100 years of women at Jewell

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Photo courtesy of  Annie Spratt on Unsplash

In September 1917, the headline: “GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS! Our Time Has Come At Last and They Are Now About the Hill” appeared in Jewell’s then newspaper, “Student.” For the first time, women could attend William Jewell College. 

The all-male student body was, naturally, filled with excitement at such an announcement. But, this statement was only partially true. The ten young women that were enrolled in the college attended classes in an off-campus location known as “the Annex” that was chaperoned by Mrs. Swinney. It seemed that the Board of Trustees at the time was still dragging their feet in terms of creating a co-ed institution.

In 1919, however, after a compelling argument by Student that revealed to the Board of Trustees that women’s scholastic averages were higher than men’s, the college began to undertake efforts necessary for the accommodation of women on campus. 

On Dec. 9th, 1920, the Board of Trustees voted to admit women on the same terms as men to Jewell. Funds were accrued for the construction of a dormitory hall for women by Jan. 1, 1925, and in the fall of 1926, Melrose Hall was open to the women of Jewell.

Here’s to the 100 (ish) years of the women of Jewell, who through their tireless efforts have made Jewell a radically improved and inclusive institution.

The first female graduate from William Jewell College was not one of the original 10 “Jewells, as they were called. Leona Kresse graduated in 1920. She had earned credits at the Central Missouri State Teachers (now known as the University of Central Missouri) and therefore enrolled at Jewell with advanced standing. Kresse was also the first woman student assistant, and she taught algebra to the first-year class in her senior year. After graduation, Kresse became a teacher at Hardin High School and inspired a future Jewell professor who would gain national acclaim: Wallace A. Hilton.

Women came to play a larger role at Jewell as the years progressed. Mary Margaret Jesse was the first female editor of Student in 1924. In 1926, six women were on the debate team. In the 1920’s, various women’s organizations were created: Sigma Rho, the Young Women’s Association, Beta Lambda, and Panaegis. These organizations sought to elevate the status of the women of William Jewell College by creating opportunities wherein they could participate in church or mission work, social activities and biological studies.

Despite these organizations, the social lives of the women of William Jewell College were still strictly regulated. In the 1930’s, Melrose Hall had a series of regulations that read like something from a dystopian novel. Some notable examples taken from “Cardinal is Her Color” (1999), a book celebrating Jewell’s sesquicentennial, include: 

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday are study nights.  There will be no dating nor social functions in Melrose on these nights.

During the months of September and October, April and May, girls are privileged to walk after dinner, provided they are in Melrose by study hour— 7:30 p.m.

Girls are not permitted to leave town, go to nearby towns or cities for the day or part of the day, go out for meals, without permission.

Classes at Jewell, particularly those in the biology department, were segregated by gender. On the flipside, these women-only classes required a female teacher.  Thus, in the 1920’s and 30’s, women joined the faculty of Jewell.

In 1928, Mary Elmore was the first female faculty member. She was an assistant to her father, Dr J.C. Elmore, chairman of the biology department. Virginia D. Rice joined Jewell in 1928 after obtaining her master’s degree from the University of Kansas. In her 46 years of teaching at the college, Rice developed Jewell’s first theatre program.

The nursing department began in the 1970’s and originally had ten students and two instructors. By the mid-90’s, the program had flourished under the leadership of Dr. Jeanne Johnson and Dr. Ruth Edwards. Thanks to their efforts and those of other women, Jewell now boasts an accelerated track nursing program with a 100 percent employment rate within three months of graduation.

The female students of William Jewell brought great renown to the school as well. In the 1930’s, Audri Adams and Madeline Parrott, members of the debate club, traveled to 13 states and achieved numerous awards in debate and individual debates. They were interviewed by NBC in lieu of their success.

Finally, the impact of women on Jewell can also be seen in the physical buildings that still stand to this day. Opal Carlin was the college’s librarian for 35 years. She fought tirelessly for the creation of a new library building. Thus, her efforts culminated in the demolition of Carnegie Library and the transfer of 90,000 books to the newly built Curry Library in 1965. The creation of this library ended library segregation for women. Before women were relegated to studying on the balcony of Carnegie Library.

Dorothy Treux became the first female president of the William Jewell Alumni Association from 1971-1973. In 1977, Anita McPike became the second female president of the Alumni Association, and was later elected to serve as a member of the Board of Trustees for Jewell.

William Jewell College has come a long way from the days where “houseparents” would chide ladies into being “proper” –no bedroom slippers or hair curlers in the dining room, lights out at midnight every night! 

Through the efforts of generations of women, Jewell has become a university that advocates for radical inclusivity. Every individual, regardless of gender, race, or religion, is welcomed to Jewell’s community of scholars. The college has truly become a modern institution of higher learning, especially under the guidance of Dr. Elizabeth MacLeod Walls. Dr. Walls has rebranded the college as a critical thinking college in order to fully establish Jewell’s role as a community asset to Kansas City and Liberty and to sustain the college’s enrollment health.

Here’s to the woman of Jewell, past, present and future! May the spirit of progress that women so helped to cultivate be passed on to the current Jewell alumni and staff. Let us always seek to better the school and to become increasingly inclusive. 

One thought on “100 years of women at Jewell

  1. VIRGINIA HURT (1959) BELK

    Since I worked during the summers following my sophomore year, I had to move from Melrose Hall off campus since the dorm was closed in the summer. My land lady was Gertrude Dougherty at 17 Lightburne St. Her elder daughter, Bell Dougherty (m. Whitsell), was in the first graduating class of WJC. Both these ladies were kind, generous and supportive of me to the max! I still feel privileged to have been personally acquainted with Bell.

    It was a joyful privilege to attend the 60 year reunion of our class 28 Sep. 2019 and observe first hand and in person to positive changes being wrought at my Alma Mater.

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