Theresa McMahon: the Foster School’s “Activist of the Century”

Theresa McMahon

Having joined the UW as a professor of economics in 1911, Theresa Schmid McMahon became the first women to serve on faculty of the College of Business Administration when it was established in 1917.

She made a big impression.

As the Pacific Northwest was being transformed by its growing industrialization, McMahon was an early and powerful advocate for the rights of workers and women. The unapologetically “activist” professor pushed for an eight-hour workday, a minimum wage, and the abolition of gender-based discrimination in the workplace.

Armed with a PhD from the University of Wisconsin an unwavering sense of social justice borne of her early career work with Hull House and the Associate Charities of Chicago, the Tacoma native wrote volumes of comprehensively researched arguments for her humanistic thesis. Most influential was her 1925 book, Social and Economic Standards of Living.

Beside her formidable scholarship, McMahon was beloved by students for her outsized empathy and openness to passionate debate in the classroom. The UW Daily of April 27, 1920, had this to say about the professor lovingly known as “Mrs. Mac”:

Younger students slip into her classes because she is known to have a big heart and give a square deal. Older students seek her out because she’s an inspiration… Into the pocket of economics she puts a heart, a soul… To us students, Mrs. McMahon stands splendidly defiant—an advocate of justice and individualism… Her classes are hotbeds of criss-cross opinions. They are vital, enthusiastic gatherings brought down to earth, discussions of the very wolf at the door.

But McMahon’s ideologies often roiled the UW administration, which threatened her dismissal on several occasions. She fought an effort to remove her through anti-nepotism rules enacted to eliminate employment of spouses throughout the university system. Her husband, Edward McMahon, was a notable professor of history at the UW.

McMahon among her books, circa 1938.

When Theresa McMahon retired—on her own terms—in 1937, the Department of Economics presented her with a bound book of gushing letters from former students, colleagues and friends.

In her later years, McMahon suffered from debilitating arthritis and near blindness. She required a voice recorder to write her memoir, My Story, in 1959, before passing away two years later.

Her legacy lives on in McMahon Hall, the 1965 high-rise dormitory near the current Foster School campus that honors the lives and works of Theresa and Edward.

And at the 2017 Centennial Leadership Celebration, Theresa McMahon was named the Foster School’s “Activist of the Century.”

Photos courtesy of UW Libraries Special Collections. Special thanks to the UW Department of Economics and Laura Pflum.