Known as “the iron fist in a velvet glove,” a small but powerful advocate for women has called Purdue home for almost 50 years.
Betty Nelson walks with strength and determination while standing only a little over five feet tall. She has championed women’s rights in her multiple capacities at Purdue, but most notably as the assistant dean of women under Helen Schleman and as the dean of students.
Now known as Purdue’s dean of students emerita, as she made the University change emeritus to emerita for the females who hold the title, Nelson discovered at a young age something wasn’t right pertaining to women and men receiving equal treatment.
She became a feminist of sorts around first grade, when her mother said she had to pack her own lunch, even though her mother packed her older brother’s lunch.
“I couldn’t understand and I asked her about it and she could not explain why that was OK,” Nelson said. This incident made her realize fair wasn’t fair when it came to being a woman.
When telling this story to female colleagues years later at Purdue, one of them decided to bring Nelson a packed lunch in a bright yellow lunch pail because she thought someone should pack a lunch for her. Nelson has kept this lunch pail as a memento to this day.
“Women are more likely to do (things) for each other in a very supportive way,” Nelson said. “(That lunch pail) has been kind of a symbolic way of picturing: We support each other, we try to bring along the next group, we try to make it better for the generation that is coming along.”
Nelson has been doing just that for all of these years, when she came to Purdue in 1965, and before.
In high school, she witnessed her mother not even knowing how to write a check when her father died, and her aunt who lost her husband having to live with family members. This made Nelson know she wanted her life to look a lot different.
In order to accomplish this, she worked at Kroger as much as possible in high school, only spending the pennies from each paycheck. This was to ensure that she would never end up like the women she loved so much in her life who were left financially unstable without men.
Nelson also never planned on marrying, saying, “I just marched to a different drummer all along the way ... I was having a really good time and I liked being independent.”
After graduating from the women’s division of Virginia Tech in 1957 and being the only student in her class to go straight onto graduate school at Ohio University, her plans changed. She met her husband Richard in graduate school and fell in love with his ambitious nature, his adventurous spirit and his determination to make more of himself – something Nelson is no stranger to.
She started putting her own ambitions to work after coming to Purdue with Richard and learning from some of the most amazing women to ever grace the University’s campus with their presence. These women were Helen Schleman, Barbara Cook, Beverley Stone and Dorothy Stratton – all deans of women or deans of students during their time at Purdue.
These women were trailblazers and advocators for women, and they mentored Nelson on how to champion the cause as well.
“(They taught me) that it is really important to stand up for what you believe in and what you think is right,” Nelson remembered. “And it is not always going to be comfortable, but you do it.”
So that is exactly what Nelson has done; she’s spoken up for women when they couldn’t.
When Purdue’s “All-American” Marching Band made the women have to all meet certain body measurements and weight every week, Nelson changed it. When Grand Prix Girls weren’t called women, Nelson changed it. When the only big event for women that came to Purdue was a bridal expo, Nelson changed it. When women weren’t planning for their futures other than their marriages, Nelson changed it.
To this day, though Nelson has been retired since 1995 and lives in West Lafayette with her husband, she still makes phone calls and sends emails when she sees discrepancies between the treatment of men and women.
Recently, she was featured in a book called “The Deans’ Bible,” by Angie Klink, that documents Nelson and her Purdue women mentors. Klink has had the privilege of now having Nelson as a mentor since meeting her for the book, and she knows the strength and determination behind the small but powerful woman.
“Oftentimes people think she is a pushover or a doormat because she is slight in figure and she is soft-spoken, but she can surprise them,” Klink said fondly. “No one is going to roll over her with a steam roller ... so that’s power.”
Nelson wants other women to know they have the same power to stand up for themselves and the generations to come.
“You get sensitized to some of this … and you just can’t turn it off,” Nelson said.