Meet Mary Gentry Kavanaugh, Baylor Class of 1855 — and BU’s first female graduate
While sources differ, Baylor was one of the first (perhaps the very first) institution west of the Mississippi River to admit women. And in 1855 — just a year after BU’s first graduating class — Mary Gentry Kavanaugh became the first woman to earn a degree from Baylor University.
Though the university was still young, Baylor had been a part of Kavanaugh’s life from a young age. The daughter of Nelson Kavanaugh, one of BU’s original trustees, Mary began attending Baylor at the age of seven when the university opened in 1846, according to Lois Murray’s seminal history of Baylor’s original campus, Baylor at Independence. (Universities were very different places back then.) Kavanaugh would have spent her formative years surrounded by Baylor and Texas legends like Sam Houston, who is reported to have spoken out in favor of a Female Department building at Baylor in 1853 to house women students.
Among Kavanaugh’s memories of her time at Baylor were clandestine horse racing competitions with the male students. Owners of nearby horses allowed male students to borrow the horses for riding — but not the women. Female students would meet the men in prearranged spots and race horses against their male counterparts, away from the disapproving eyes on campus.
Mary was just 16 years old when she earned her Baylor degree, setting the stage for generations of women to follow. One year later, in his 1856 commencement address, the head of Baylor’s female department explained, “The education of woman is as much her birthright as the air she breathes, food she eats, apparel she wears.” While obvious today, that statement was bold in its time, and Kavanaugh’s success at Baylor provided a personal context of credibility to those who heard his words, which further cemented the university’s status as an early adopter in the rights of women pursuing higher education.
Sic ’em, Mary Gentry Kavanaugh!