Celebrating UC Davis’ Remarkable Women

Collage of 10 women.
The “Remarkable UC Davis Women” list includes, top row from left: London Breed ’97, mayor of San Francisco; Tracy Caldwell Dyson, Ph.D. ’97, astronaut; Tani Cantil-Sakauye ’80, J.D. ’84, chief justice of California; Katherine Esau, Ph.D. ’31, botanist and longtime faculty member; and Linda P.B. Katehi, chancellor emerita. Bottom row, from left: Michal Kurlaender, professor and department chair in the School of Education; Beth Rose Middleton ’01, associate professor of Native American studies; Julie Sze, professor of American studies and founding director of the Environmental Justice Project for UC Davis’ John Muir Institute for the Environment; Celeste Turner Wright, UC Davis’ first female faculty member with a doctoral degree and the first to earn tenure; and Ann Veneman ’70, former U.S. secretary of agriculture and past executive director of UNICEF.

A congresswoman, an astronaut, academic groundbreakers, the university’s first female chancellor and more: UC Davis is highlighting 55 of its most significant women in history as part of a celebration marking the 150th anniversary of the admission of women to the University of California.

“The list we compiled is by no means a complete list of all the incredible women at UC Davis; however, it offers a sample of remarkable women across UC Davis,” said Sophie Barbu, assistant director of UC Davis ADVANCE, which is focused on recruitment, advancement and retention of underrepresented populations into ladder-rank faculty positions in science, technology, engineering and math fields.

UC Berkeley is leading the celebration with a website featuring history and a series of events dating back to last fall, and invited other UC campuses to submit lists of significant alumni, faculty and staff in their histories.

The Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, which includes ADVANCE, led the effort to compile the list, and members of the selection committee compiled both recent and early UC Davis figures, including:

  • London Breed ’97, the first African American woman to be elected mayor of San Francisco and the second female mayor in the city’s history.
  • Tracy Caldwell Dyson, Ph.D. ’97, who became an astronaut in 1998 and went to space in 2007 and 2010, where she logged 188 days in space and three spacewalks.
  • Tani Cantil-Sakauye ’80, J.D. ’84, the first Filipina American and second woman to serve as chief justice of California.
  • Katherine Esau, Ph.D. ’31, a botanist who later won the National Medal of Science, Esau came to UC Davis to continue research into diseased plants and stayed on as a faculty member until leaving for UC Santa Barbara in 1962.
  • Linda P.B. Katehi, UC Davis’ first female chancellor, who served from 2009 to 2016 and is a researcher in microwave- and millimeter-printed computer circuitry.
  • Michal Kurlaender, a professor and department chair in the School of Education whose election to the National Academy of Education earlier this year was the first time a UC Davis faculty member has received that honor.
  • Beth Rose Middleton ’01, an associate professor of Native American studies who researches environmental policy and protection of Native American sites.
  • Julie Sze, a professor of American studies, is founding director of the Environmental Justice Project for UC Davis’ John Muir Institute for the Environment.
  • Celeste Turner Wright, the first female faculty member with a doctoral degree and the first to earn tenure, who came to campus in 1928 as chair of the English department and stayed until her retirement in 1979.
  • Ann Veneman ’70, was the first and only woman to serve as U.S. secretary of agriculture (from 2001-2005) and later served as executive director of UNICEF.

More than a century of women at UC Davis

There was no formal rule banning women from attending the University of California in its early days, but the university also had not spelled out the fact that they could apply. The regents’ decision on Oct. 3, 1870, to make a formal statement that “the university should admit women on an equal basis with men” was unanimous, and the first women were admitted two years later.

The first woman to graduate from the University of California was Rosa Scrivner, in 1874. Since UC Davis did not exist until more than three decades later (and then as the University Farm), it took some time for women to study here. The first women arrived on campus in 1914, when there were still only 160 undergrads at what would eventually become UC Davis.

Throughout the years, women have held the highest leadership posts at UC Davis and have become some of the university’s most prominent alumni, and those involved with compiling this list hope to celebrate some of the trailblazers, past and present.

The selection committee comprised:

  • Jaime Allen, Cal Aggie Alumni Association
  • Sophie Barbu (chair), UC Davis ADVANCE
  • Molly Bechtel, Status of Women Administrative Advisory Committee, College of Engineering
  • Karl Engelbach, Office of the Chancellor and Provost
  • Sara Gunasekara, UC Davis Library
  • Loraine Hernandez-Covello, Government and Community Relations
  • Sarah McCullough, Feminist Research Institute
  • Erin Mross, Cal Aggie Alumni Association
  • Gina Reed, Status of Women Administrative Advisory Committee and Continuing and Professional Education
  • Kelly Ratliff, Finance, Operations and Administration
  • Anna Ward, Feminist Research Institute

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