Leaman, Bertha Ruth (1893-1975)

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Bertha Ruth Leaman: historian and likely the first North American Mennonite woman to earn a PhD degree, was born 2 February 1893 in Paradise Township, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, USA, to Christian B. Leaman (1858-1928) and Anna Mary Denlinger Leaman (1863-1900). She was the fifth of six children (two of whom died in infancy) of Christian and Anna Mary Leaman. Following Anna Mary Leaman’s death, Christian Leaman married Mary Emma Herr (1870-1950), and together, they had a daughter. The Leaman household also included a foster daughter. Bertha Leaman died on 6 October 1975 in Kennett Square, Chester County, Pennsylvania, and was buried in the Strasburg Mennonite Church cemetery in the borough of Strasburg, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

Bertha Leaman’s family of origin was active at Strasburg Mennonite Church, where Christian Leaman served as the sexton for many years. Bertha Leaman graduated from Paradise Township High School in 1910 and then taught in the township’s primary schools for seven years. She later told a friend that her goal had been to teach until she had saved enough money to attend college, despite opposition from her relatives to higher education for women. In September 1917, Bertha left for Indiana and enrolled at Goshen College. She graduated from Goshen College in 1921 and was hired to stay on as a faculty member to teach history. She also served as the college’s registrar. After Goshen College closed (temporarily) in 1923, Leaman enrolled at the University of Chicago and earned a MA in European history in 1924. She spent the summer of 1927 at the University of Grenoble in France and studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, France, during the 1927-1928 school year. In 1935 she received her PhD from the University of Chicago, writing her dissertation on the foreign policy of the French Socialist Party.

Bertha Leaman held faculty positions at several colleges, including those operated by the Church of the Brethren. Her longest tenure was at a public institution, West Liberty State College, West Liberty, West Virginia, USA, from 1949 to 1963. She published scholarly articles and reviews in modern European history, lectured on world events, supported international students on the campuses where she taught and was active in the American Association of University Women.

Leaman’s religious affiliation shifted from Mennonite to Quaker during her life, and by the late 1950s, she described herself as a Quaker of “Mennonite background.” After Leaman’s death, friends from her Goshen College days told Mennonite writer Elaine Sommers Rich (1926-2020) that because Leaman was a woman with professional credentials so far ahead of her time, her “ability and accomplishments were never recognized” by the Mennonite church and that that lack of support contributed to her search for “peace and fellowship with the Friends Church.”


Nolt, Lydia M. Nolt Steven M. Nolt. "Recovering the story of Bertha Leaman, Ph.D. (1893-1975), an early Mennonite woman historian.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 95 (July 2021): 365-375.

Author(s) Steven M Nolt
Date Published August 2021

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MLA style

Nolt, Steven M. "Leaman, Bertha Ruth (1893-1975)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. August 2021. Web. 23 Jan 2022. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Leaman,_Bertha_Ruth_(1893-1975)&oldid=172244.

APA style

Nolt, Steven M. (August 2021). Leaman, Bertha Ruth (1893-1975). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 23 January 2022, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Leaman,_Bertha_Ruth_(1893-1975)&oldid=172244.

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