Colombian women’s rights pioneer got her start in Pullman

Black and white image of Paulina Gómez Vega sitting in a chair.
Paulina Gómez Vega

Women’s History Month

Throughout March, WSU is featuring stories of women whose contributions to society have helped shape the university and the world.

When Paulina Gómez Vega traveled to Pullman to study at Washington State College in 1921, it was because women in her country, Colombia, were barred from a university education. Gómez Vega’s experience in Pullman set her on a path that made her an education leader and an influential voice for women’s rights back home.

“Everything I have done in Colombia was by the inspiration I received here in Pullman,” she said when visiting the campus again in 1973.

What she did in Columbia is wide-ranging, and important.

She was a bacteriologist and public health advocate. She promoted education for women, directing the first official women’s high school in the country. And she was a feminist, advocating for women to have the right to vote, to go to university, and to manage their own finances.

That last role stemmed from her time in Pullman, according to “Paulina Gómez-Vega: educator, pioneer of the suffrage movements in Colombia,” a chapter in a book about Latin American educators published in Colombia in 2011.

At Washington State College, Gómez-Vega was exposed to the successes of the women’s suffrage movement in America. Women had finally been given the right to vote in 1920 through ratification of the 19th Amendment. As a student in the United States, “she had the privilege of enjoying the cultural, social, and artistic awakening of the time, brought about in large part by the power that gave American women the right to vote,” the authors of the chapter said.

Gómez-Vega had progressed as high as she could in education in Colombia at the time, graduating at age 16 with a teaching credential. After teaching for a few years, she came across a flyer from Washington State College, she said in 1973.

“I wrote in Spanish and asked if I could come,” she said. The head of the college’s Department of Foreign Languages responded and asked if she’d like to teach Spanish. She arrived in 1921 and not only taught Spanish, she enrolled as a student and served as “housemother” for the Spanish House, where she was younger than some of the students.

Gómez Vega got two degrees from WSC: a Bachelor of Arts degree in foreign languages and a Bachelor of Science degree with an emphasis in bacteriology.

“When she returned to Colombia at the end of 1927 she was a professional in two careers and a feminist, roles still little known” in Colombia, said Esneider Agudelo Arango and Patricia Triana Rodríguez, who wrote about her in 2011.   

She returned to the U.S. to study bacteriology at Johns Hopkins University, getting a master’s degree from that institution and working toward a doctoral degree. But she wasn’t able to finish after being denied a scholarship “due to her feminist activism” in Colombia, Agudelo Arango and Rodriguez said.

As a school director, Gómez Vega emphasized sports and the arts over more traditional pursuits like needlework, and other schools followed suit. Eventually Colombian women were able to attend universities there, and in 1973 she observed, “Now you see many girls at the university, and many women as doctors and lawyers.”

Gómez Vega had a long and varied career as a teacher. She represented Colombia at international conferences and worked for peace and civil rights. In 1938 Frances Burlingame, dean of Elmira (New York) College, visited Colombia and was hosted by Gómez Vega. Burlingame wrote, “Senorita Paulina Gómez Vega is one of the most active, intelligent and stimulating people I have ever met… She works constantly for girls and women here in Colombia.”

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