding permissions or stay outside of the dormitories overnight (BU Records: Dean of Women, Box #18, Folder #3).


As of 1930, there were two residence halls that women were permitted to live in: Georgia Burleson Hall and Memorial Hall. All single women were required to live on campus and in order to secure a room in 1931, women were charged a non-refundable deposit of $10 that would later be applied to their cost of housing; however, the rate for the men was a mere $5 (Baylor Bulletin, 1931). This was changed to both men and women being charged $5 for a room deposit by 1938, possibly indicating that women were beginning to be seen as equal to the male students (Baylor Bulletin, 1938).

The Woman’s Memorial Dormitory offered a variety of spaces for women to live during their time at Baylor University. The dormitory system included Memorial Apartments, Memorial White House, and Memorial Cottage in addition to the three-story Memorial Hall, all of which housed approximately 273 women (Baylor Bulletin, 1938). In a letter to students who would be living in Memorial Hall from Lilly Russell, she describes the residence hall as, “cool and comfortable, provided with connecting baths and all necessary furniture for one to two women,” (BU Records: Dean of Women, Box #18, Folder #2). Burleson Hall, which housed more than 200 women, came with amenities such as a reading room, parlor, 16 music rooms for practice, and a sleeping porch for its occupants (Baylor Bulletin, 1938).

Leading up to the 1939-1940 school year, Baylor experienced an influx in women wantin to attend and there was no room for them in Memorial Hall, the place that most women applied to live. Lilly Russell was swamped with letters about living arrangements and sent a chain of letters to women explaining that they would be reassigned to another room. She says, “Your application came in ___, which would ordinarily be early enough to secure a room of your choice, but this year we have had so many applications before yours that we will not be able to give you a place in Memorial for the present,” (BU Records: Dean of Women, Box #18, Folder #3).


Understanding that she would receive some opposition because of this, she further explained the accommodations that would be offered to them in the new space.

Student Organizations

Women were equally focused on joining student organizations for social purposes as for advancing professionally and/or academically. Alpha Omega Club and DAP Club for Memorial Dormitory were some of the largest social organizations while Beta Sigma Chi, a woman’s business society, and Kappa Delta Pi, a national educators society, focused on specific areas of academia.

Alpha Omega Club was created, “…for the purpose of promoting social culture and refinement in young womanhood,” (Round-Up, 1935, 146). The organization focused on social events and even had a room dedicated to Alpha Omega and their mission in Memorial Hall. DAP Club, whose actually name in unknown to all but those who are initiated, serves to promote friendship and maintenance of high social ideals in the women of Memorial Hall (Round-Up, 1939). These organizations appeared to be very popular with women and supplemented their learning outside of the classroom.

The prevalence of scholarship societies, which focused on the advancement of professional goals, took a dramatic turn during the 1930s as their presence was not strong in the previous decade for female students. Beta Sigma Chi had a bold mission, which read “…further friendships among girls in the school of business, to promote the ideals and to raise the academic standards of the work done there, and to create contacts of value in the business world,” (Round-Up, 1939, pg. 153). Kappa Delta Pi had a similar mission, though they focused on educators rather than businesswomen. These societies may have become more prevalent due to women having seen the slack (lack of attention or dedication to something) that existed in both services and support for female students and their desired careers.


Making a public commitment to coeducation in their mission, Baylor University had set many lofty goals related to the gains that students would experience by interacting with one another. “…develop respect for the opinions and intellectual capacities of the other sex, and an appreciation for their mutual interests and problems,” (The Baylor Bulletin, 1938, pg. 25). It is clear from the inequalities seen in curriculum, financing education, dormitories, and student organizations that the university was negotiating the concept of gender equality, but had not yet achieved it by the end of the 1930s. In time, the institution would see this as an issue and continued seeking opportunities to create equal access for men and women.

Women students may not have had equal opportunities on college campuses in comparison to the men, but they seemed to fully take advantage of the aspects they were permitted to experience by the college officials. This seizing of opportunities led to changes which laid the foundation for what soon was to be a time in which the limitations placed on students was not contingent on their sex.



Works Cited

Baylor University. (1931). The Baylor University Bulletin. Waco, TX: Baylor University.

Baylor University. (1935). The Baylor University Bulletin. Waco, TX: Baylor University.

Baylor University. (1938). The Baylor University Bulletin. Waco, TX: Baylor University.

BU Records: Dean of Women (Lily Russell), Accession #BU/372, Box #18, Folder #2,

The Texas Collection, Baylor University.

BU Records: Dean of Women (Lily Russell), Accession #BU/372, Box #18, Folder #3,

The Texas Collection, Baylor University.

Cornelison, F. (Ed.). (1939). The 1939 Round-Up. The Senior Class of Baylor University.

Retrieved: http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/tx-annl/id/21950/rec/10

Farnham, C. (1994). “What’s in a Name? Anntebellum Female Colleges”. Education of the

Southern Belle Higher Education and Student Socialization in the Antebellum South. New York: NYU Press, pp. 11-32.

McDonald, G. (Ed.). (1935). The 1935 Round-Up. The Senior Class of Baylor University, Waco

Dallas. Hill Printing and Stationary Company. Retrieved:


Smith, R. (Ed.). (1932). The 1932 Round-Up. The Senior Class of Baylor University. Retrieved:


Walter Hale McKenzie Papers, Accession #1756, Box #1, Folder #1, The Texas

Collection, Baylor University.


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