The first woman to join the ASU history department, Retha Warnicke, retires


Rachel Bunning

She came from a house in rural Kentucky that had no electricity and no running water, yet Dr. Retha Warnicke was a ground breaker in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies.

The professor of history will retire this winter after 50 years of service at Arizona State University. Her journey at ASU reaches back to the late ‘60s when she was hired as a lecturer in the history department after graduating with a PhD from Harvard.

“I taught from 1966 until 1967 at ASU and decided that I wanted to finish my dissertation and have a baby and I just informed them that I wouldn’t be available until, as it turned out, 1969 and I’ve been on campus ever since,” said Warnicke.

She worked as a lecturer until the early ‘70s when an assistant professor position opened up. The dean at the time decided to let the faculty vote if they wanted to bring Warnicke on as a professor or if they wanted to go public with their search for a candidate. In the end, they voted to appoint Warnicke for the position where she was able to move from being an assistant professor to an associate professor and finally to a professor.

“I was the first woman in the history faculty, first woman in the history department,” said Warnicke. “There’s always issues that arise. You know, who opens the door first? All those things that people don’t think about anymore. The male faculty weren’t used to it. There were hardly any women in the graduate programs, so they hadn’t interacted with women except on a very social basis or in a domestic basis with their wives. So there was a little bit of tension about that, but we worked it out. It was never a major issue.”

Since joining the faculty, Warnicke has published seven books, edited nine books and has published over 50 articles and chapters in books with her specialized subjects being English history and the Tudor monarchy. After the retires in December she plans on continuing to read and write.

“I don’t have a particular project right now. I’ve got to stop and clean up my office,” said Warnicke with a laugh. “I’ve got piles of paper everywhere and I don’t know what is where anymore. So that’s my first project, it might take me several months.”

Warnicke wants to emphasize the importance of public education within our community. She came from a working class family and credits the dedication of public school teachers to the success she has had today. It wasn’t until a librarian at her high school asked her what college she would be attending that she realized she could continue her studies.

“I hadn’t even planned to attend a college,” said Warnicke.“I never thought about it. My background was such that there weren’t any people in my family who had gone to college. You need the public schools. I am horrified all the time about what’s going on with this state with public education.”

Warnicke has enjoyed working on the committees and doing service through the university, but has enjoyed teaching the most. She says that she will miss her students more than anything else.

When asked what advice she has for her students, Warnicke said, “Pay attention, work hard, do your reading and don’t goof off.”