Remembering Texas A&M’s First Female Professor
The late Betty Miller Unterberger made history in 1968 as Texas A&M University’s first full female professor.
Unterberger spent her career excelling in the history department and helping others also realize their full potential. She’s known worldwide for being one of the founders of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR), but she’s best remembered at Texas A&M for her work with honors students.
Her legacy was cemented on campus in 2004 when the Betty M. Unterberger Award for Outstanding Service to Honors Education was created in recognition of her significant contribution to the growth and development of honors education.
“Dr. Unterberger was a strong personality, who was accomplished and self-assured,” her friend and fellow Texas A&M history professor, Terry Anderson, said. “She’d always tell me how much she loved the Aggies. She really enjoyed her time at Texas A&M.”
Unterberger’s interest in history began at Syracuse University. After taking a citizenship course from Marguerite J. Fisher, the only female professor Unterberger had in college, she pursued a bachelor’s degree in history and political science. She completed her undergraduate studies in 1943 and received her master’s degree in 1946 from Harvard University.
Although Unterberger is remembered for her many successes, she was no stranger to challenges. As a woman living in the twentieth century, she constantly encountered sexism and sarcasm throughout her education and career. Despite this, Unterberger persevered. She received her Ph.D. from Duke University in 1950, and published her first book, America’s Siberian Expedition, 1918-1920: A Study of National Policy, in 1956.
“Dr. Unterberger shrugged off sexism pretty well and fought it in her own way,” Anderson said. “During her graduate education, she was often asked what she was doing in a profession, not having children. Such comments hurt her, but they also increased her inner strength and resolve.”
In 1970, Texas A&M began its transition from an all-male military school to the more inclusive institution of higher education it is today. Unterberger was initially hesitant to teach in Aggieland. But James Earl Rudder, the university president at the time, convinced her that she was needed for more than her gender. He said the university was calling on her to help internationalize the history department’s curriculum and develop a graduate program.
Recognition of her work as a scholar was the key to bringing Unterberger to campus to begin her 36-year career at Texas A&M and to building a better history department for all future Aggies.
“She loved teaching and making students think and consider other views,” Anderson said. “She was demanding, and expected her students to read and be prepared for the class discussion, and she’d always tell me and others how much she appreciated the Aggies.”
Unterberger made an immediate impact on the university. She kept busy winning teaching awards (including the honor of Regents Professor), founding SHAFR, educating students about both the United States and the world, and publishing dozens of articles and scholarly works. Her work was influential, and she was asked to serve on many national advisory committees, including the CIA, until she retired in 2004.
“Dr. Unterberger was a path-breaker in our profession, but much more,” Anderson wrote in her obituary in 2012. “Her warm smile, passion for learning, and steady determination, meant that Betty led by her own example. She enhanced our profession – and our lives.”