Women played key roles in BYU’s founding history

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Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts commemorating 150 years since Utah women were the first in any U.S. state to vote in 1870. Pioneering women in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made key contributions to suffrage and were also key in establishing BYU.

Five years after Utah gave women the right to vote in 1870, a small school was formed in Provo known as Brigham Young Academy (BYA). The first class consisted of just 29 boys and girls, ranging from elementary to high school age.

A fairly small yet influential faculty helped the poorly financed school survive during its first few decades, which happened to coincide with much of the women’s suffrage movement. Many women, including several active in the suffragist cause, taught at Brigham Young Academy, which became Brigham Young University in 1903. 

Brigham Young Academy faculty members Mary Lyman Gowans, Ottillie Maeser and Amy Brown Lyman (front row) pose for a photo in 1891 outside of the ZCMI warehouse where classes were held prior to moving to the Academy Building. (L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library)

Women began teaching at BYA almost as soon as it began. Many of BYA’s first students were women, and many of BYA’s female graduates later became faculty members at the school. Some became faculty members before even graduating, such as Anna Christina Smoot, who was appointed as a faculty member before she graduated in 1877. In her class was Caroline Amelia Daniels, who also joined the faculty after graduation. Smoot and Daniels were part of the first graduating class. 

By 1913, BYU had several female faculty members — six of 26, according to a faculty photo taken in 1913 — before the 19th Amendment had even granted all U.S. women the right to vote. These early faculty members helped build the institution and set its trajectory, though their contributions to BYU are often lost in the institutional canon, said BYU history professor Amy Harris. 

Women filled many different roles at BYU, including as students, faculty members, deans and members of the Board of Trustees. Beyond their formal roles, they often trailblazed new programs or university developments. Some, though not all, of the women who helped to shape the institution in its early years are highlighted in this article.

A 1913 faculty photo in the Maeser Memorial Building shows six female faculty members at BYU: May Ward Hunt, Anna Evert Terry, Viola Schumaker, Vilate Elliot, Alice Louise Reynolds and Ida Smoot Dusenberry. (L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library)

First woman on the BYA Board of Trustees: Martha Jane Knowlton Coray

Martha Jane Knowlton Coray, a convert who had traveled West with the Saints, was appointed to BYA’s first Board of Trustees by President Brigham Young in 1875. She was the first woman appointed to the Board. Board responsibilities included helping to approve curriculum, and Coray was a strong advocate for teaching spiritual and secular topics in tandem with one another.

First Dean of Women: Zina Young Williams Card

Zina Young Williams Card graduated from BYA in 1878 and was appointed as the “Ladies Matron” or Dean of Women in 1879. President John Taylor assigned her to attend the convention of the National Women’s Suffrage Association, where she and Emmeline B. Wells spoke on the national platform.

Card headed the domestic science department at BYA for seven years. Her half-sister Susa Young Gates was also involved in the domestic science department, and they later both served on BYU’s Board of Trustees together. She was the daughter of Zina Huntington and the prophet Brigham Young.

Susa Young Gates, left (wearing a light dress), links arms with her half-sister, Zina Young Williams Card, right (wearing a dark dress) following a commencement ceremony in the 1920s. The half-sisters served together on the BYU Board of Trustees. (L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library)

Founding the music department: Susa Young Gates

Susa Young Gates, who became a prominent women’s suffrage activist, came to BYA first as a student, but during her time there she laid the foundation for BYU’s music department by starting a choir. She also founded the domestic science department, which her daughter Leah Dunford Widstoe helped her establish. Gates also influenced the development of BYU by later serving on its Board of Trustees. She was the daughter of Lucy Bigelow and the prophet Brigham Young. 

Susa Young Gates, fifth in from the right on the third row, helped found the BYA’s domestic science department. This photo shows an 1896 domestic science class. Zina Young Williams Card, who served as the first Dean of Women, is seated to the left of Gates. (L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library)

Starting the library: Alice Louise Reynolds

BYA graduate Alice Louise Reynolds became the first full-time female faculty member at the Academy and was the second woman in Utah to gain full-time faculty status. She taught English and literature at the Academy, having studied at the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, Cornell, the University of California-Berkeley and Columbia, as well as in London and Paris. 

Reynolds’ devotion to literature and commitment to scholarship led her to dream of a library at BYU. She was instrumental in beginning BYU’s library as she participated in the school’s library committee, serving as chair for 19 years. Under her leadership, the school collected more than 100,000 volumes.

In 1911, Reynolds became the first woman to deliver a Founders Day address at BYU. The library named a reading room after her and holds an annual lecture in her honor. 

Starting the theatre program: Miriam Nelke

Miriam Nelke joined BYA in 1900 and founded the school’s theatre department. Nelke taught elocution (the skill of expressive speaking), literary interpretation and performance. Prior to arriving in Provo, she had taught and performed throughout the country. After eight years at BYA/BYU, she started the Butler-Nelke Academy of Dramatic Arts in San Francisco. After she left, her popularity at BYU lived on as students formed the Nelke Reading Club. A theatre in the Harris Fine Arts Center is named for her. 

Developing the science of homemaking: Leah Dunford Widstoe

The daughter of Susa Young Gates, Leah Dunford Widstoe also attended BYA. She helped her mother to begin the domestic science department, chairing the home economics department and teaching about scientific models to make the home efficient and provide proper nutrition. 

While in a summer program for prospective students at Harvard, Widstoe met her husband John Widstoe, who later became an apostle. Together, they wrote books on the Word of Wisdom. Leah also wrote about nutrition, motherhood, homemaking and other domestic science topics.

Heading BYA’s primary department: Amy Brown Lyman

Amy Brown Lyman attended BYA from 1888 to 1890. After finishing her studies, she taught at BYA and was head of the primary department, the department focused on young students or students beginning school for the first time. She later completed additional work at the University of Michigan, the University of Utah, and the University of Chicago. Lyman went on to become the Relief Society General President and serve in the Utah Legislature.

Amy Brown Lyman headed BYA’s primary department right after graduating from BYA in 1890. She poses here with her first-grade students in front of the old ZCMI warehouse where classes were first taught. (L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library)

Female faculty at BYU today

Since BYU’s beginning, female faculty have played an important role. Percentage-wise, women continue to compose a small portion of BYU’s teaching staff. According to 2018 IPEDS data, women made up just 26.45% of the instructional staff at BYU.

Harris said there are a lot of departments at BYU focused on recruiting women, but there can be many challenges. BYU prefers to hire members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and some fields have a difficult time finding female Church members with doctorate degrees in the specific fields in which they are hiring. In fields such as STEM, which tend to have a small portion of women in undergraduate studies, the percentage of women that go on to get doctorate degrees is even lower.

BYU’s female faculty pose for a photo in 1928. Today, the percentage of female faculty members remains low. (L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library)

Harris said mentoring female undergraduates to pursue graduate degrees and feel that they belong in their chosen fields is one of the most important things that can be done to increase female faculty at BYU and in higher education generally, particularly in fields of study with very few women. “You have to really work to convince them that women and girls belong,” she said. 

Harris said that “organizations run better when they take in a diversity of opinions just because there’s blind spots we all have because we’re not in that community.” When women are involved in decision-making processes, she said, half of the population’s perspective is better represented, and organizational outcomes improve.

There are also religious reasons for hiring more women, Harris said. Enshrined in many gospel principles is the idea that the best outcomes are seen “when women and men work together as brothers and sisters,” she said.

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