UNB Alumni
Telling our #ProudlyUNB stories

The women of UNB: Recognizing UNB firsts for Women’s History Month 

Author: UNB Alumni

Posted on Oct 25, 2021

Category: UNB Fredericton , Inspiring Stories , Law , Engineering , UNB Saint John

In honour of Women’s History Month, we dug into the UNB Archives, with help from Archives & Special Collections staff members and alumnae Patti Auld Johnson (BOM’91) and Leah Grandy (MA’04, PhD’10), to share the stories of some of the women from UNB’s history. 

These women are trailblazers and important figures in our long and storied history. From the first female graduate of UNB, to the university’s first librarian, the women featured here are inspirations for all those who followed them. 


UNB’s first female graduate 

(UNB Class Composite and Group Photographs Database, c. 1889) 

UNB Class Composite and Group Photographs Database, c. 1889In 1885, Mary Kingsley Tibbits requested entrance to UNB, but her request was denied. It was in 1886, and only when threatened with the curtailment of provincial funding by John Valentine Ellis, an MLA, did the Senate reconsider their previous position. She became the first woman to graduate from UNB in 1889, when she was awarded a BA (Hons. English) and the Governor General's Gold Medal for academic proficiency. 

After graduating from UNB, Tibbits pursued a distinguished career. She was a member of the first class of graduate students at Bryn Mawr College, became the first female principal of a New Brunswick high school (Queens County Grammar School in Gagetown), and became head of the English Department at Boston's Hyde Park High School.  In 1914, Tibbits became the second woman to be awarded an honorary MA from UNB. UNB conferred its highest honour, the LLD degree, upon Tibbits in 1939 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of her graduation. 

Read more of Mary’s story. 


First woman to give the Alumni Oration at UNB 

(1896. UNB Class Composite and Group Photographs Database) 

1896. UNB Class Composite and Group Photographs DatabaseMabel Sterling earned her BA in 1896, and in the same year, all 21 women graduates of the University thus far were invited to join the Associated Alumni. From 1926-28 Sterling was President of the Alumnae Society. In May 1930 the UNB Senate appointed Sterling as Librarian for the new Bonar Law-Bennett Library. She remained in that post until ill health forced her retirement in 1941. In 1939 she was selected on behalf of the Alumnae Society to give the Alumni Oration at UNB's Encaenia, the first time a woman had done so at any Canadian university.  

Read more of Mabel’s story. 


The first black woman to graduate from UNB 

(UA PC-13 no. 48) 

UA PC-13 no. 48Mary Matilda (Tilly) Winslow of Woodstock, the first Black woman to attend UNB, graduated at the top of her class in 1905, earning a BA and the Montgomery-Campbell Prize for excellence in classics. She taught in the Halifax area but eventually moved to the United States where she married and became a music teacher and sometime dean of the Normal Department at Central College in Alabama.  

In 1954, Mary wrote a letter to her classmates for their 50th class reunion. In the letter, she chronicles her experience of racism as a Black educator. In honour of Black History Month 2021, the UNB Art Cente featured Dr. Mary McCarthy-Brandt reading and discussing this letter. Watch the video. 

Read more about Mary. 


The first woman to receive a bachelor of civil law degree from the Saint John Law School 

(Yorke, Lois K. "Mabel Penery French (1881-1955): a life recreated." UNB Law Journal, vol. 42, 1993.) 

Yorke, Lois K. "Mabel Penery French (1881-1955): a life recreated." UNB Law Journal, vol. 42, 1993.In 1902, Mabel Priscilla Penery French registered at King's College Law School (later UNB's Faculty of Law) and she became the first woman to receive a Bachelor of Civil Law degree in 1905. 

Although French did not have any difficulty enrolling at the Law School, she did encounter barriers when she sought entry to the New Brunswick bar. In 1905, six judges ruled that women were, in fact, not persons and therefore not eligible to practice law. In response to his ruling, French purposely withheld payments for a number of bills. When she was sued for debt, French used "the novel defence" that, as she was not a person, she could not be sued. Although this defence failed, it did succeed in reversing the earlier judgement that women were not persons. 

In 1907, the Provincial Legislature passed "An Act to Remove the Disability of Women so far as Relates to the Study and Practice of the Law", which resulted in French becoming the first woman lawyer in New Brunswick. She was the fourth woman called to the bar nationally, and the first woman admitted outside of Ontario.  

Read more about Mabel. 


UNB’s first female Beaverbrook Scholar 

(PR; Series 4; File 18; Item 443) 

PR; Series 4; File 18; Item 443Florence Thompson Snodgrass graduated from UNB in 1924 with a BA (Honours in Economics and Philosophy) and the Governor General's Gold Medal for outstanding academic attainment. She entered university in 1920 as one of the original four recipients of the Beaverbrook Entrance Scholarship, and was the first female Beaverbrook Scholar. 

She continued her education at Harvard, receiving an MA in 1927 and after teaching at Washington College in Maryland, USA and Wheaton College in Massachusetts, USA for 20 years, earned her PhD from Yale in 1947.  

Dr. Snodgrass returned to her alma mater in 1950 to begin her career as Professor and Head of the Department of Psychology and Sociology, one of the first women to chair a department at UNB. Dr. Snodgrass was honoured for her service to UNB when she was named Professor Emerita in 1974, the first woman to receive this distinction. 

Read more about Florence. 


The first Jewish woman to graduate from UNB 

(1935. UNB Class Composite & Group Photographs Database) 

1935. UNB Class Composite & Group Photographs DatabaseEthel Frances Singer is believed to be the first Jewish woman to graduate from UNB. After completing her education, Ethel moved to Moncton and became a teacher, maintaining her close ties with UNB through the alumni chapter there. Her sister, Sadie Rebecca Singer, who had lived with Ethel and knew how important the university had been to her, left a substantial bequest to UNB at the time of her death in 1970. In 1987 these funds, along with monies from the province, alumni, and friends, were used to construct Singer Hall, a $3.2 million addition to Tilley Hall, to house the Faculty of Administration and the Department of Economics. 

Read more about Ethel’s legacy. 


The first woman to receive a degree in Civil Engineering 

(UA PC 13; no. 5. Photo credit: L. Harrison) 

UA PC 13; no. 5. Photo credit: L. HarrisonIn 1947, Fredericton native Helen J. Baxter became the first woman to graduate from UNB with a degree in Civil Engineering.  In 1950 she became the first woman professional engineer in the province to receive her membership in the Association of Professional Engineers of New Brunswick.  



The first professional librarian at UNB 

(PR; Series 4; File 7; Item 112.) 

PR; Series 4; File 7; Item 112.Gertrude Gunn, who received her MA from UNB, was the first professional librarian at UNB in 1959. She was influential in the opening of the Harriet Irving Library.  After working for the Department of National Defence until 1945/46, and then spending several years in the newspaper industry in Montreal, she entered UNB to study history, earning a BA (Hons.) in 1955, and an MA the following year. She was awarded a Beaverbrook Postgraduate Overseas Fellowship which enabled her to continue her education at King's College, University of London and completed her PhD. While studying in England, Dr. Gunn received a letter from UNB administrators offering her the position of University Librarian, which she accepted and enrolled at Simmons College in Boston to study Library Science. In 1959, Dr. Gunn returned to Fredericton to head the Bonar Law-Bennett Library, the first formally-trained librarian to hold this position. During her tenure, the library grew from a small collection of approximately 97,000 items to a research library housing over 1.8 million volumes, and a quadrupled number of full-time staff. Dr. Gunn's hard work and determination made the construction of a new building a reality, with the Harriet Irving Library opening its doors in 1967.  


The first woman to receive a PhD in the Faculty of Arts  

(1970, credit Mary Flagg) 

1970, credit Mary FlaggFrom 1965-1970, Marjorie Dunn Chapman was a Lecturer in the Department of English and in 1970, became the first woman to receive a PhD in the Faculty of Arts at UNB. Known as an excellent teacher, Dr. Chapman was the only woman in the Department of English until 1984, and retired in 1985 after more than twenty years as a UNB faculty member.  

Learn more about Marjorie. 



The information above is extracted from UNB Archives & Special Collection Wiki, which has been researched and written by Archives staff, particularly Patti Auld Johnson. 

Our Wiki: Archives & Special Collections Wiki - UNB's History at a Glance 

Women at UNB   

Firsts for Women at UNB  


Images courtesy of UNB Archives & Special Collections. All images have been cropped.