When retired professors Jackie Dewar, Ph.D., professor emerita of mathematics, and Virginia Merriam, Ph.D., professor emerita of biology, decided to review the history of women at Seaver College several years ago, they didn’t expect to find much. Merriam joined the faculty in 1971 and Dewar two years later. They were among the only female faculty members at that time.
But the SHE Project, as they dubbed their research, revealed that women made their presence known early on in the college’s history. Merriam and Dewar decided to dig into the college’s past after hearing that other LMU colleges were exploring their own roots during Women’s History Month.
They were surprised when they learned of the pioneering female faculty members. In 1967, the first woman to join the Seaver College faculty was Mildred Moe, Ph.D., a tenure track physics professor. Patricia Lacey, R.S.H.M., taught in the biology department from 1967 to 1970. About three other women were briefly on staff in the late ’60s to early ’70s.
Dewar and Merriam identified a common theme about why these women only taught a few years before resigning their posts. Several, like Moe, had husbands who made career changes, and they were obliged to follow their husbands.
“That was very common back then. The husband’s job took precedence,” Dewar says.
It couldn’t have been easy for those first few female faculty members, Merriam noted. She and Dewar reviewed years of faculty meeting minutes and noted several insensitive comments. “To some degree, they really didn’t know how to deal with women in the college back then,” Merriam says.
Female students were rare as well. The first woman to graduate from Loyola University was Christine Bertero, who earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1969.
In the ’80s, things began to change as various LMU leaders championed diversity in all of the colleges, especially Seaver College. Even as far back as Merriam’s hiring, there was an acknowledgement that an all-male faculty was not appropriate. When Anthony Smulders, C.F.M.M, interviewed Merriam for the LMU job (she was at UCLA at the time), he remarked: “Oh, you’re in molecular biology — and you’re a woman, too!”
Sometimes women needed to challenge their male colleagues about gender stereotyping. Once, while planning the school’s open house, several faculty members said they’d ask their wives to bake cookies for the event. Merriam chimed about her spouse: “I’ll ask John, but I don’t know if he’ll be able to do it.”
The number of female faculty and students in Seaver College began to climb in the mid ’80s. In 2015, when the university named Tina Choe, Ph.D., dean of Seaver College of Science and Engineering, she became the first woman to serve in the position.
Young women today may not realize the challenges and barriers faced by women in math, science and engineering decades ago, both women point out. “I think history is important because we need to understand who are and how we got here before we can make good choices about where to go next,” Dewar says.
Interested in learning more about the history of women in Seaver College? Watch Dewar and Merriam’s presentation on their research titled “Sharing Her Experience in Science and Engineering at LMU.”