Influential Women of UNI

This display highlights women who have influenced life at UNI in some way, whether it was through their leadership in the classroom, their accomplishments after graduation, or their involvement locally. These women are not the only individuals to have made an impact on this school however. Many other great teachers, students, and alumni exist, but because of space limitations, only twelve were selected. For more information on these individuals and others, please see the staff in Special Collections.

This institution has not always been known as UNI. Over the years it has had three other names: Iowa State Normal School, 1876 to 1909; Iowa State Teachers College, 1909 to 1961; and State College of Iowa, 1961-1967. Since 1967, we have been called the University of Northern Iowa. For the sake of simplicity, the only name referred to in this display is UNI.

Marion McFarland Walker (1861-1957)


Marion Walker


Marion McFarland Walker was the first Dean of Women at UNI. She held this position from 1908 through 1929. As Dean, she supervised the well-being of all female students on campus and had much authority over rooming houses. From 1890-97 she was Professor of Applied English. While in this position, she supervised and monitored all literary societies. She also helped start the Neotrophian, Zetalethean, and Orio Societies. One year before she became Dean, she was a substitute teacher of English.

Annie Turner Wittenmyer (1827-1900)


Annie Wittenmyer


Because of Annie Turner Wittenmyer's commitment to orphaned children, UNI exists today. Mrs. Wittenmyer was instrumental in organizing orphans' homes for children of Iowa soldiers and sailors who died as a result of the Civil War. The Cedar Falls Iowa Soldiers' Orphans' Home, which opened in 1869, later became the Iowa State Normal School, and eventually, the University of Northern Iowa. The sculpture erected on the east side of Lang Hall was constructed to honor Mrs. Wittenmyer. In the 1870s, she was also the first president of the Women's Christian Temperance Union.

Bertha Martin (1862-1929)


Bertha Martin


Bertha Martin was influential in theatre at UNI from 1905-1929. She introduced a new method of acting, focusing on more natural and human movements. In addition to directing, she also trained those students interested in public speaking contests and expanded the course offerings in drama. Professor Martin was well-liked and well-thought of by both her students and her peers. She died after a short struggle with pneumonia in 1929. The entire campus felt the loss of this gifted teacher.

Bess Streeter Aldrich (1881-1954)


Bess Aldrich


Alumna Bess Streeter Aldrich was a well-known American author. She wrote 160 short stories and several novels, the most popular one being A Lantern in Her Hand in 1925. Her writing reflected the lives of Iowa's and Nebraska's pioneers. Aldrich received her Bachelor of Didactics degree from UNI in 1901. She returned in 1906 to be a critic teacher for the primary grades for one year.

Alison E. Aitchison (1874-1964)


Alison Aitchison


Alison Aitchison was a nationally recognized scholar and teacher of geography. After graduating from the Iowa State Normal School (now the University of Northern Iowa) with a Master of Didactics degree in 1903, she remained at the school until 1944 teaching geography and natural science. Professor Aitchison is best known for helping to create the Alumni Council in 1924, and for being the first woman in the U.S. to receive the Distinguished Service Award from the National Council of Geography Teachers in 1946. She also was named an outstanding faculty member for the 1938-39 school year.

Mavis Holmes (1904-1990)


Mavis Holmes


After several years as Associate Dean of Students, Mavis Holmes was named the first female Dean of Students at UNI. Her career at UNI began in 1956 when she became Acting Associate Dean of Students. Two years later she became the permanent Associate Dean. In 1971, less than one year before she retired, she became Dean. Holmes was involved in several organizations before and after her retirement, including the American Association of University Women and Business and Professional Women. She was also the chair of the Education Committee of the Governor's Commission on the Status of Women for four years. On November 11, 1972, she received the Outstanding Woman Educator Award by the Torch and Tassel senior women's honor society at UNI. She was an advocate of the women's movement and believed all women should be educated and trained.

Frances L. Webster (c.1853-1925)


Frances Webster


Frances Webster was the first female instructor at UNI. Hired when the school opened in 1876, she had a salary of $800/year and lived in a room in the main school building, Central Hall. The first catalog listed her as a Teacher of Geography and History. Educated from a highly regarded normal school in New York, she brought new teaching methods that were very different from the read, memorize, and recite method. With her guidance, the first women's literary society, Alpha Society, was formed in 1877. Professor Wright, also one of the original faculty, described her as a "...lady of fine presence and winning matter." In 1878 she resigned to teach in a school in California.

Irene Eaton, "Ma Commons"


Irene Eaton


Back when the Commons served as the social center of campus, alumna Irene Eaton watched over her extended family. Eaton was the evening hostess in the Commons from 1935 until she retired in 1972. She served as a greeter, property manager, and student supervisor. In the late 1930s when the Commons received new furniture, the students grumbled with good nature that she was as bad as Mom because she would not let them tip their chairs or slouch. This earned her the nickname "Ma Commons." She was well loved by the students, becoming an honorary member of the I-Club for athletic letter-winners and being named "Most Popular Girl" on campus by the Men's Union. Her work as a UNI alum (B.A. 1921) earned her the Alumni Service Award in 1964.

Mona Jane Van Duyn (1921-2004)


Mona Van Duyn


Outstanding alumna Mona Van Duyn won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1991. One year later she had the honor of becoming the first woman named as Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress. Van Duyn graduated from UNI with a B.A. in Teaching in 1942. As a student, she submitted many stories and poems to the school's newspaper and literary magazines. Some of which are included here. Among the other awards she received in her lifetime is an Honorary Doctor of Literature degree awarded by former UNI President Curris in 1991.

Maude Gilchrist (1861-1952)


Maude Gilchrist


Maude Gilchrist was the first woman to graduate from this institution. She graduated in 1878 with a Bachelor of Didactics degree, and then in 1880 with a Master of Science degree. From 1883-86, Gilchrist was a Teacher of Natural Sciences and Mathematics here. While teaching, she organized and led a gymnastics club for women. Though the club was not taken very seriously, it might be considered one of the early attempts at organized women's sports. Gilchrist was also Principal J.C. Gilchrist's daughter.

Anna E. McGovern (1860-1946)

Anna McGovern

Anna McGovern has been called the first alum to be hired by this school as a permanent faculty member. She taught in the area of education from 1881-1919, and then part-time until 1931. While at UNI, she organized the Newman Catholic Student Association, leading it from 1897 until she retired in 1919, and helped found a literary society. One wing of Roth Apartments on campus has been named in honor of McGovern.

Anna B. Lawther (1872-1957)


Anna Lawther


Anna Bell Lawther was the first woman on the Iowa State Board of Education (now called Regents), serving from 1921-41. She was also known as a distinguished leader of the women's suffrage movement in Iowa; from 1916-19, she served as president of the Iowa Equal Suffrage Association. The following year, she became the first woman delegate from Iowa to attend the Democratic National Convention. On the local side, she was involved with such groups as P.E.O., American Association of University Women, and the League of Women Voters. In 1940, a residence hall on campus, Lawther Hall, was dedicated in her honor.


Actual display and web version created by Susan A. Basye  Special Collections and University Archives   March 1998; April 1998