It’s no secret to residents of Salem that the community’s beloved Willamette University is exceptional. Since its establishment in 1842, the local college has accumulated a rich history over its 175 years, with a trademark of being an institution of firsts. Willamette founded the first medical school and law school in the Pacific Northwest in the second half of the 19th century, and the school itself was the first Mission School in the region, making it the oldest university in the Western United States.

And, unlike many historic colleges and universities founded as men’s institutions and only later admitted women, Willamette University opened its doors to both male and female students from the beginning. It was this progressive decision that would yield remarkable results not just for Willamette University but also for the amazing women who would go on to graduate from this prestigious school with degrees of the highest honors so that they may, in turn, go on to make significant contributions to the world and etch their names in the annals of history.

Historic Women of Willamette University
After graduation, Emily York went on to use her degree as a Mistress of English LIterature by turning to teaching, a pioneering beacon for future generations. Photo courtesy: Willamette University

 Emily York was Willamette University’s First Graduate

At a time in history when women were more often than not barred from college, Emily York made history by becoming the college’s first graduate in 1859, earning a Mistress of English Literature degree. In fact, one 1905 history of the university even claimed that York was the first college graduate on the West Coast. York herself once quipped, “As I was the only graduate, I was the valedictorian.” Either way, she certainly made history and paved the way for future women who would join the alums, with six women graduating later in 1863, along with six men and another four joining the ranks in 1864, along with three male classmates.

Historic Women of Willamette University
Emily York set the stage for future women at Willamette University, being the first to graduate from the school in 1859 during a time when women were typically barred from college campuses. Photo courtesy: Willamette University

Many of these female graduates within the school’s first 20 years became teachers, including Emily York herself. These early graduates are credited for spreading learning and culture among the young people of the growing community. Besides being dedicated to her students, she was also an avid supporter of women’s rights. Reference to York and her dedication to education can be found throughout the campus today, with the Emily J. York House being a coed residence dedicated in her honor.   

Historic Women of Willamette University
Norma Paulus is remembered today for her amazing political career, during which time she advanced women’s rights, education and the environment. Photo courtesy: Willamette University

Norma Paulus Become a Female Political Pioneer

Trailblazer Normal Paulus is just one of the Willamette graduates who followed in the footsteps of fellow greats like York. Paulus advanced women’s rights, education and environmental protection as a political pioneer, becoming Oregon’s first female Secretary of State in 1977. She began her career as a secretary for the district attorney for Harney County in Burns, Oregon, before moving to Salem to work as a legal secretary, including working for Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl C. Latourette. Having no prior college degree, Latourette recommended Paulus attend law school, advice she decided to take and thusly enrolled at Willamette University in 1956.

Historic Women of Willamette University
Graduating from an Institution of Firsts, alumni Norma Paulus went on to accomplish some firsts of her own, being the first woman to be Secretary of State for Oregon in 1977. Photo courtesy: Willamette University

After graduating with her law degree in 1962 and going on to start her stellar career in Oregon politics that would eventually lead to her election as Oregon’s Secretary of State, she became the Republican candidate for governor in 1986 and Oregon Superintendent of Education in 1990, a title she held for nine years. At the time of her initial election, she was one of only ten women in the nation to hold the top education position in their state. Prior to her passing on February 28, 2019, Paulus lived in Portland, where she was involved with several non-profit groups and sponsored a ballot measure to create open primaries in Oregon’s statewide elections.

Historic Women of Willamette University
Today Liz Heaston won’t be found on the football field for a match anytime soon, but she still pursues her soccer passion by serving as the assistant women’s soccer coach for Richland High School, her hometown. Photo courtesy: Willamette University

Elizabeth Heaston Became the First Female to Play in a Collegiate Football Game

Elizabeth Heaston began her athletic career as a star play on the Willamette’s women’s soccer team, serving as a defender from 1995 through 1998. During her time on the field, she helped the Bearcats earn a combined record of 75-11-6 while winning four conference titles and reaching the NCAA Division III Semifinals in 1998. She was also named Honorable Mention All-America in 1996 and 1997 when the university competed in the NAIA. It was apparent she was on a roll and was a force to be reckoned with both on and off the field.

Her fantastic athleticism didn’t go unnoticed, especially when starting kicker Gordon Thomas was injured. The backup kicker was a freshman with limited experience, and the men’s soccer players weren’t available because their games were scheduled at the same time as the football games. What was a football coach to do? Initially, Heaston thought coach Dan Hawkins was joking when he approached her and asked her to join the team.

She never imagined the end result would be her stepping onto the football field to be the first woman to play and score in a college football game on October 18, 1997. She successfully kicked two extra points in her first game on two attempts in a 27-0 win over Linfield College. For the rest of the 1997 season, Heaston and the team won 13 consecutive games before the Bearcats lost to Findlay University in the NAIA Championship game. Once the season was over, Heaston appeared on the Today Show in addition to numerous other interviews. Her accomplishments on the field are currently highlighted at the College Football Hall of Fame and the Willamette University Athletics Hall of Fame.

Historic Women of Willamette University
Liz Heaston made headlines by being the first woman to play and score two points in her first-ever college football game. Photo courtesy: Willamette University

Three remarkable women, all graduating from an institution of firsts and going on to be firsts in their own right. Each one is just as special as the beloved Willamette University, and there’s no doubt that this historic campus will continue to produce women alums who will embark on journeys to become pioneers of their generations, just as these women before them.

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