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In the 21st century, we are still witnessing many firsts. We witnessed history with the first female vice president of the United States Kamala Harris and, less recently, the first woman speaker of the house, Nancy Pelosi. Janet Yellen became the first woman in the 232-year history of the U.S. to be sworn in as secretary of treasury in 2021.

When it comes to the history of this country, women have slowly been stepping into the spotlight. For some perspective, there have been 71 secretaries of state, of which only three have been women: Madeleine Albright (1997-2001), Condoleezza Rice (2005-2009), and Hillary Clinton (2009-2013).

A bulk of women’s firsts have surfaced within the last three decades, but they are still happening. It is a step in a revolutionary direction. The University of Florida has also actively participated in women’s firsts.

First Woman to enroll at UF: Lassie Goodbread-Black (1925)

Lassie Goodbread-Black, 20 years ahead of her time, marched up to the UF registrar in September 1925 and demanded her spot in the fall semester. At the time women were not allowed to enroll at UF if the same courses were offered at the Florida State College for Women in Tallahassee. Although met with refusal and bashful remarks, Goodbread-Black became the first woman to enroll as a full-time student at UF in 1925. She registered with the College of Agriculture, and, in a 1984 interview with Gayle Yamada through the Samuel Proctor Oral History program, she stated, “Agriculture was just a natural subject for me, and I loved it.”

It wasn’t until 20 years after her enrollment that the university officially began accepting women full-time students, without having to jump through hoops like Goodbread-Black. 

First Woman to graduate from UFs College of Law: Clara Backus Floyd Gehan (1933)

While experiencing the same adversities as Goodbread-Black, Gehan also managed to wiggle around the obstacles and materialize her aspirations. Gehan, via a lucky encounter with a law professor and permission from a dean, was granted admission into the law program at UF. Her admission was met with lines of male students awaiting Gehan’s arrival — and not in a chivalrous way. However, sexism and discrimination did hinder Gehan’s drive for success. If anything, the barriers in her way served as fuel. She graduated with honors and was given an award for the highest overall average. 

She later continued as a trailblazer, becoming the first woman local lawyer in Gainesville in 1963, dedicated to assisting the less fortunate through legal clinics and helping desegregate local businesses.

UF Marching Bands: Sophy Mae Mitchell Jr. (1948)

Mitchell arrived at UF and knew she had to be part of the Gator Band. At the time, the band was composed of only men. Women instrumentalists were a foreign concept. However, she insisted she had to march and made her case to the band director at the time, Colonel Harold B. Bachman. Bachman later instructed her to learn the bell lyre, and in no time, Mitchell would become the first woman to play an instrument in the UF Gator Band starting in 1948.

First Woman Gator Engineer: Maryly VanLeer Peck (1955)

Peck came from a family of engineers, and she had a passion to continue her family’s vocation. Already making history as the first female engineer at Vanderbilt University in 1951, Peck continued her legendary status at UF. She not only became the first woman to graduate with a master’s degree in chemical engineering in 1955 at UF but also a Ph.D. in 1963. Peck was not only a legend but a triple threat.

First Black Woman to enroll at UF: Daphne Duval Williams (1959)

Although segregation laws were not put to rest until 1964 with the Civil Rights Act, William was a pioneer in efforts to desegregate higher education, including UF. She enrolled through the College of Education and became the first Black woman to graduate from UF. Years following her enrollment, UF went on to admit its first Black undergraduates, leading to the first Black law student W. George Allen, graduating from UF at the Levin College of Law.

First Woman to graduate from UF College of Medicine: Dr. Jean Bennett (1960)

Excelling after her graduation in a male-dominated field, Bennett was the first woman of 40 members to graduate from the UF College of Medicine as part of the first class of 1960. Bennett struggled at first in her career and now gives generously to other medical students. She said, “Medicine is a calling. You never stop being a doctor. I was given the gift of superior medical education and medical training. I had the best job in the world…it has been a blessing to practice medicine.” 

First Hispanic woman to graduate with a Ph.D.: Dr. Amalia Alvarez (1974)

Alvarez is a Cuban immigrant who was the first Hispanic woman to earn a doctorate degree at UF in 1974. Her degree was in Spanish language from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Alvarez was a leader at UF, founding organizations such as the Cuban American Student Association, UF AHA and La Casita, the institute of Hispanic Latino Cultures. She also made groundbreaking introductory programs such as the ESOL program known as a model for public schools nationwide that helped non-Hispanic and Hispanic kids integrate into the public school system via a bilingual education program.

First woman as Law Dean: Laura Ann Rosenbury (2015)

After 106 years of a male-dominated position, Rosenbury was chosen to be the first permanent female dean for the College of Law. Rosenbury is highly motivated to make UF the best school possible but also strives to make a statement that leadership comes in different styles and forms. In an interview with Business Magazine Gainesville, Rosenbury mentioned she’s faced criticism as the first female dean, one being: “You’re too young to be a dean.” She believes comments like these are strictly because she is a woman and says, “They are just processing the fact that they are used to a dean looking a different way.”

First woman as Dean of UFs College of Medicine: Colleen G. Koch (2020)

For the first time ever in the college’s 64-year history, Koch will be the first woman and head of UFs College of Medicine. Koch is one of three female deans who head one of the ten medical schools in Florida. She will lead Florida’s largest medical college at UF. 

In an interview with WCJB TV20 News, Koch stated, “In my new role, I hope to inspire young women to pursue opportunities and careers in science and medicine. For those already in science and medicine, I hope to inspire women to pursue leadership opportunities that can help shape the future of medicine.”

This year, UF also celebrated 50 Years of Women’s athletics with the first ever UF woman gymnast, Nancy Thayer from 1972. In the last five decades, 165 national or conference championships have been earned by over 2,700 woman student-athletes at UF. 

Women have continued to prove they deserve their own seat at the table, and they have eagerly paved the way for those that came and continue to conquer after them, especially at the University of Florida. 

In the next few years, I have no doubt in mind we will see a historical first woman president of the University of Florida. 

Lover of writing, literature, art and photography. Determined to not only help but give people a voice. Building a better world for all the people I love and have yet to love.
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