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Women's History

Women's History at UNH

Lucy Swallow and Delia Brown

In 1891 Lucy Swallow and Delia Brown became the first female students to attend UNH(known as New Hampshire College of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts at the time). The school at the time was located in Hanover, NH and both Lucy and Delia were from surrounding towns. At the time female students were not legally allowed to attend the school so Lucy Swallow wrote a petition to the dean of the college at the time and then the state legislature of New Hampshire had to legally allow female students to attend the institution. Lucy Swallow was approved to attend and Delia Brown was admitted soon after with both of them starting classes in 1891 in a 2 year program. Both attended for 1 year before the school was relocated to Durham, NH. Neither chose to relocate with the college, but due to their attendance and studies the college in 1893 created courses aimed at increasing female student attendance at the school. 

Elizabeth Ann Virgil

In 1926 Elizabeth Ann Virgil of Portsmouth, NH graduated from UNH with a degree in Home Economics. She became the first African American and woman of color to graduate from the institution. After attending UNH Elizabeth Virgil moved to the south and became a school teacher; due to discrimination and laws at the time she could not find work in New England as a teacher. She taught for over 10 years at segregated schools for African American children in the south before moving back to Portsmouth, NH to be with her sick mother. In 1951 UNH hired Elizabeth Virgil as a data and reports typist for the soil conservation scientists of the school. She would work at UNH for 22 years before retiring in the early 1970s. In 2018 Portsmouth High School made Elizabeth Virgil an honorary faculty member. In 1991 UNH commissioned a portrait of Elizabeth Virgil painted by former UNH art professor Grant Drumheller. Today her portrait hangs in the lobby of UNH Dimond Library. 

Dr. Caroline Black

Dr. Caroline Black joined UNH faculty as an Assistant Professor of botany in 1911, becoming the first female faculty member of the school. She was also the first woman scientist to join the staff of the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station that same year. Prior to joining UNH faculty Dr. Black attended and worked at Indiana University. She worked at UNH for 6 years before accepting a position at Connecticut College as an Assistant Professor of botany in 1917. There she would successfully advocate for the creation of a botany department that was separate from the biology department. 

Dr. Naomi Ekdahl

Dr. Naomi Ekdahl joined UNH faculty in 1927 becoming the first female professor in the Education Department. Her research and courses were focused on childhood psychology and development offering courses such as the psychology of childhood and adolescence development. Along with her husband Dr. Adolph Ekdahl, also a professor at UNH, they advocated for the creation of a separate psychology and philosophy department. In 1935 UNH created the department of psychology and philosophy with Dr. Naomi Ekdahl becoming an assistant professor in the department. She remained teaching at UNH until 1939. 

Jessie Doe

Jessie Doe was an outspoken advocate and activist for women's rights in New Hampshire in the early 20th century. After the passing of the 19th amendment, Jessie Doe won a write in campaign and was elected as the state representative of Rollinsford, NH. In 1921 she became one of the first female legislators in NH's General Court alongside Dr. Mary Farnum. She served 2 nonconsecutive terms in the General Court and spent the rest of her life dedicated to philanthropic causes. She served on the Board of Trustees for the University from 1934-1943. During this time she was also an active member of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, NH League of Craftsmen, NH Association for the Blind, and NH League of Women Voters. In 1964 Jessie Doe Hall was dedicated to her and to  honor her work and activism for the women of New Hampshire. 

Dr. Jean Kennard

In 1977 Dr. Kennard became the first woman at the University of New Hampshire to become a full professor. The next year she became the Chair of the English Department at UNH, becoming the first woman to head the UNH English Department. She taught numerous courses at the University focused on Victorian literature, modern British fiction, women's literature, and LGBTQ studies. She taught the first course dedicated to women's literature and also the first course on LGBTQ issues at UNH. She also advocated for the creation of a Queer studies minor at UNH. She worked as a professor at UNH until she retired in 2000. 

Evelyn Handler

On August 1, 1980 Evelyn Handler assumed the duties of President of the University of New Hampshire and was inaugurated that October. She served as the 14th President of the University from 1980-1983 and was the first woman to hold the position of University President at UNH. She was also the first woman in the country to be named president of a publicly supported land grant university. Her tenure at the University of New Hampshire saw her successfully advocate for $15 million in federal grants towards the development of a center for science and engineering. In 1983 she left UNH to serve as President of Brandeis University. In 1991 Evelyn Handler joined the Graduate School of Education at Harvard as a research fellow. In honor of her achievement and work for the University of New Hampshire Handler Hall was dedicated and named after her in 2013. 

Evelyn Browne

Evelyn Browne joined UNH staff and faculty in 1943 to teach horseback riding, riflery, and women's physical education. During her tenure at UNH she established the riding program at the university, coached the women's basketball and riflery team, and taught the first courses in outdoor education. Also during her time at UNH Evelyn Browne was successful in stopping the construction of an oil refinery on the Great Bay in New Hampshire. She also helped create the Great Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. In 1981 she retired from teaching at the university but continued to work and advocate for the protection of the environment in the seacoast area. In 1987 Browne donated 103 acres of land to UNH for the creation of a center for outdoor education at the university. The center was named the Browne Center after Evelyn Browne and in honor of all her work and activism to protect the environment. 

A Century of Progress