It all started with two names: Lulu Westenhaver (sometimes spelled as Lula Westenhauer) and Esther Bray.
These names were the only mention of a female presence in the early days of Indiana University’s School of Commerce and Finance, now known as the Kelley School of Business. Westenhaver and Bray were mentioned as “teachers of shorthand and typing,” but their impact on the business school was much more significant than this one sentence implies. Lulu Westenhaver and Esther Bray were two influential figures and were part of a much greater legacy created by the women of the early business school.
Both women taught in the business school, Westenhaver as an instructor starting in the 1920s and Bray as one of the first female business professors in the late 1930s. Researching these two women led me to find Sarah Kirby, a secretary in the early business school, and Blanche McNeely Wean, BS’23, MA’32, the first woman admitted into the business school. Together, these four women demonstrate the stepping stones of female progress in the business and academic world of the 1920s and ‘30s.
Sarah Kirby began her work at IU in 1908 as secretary to IU registrar John W. Cravens. In 1920, Kirby was appointed secretary to William Rawles, the first dean of the newly created School of Commerce and Finance. She served the university as an administrative assistant for six different deans throughout her 38 years at the university until her retirement in 1946. She became a beloved figure in the school and for good reason: she was responsible for assisting students who had served in World War I and II to complete their degrees. Kirby made history in 1942 when she became the first woman to be elected an honorary member of the school’s honor society, Beta Gamma Sigma.
Kirby was a dedicated steward of the business school, once saying, “My door will always be open to anyone who was ever enrolled in the school of business… and I hope I have lots of company.”
In addition to working as secretaries, women were present in the early business school as instructors. Lulu Westenhaver taught at the School of Commerce and Finance in 1920, and became a positive influence in the professional lives of her students, often serving as a supervisor for various organizations and clubs.
Westenhaver graduated from the University of Wisconsin and came to IU to teach stenography, typewriting, and other secretarial courses. From 1923 to 1935, in addition to her teaching, Westenhaver was also a secretary for the school alongside Sarah Kirby. Dedicated to the networking and camaraderie of the female business students, she founded Chi Gamma, a professional organization for women in business at IU. Later, she sponsored Omicron Delta, another professional organization for junior and senior women in the business school.
Westenhaver spent 28 years at the business school, teaching all-male classes for the first two years before Blanche McNeely Wean was admitted to the program. Westenhaver was an advocate for women, encouraging women to pursue professional careers as a charter member of the Business and Professional Women’s Club, a group established to offer more networking opportunities for women. She herself was a member of eight different organizations dedicated to professional development and teaching.
And she was a cornerstone in the education of business students. Upon her death, the resolutions committee, chaired by colleague Esther Bray, memorialized her with these words in 1948: “Always striving for perfection, she was precise and exact in her own standards and in turn expected much from others… Miss Westenhaver contributed to the building of character and skill.”
While the School of Commerce and Finance had female secretaries and instructors such as Kirby and Westenhaver, it did not have any women admitted into the school to pursue a degree for the first two years of its existence. In 1922, Blanche McNeely Wean changed that. A Bloomington native, she began her undergraduate education at Indiana University in 1919. She was originally studying education, but had ambitions to join the business world, which stemmed from working in her father’s grocery store as a child. When she shared her ambitions with a male professor, she was told that business was a “man’s world.”
She turned to Sarah Kirby, a secretary with whom she interacted frequently, who encouraged her to ask Dean Rawles for admission into the school. In McNeely Wean’s memoir published in 1996, she credited her admission into the school to Sarah Kirby. “In his very formal way he [Dean Rawles] looked me over as if he had not seen me before and said, ‘Well Blanche, you have taken all the preliminary courses. I cannot see why not.’”
After that exchange, McNeely Wean became the first woman admitted into the business school. Two more women transferred from the University of Chicago and were concurrently admitted. Anna Hasler, BS’23; Athleen Catterson, BS’23; and Blanche McNeely Wean graduated together in 1923, making them the first women to graduate from the Indiana University School of Commerce and Finance—and McNeely Wean was the first female graduate to have completed all of the degree requirements at IU. After graduation, she moved to Lafayette, Ind., to begin working as a teacher and married Francis Wean in 1926.
In 1930, Francis unexpectedly passed away, widowing McNeely Wean and leaving her to raise three daughters under the age of three at the onset of the Great Depression.
McNeely Wean writes in her memoir about the time: “The shock of his death was almost more than I could bear. I found it hard to make decisions, except one, and that with emphasis. Friends without children asked whether I would consider giving one of my children to them. I was indignant and answered, ‘Why? I have my education and ability to work. I can take care of my own children.’”
Instead, McNeely Wean moved back to Bloomington to substitute teach for Lulu Westenhaver, who was on medical leave. She describes that moving back to Bloomington was like a homecoming: “It was a time to renew old friendships with Herman Wells [BS’24, MA’27, LLD’62], Mr. Pritchett, Joe Batchelor, Esther Bray, and Miss Kirby.”
While teaching at IU, she was working on her master’s degree and was offered a trial position as the head of the business department at Central Normal College in Danville, Ind., (later renamed Canterbury College). Rather than uprooting her family, she woke up every Monday morning at 2:30 a.m. to drive to Danville and teach a 6:00 a.m. class. In 1932, McNeely Wean received an official offer from Central Normal College to head the business school, serve as the dean of women for the college, and serve as the student newspaper’s advisor —with the promise that she would first graduate with her master’s degree from Indiana University that same year. She graduated with a master of arts degree in May 1932, and then moved her family to Danville. She continued at Central Normal College for 15 years while also working as an accountant for outside businesses.
In the meantime, all three of her daughters attended Indiana University for their undergraduate studies. In 1947, McNeely Wean left the college and started her own accounting firm out of her home. She ran the business on her own with a few employees until her grandson, Ted Andrews, joined the firm, which was rechristened Wean, Andrews, & Co. in 1980.
McNeely Wean contributed greatly to the business education of students and shattered glass ceilings for many women aspiring to careers in business. She was instrumental in proving that women could succeed in the business world, even without the support of a husband. In an interview with the Indianapolis Star in 1987, McNeely Wean expounds on the importance of ability beyond physical attributes: “I judge an individual on his or her merits. It’s not a matter of color or race, of women or men. It’s a question of ‘the job has to be done and let’s do it.’ If you can do it better than the other fellow, fine.”
The 1922 admission of Blanche McNeely Wean led to an extraordinary life for the alumna, but business was not yet a widely-accessible career choice for many women, especially in the world of higher education. Most women who taught business during this time were business education professors, such as Esther Bray. But Bray was not your average professor–as an early female professor in the business school, she would prove to be a force of nature and a fierce advocate for her students.
Bray spent most of her academic and teaching career at Indiana University. She received her bachelor’s degree in 1925, her master’s degree in 1927, and returned to the university to teach in 1937 at the request of President Herman B Wells. Before embarking on her 34-year teaching career in business education at IU, Bray taught in area high schools and at Ball State University.
At IU, Bray was the only woman on the business school faculty for many years, as instructors such as Westenhaver were not considered “faculty” throughout the university at the time. In later interviews, Bray recalled that departmental meetings were often opened with “Mrs. Bray and gentlemen, shall we come to order?”
Bray was instrumental in the development of young women both in and out of the business school; she even organized trips to the statehouse in Indianapolis for women to practice their stenography skills in a professional setting. She served as a Girls State lead volunteer for 24 years and a Girls Nation lead volunteer for 14 years, all in pursuit of furthering personal and professional development in thousands of young women.
In 1971, she retired from the business school as she was appointed by Indiana Governor Edgar Whitcomb to the Indiana Commission for Higher Education. Bray was a charter member and served as elected secretary for many of her 21 years on the Commission. When she retired in 1992, she was one of only two original members.
Bray was married to twelve-term Congressman William Bray, with whom she visited more than 100 countries during their marriage. When she was 96, she was named a Herald-Times Woman of the Century. Her life was varied from politics to business to education, but her motive was the same: to encourage young women to aspire to achieve more with their lives than being a traditional wife and mother. When Bray passed away in 1999, a faculty memorial resolution was approved in her honor, calling Bray a “role model for women” and “had the time been right, she would have been a congresswoman.”
Sarah Kirby, Lulu Westenhaver, Blanche McNeely Wean, and Esther Bray are intrinsically linked together as members of the first generation of women involved in the business school. Together, these four women each played their own role in the progression of women in the business school: the secretary, the instructor, the student, and the professor. Their journeys set in motion the future success of women in the nationally acclaimed Kelley School of Business—a school that in 2013 broke another glass ceiling by appointing Idalene Kesner, MBA’82, PhD’83, as the first woman to serve as dean.
This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of 200: The IU Bicentennial Magazine, a special six-issue magazine that highlights Bicentennial activities and shares untold stories from the dynamic history of Indiana University. Visit 200.iu.edu for more Bicentennial information.