The Daily Texan "Woman Who Made Co-education a Reality in Texas Honored Today"

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The Daily Texan "Woman Who Made Co-education a Reality in Texas Honored Today"


UT Austin First Dean of Women Helen Marr Kirby


Article written by Alice Mary Adams for the January 17, 1937 copy of The Daily Texan titled "Woman Who Made Coeducation a Reality in Texas Honored Today." Remembers the life of Helen Marr Kirby 100 years after her birth and recounts her contributions to coeducation at UT Austin.
Title: Woman Who Made Co-education a Reality in Texas Honored Today
Author: Alice Mary Adams

This is the story of Helen Marr Kirby, born one hundred years ago today, who in 1884 came to the University’s first Board of Regents and took over co-educational discipline, a job which those worthy gentlemen were viewing with the nervousness of a hen who has hatched sea-gulls. This is the story of the University’s first dean of women. Her portrait, painted by the late Julian Onderdonk of San Antonio, is on exhibit in the foyer of the Texas Union for one week, which began Saturday It shows her as so many of her friends knew her: courageous, whimsical, understanding, gentle, a person with the unaffected ease of true dignity. It pictures her as the attentive, helpful, thoughtful listener she was known to be–her whole person held in calm poise, restful strength in the pose of her hands. In a trivial incident told about the dean of women, who was lady assistant until 1904, one may guess at the extent of her courage, tact, and humor.

“Laws” Rebel
As the University grew, classroom space was diminishing. The Board of Regents decided to transfer a number of academic classes into the Law Building. The “laws,” apparently even more jealous of their sanctuary than they are today, protested that the building was theirs and that life would be unbearable with co-eds perpetually under-foot. They threatened to make themselves so obnoxious that the academic students would demand to be removed. On the first day of classes, Mrs. Kirby led the little procession of girls that apprehensively filed across the campus. Her chin was high; her eyes snapped with half-humorous challenge “Look!” cried one of the girls as they came within view of the front entrance. “They’ve all lined up outside the door! Oh Mrs. Kirby, what do you suppose they’re going to do?” “I’m sure,” replied Mrs. Kirby, gently “that these young men are not so vicious as they would have us believe. Just pretend you see nothing amiss. I’ll take care of them.” As the group approached the building, not a sound came from the ranks of the “laws.” “Good morning, young gentlemen,” greeted Mrs. Kirby with her prettiest smile.

Suddenly Become Polite
All hats were lifted as if by a puff of wind. “You are most thoughtful to welcome us to your building,” she continued. “We greatly appreciate your generosity in sharing it with us–and now would you mind showing the young ladies to their classes? I must get back to my office.” By no accident was Mrs. Kirby a staunch believer in the gentle art of being a lady. Born in Mobile, Ala., January 17, 1837, she was one of the six children of Richard and Margaret Conner Swearingen, gentle people of the Old South. When Helen Marr was 11, the family moved to Chapel Hill, Texas. Helen Marr received her early schooling at home. In 1855 she took a bachelor of arts degree at Wesleyan Female College in Macon, Ga. Three years later she was married to a wealthy plantation owner, Jared E. Kirby, a widower. She lived happily for seven years in the manor house that Mr. Kirby built for his bride on a 1,000-acre tract of land near Hempstead. She was always a gracious hostess to his friends and a loving mother to his two children and later to their own three boys.

War Ends Idyll
Colonel Kirby’s fortune was swept away in the Civil War. Shortly afterwards he was killed by a political enemy. Mrs. Kirby turned her home, the only property left to her, into a girls’ boarding school, which she called Alta Vista Institute. In 1875 Mrs. Kirby closed her school and came to Austin to teach in Tom Stacy’s private school for girls. This, then, was the woman whom the Regents of an “infant institution,” The University of Texas, implored to take the “white elephant” of discipline off their hands. “Your duties?” exclaimed Gegent Shepherd when she asked for an outline of them. “My dear Mrs. Kirby, you may use your own judgement. We are helpless!” The first year must have been a difficult one for Mrs. Kirby. But as time went on, both boys and girls found themselves eagerly seeking her regard. As for her, she said at her resignation twenty-five years later, “My work was new, often bewildering and hard; the reward has come, great, inspiring and eternal.”

Girls Would Be Girls
Though Mrs. Kirby watched with interest the growing intramural and extramural activities of the University, she stoutly resisted infractions of the principles of womanliness. Not infrequently she found occasion to quote a lightly significant jingle: “Girls, don’t wiggle when you walk, don’t giggle when you talk.” The former mistress of Alta Vista had not forgotten, however, that her happiest years had been spent as a housewife. “Girls are meant for boys,” she said one time, “But remember–for good boys!” In 1904 Mrs. Kirby’s title became “dean of women.” She served in that capacity until 1919, when she resigned and was made Dean Everita. For two years more she continues to give gentle counsel to “her girls.” She died October 29, 1921. “The woman who made co-education a reality in Texas,” they call her.


The Daily Texan
Written by Alice Mary Adams


January 17, 1937




Newspaper Article


Austin, Texas




The Daily Texan


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The Daily Texan


Austin Daily Texan


The Daily Texan and Written by Alice Mary Adams, “The Daily Texan "Woman Who Made Co-education a Reality in Texas Honored Today",” Subverting Silence: Uplifting Marginalized Conversations, accessed December 9, 2022,

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