Notable New Mexico Women

By Teddie Moreno and Jennifer Olguin 

The New Mexico history that is most familiar to people is one of the shoot-outs, outlaws, and battles for land. What might have been missing from history books can be found within the New Mexico State University (NMSU) Archives and Special Collections.  Without many of the strong and resilient women, New Mexico would not be the state it is today.  Many women helped shape the state and country in politics, education, music, and civil rights. They raised families, managed cattle, entered politics and the workforce, full steam, and didn’t shrink from their goal. The notable women listed below will follow up last week’s post of the Extraordinary Women: Advocacy, Activism, and Sisterhood exhibit. Only a few women from the Land of Enchantment are highlighted in the exhibit, but so many more could be recognized for their contributions.  

B & W image of older woman wearing glasses and a cross on a chain

Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Gilbert
NMSU UA photo 04020018

Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Gilbert (May 16, 1894 – October 14, 1991)  

Fabiola was an American educator, nutritionist, activist, and writer. She earned a bachelor’s degree at the New Mexico Normal School (New Mexico Highlands University), and in 1927 she enrolled at the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts (New Mexico State University), majoring in home economics. While attending school, she taught Spanish. Among her students was Agricultural Extension Service Director W.L. Elser. He approached her about working for the Extension Service. After graduation, she initiated her 30-year career as a traveling extension agent. Female extension agents were few in those days. Female Spanishspeaking extension agents amounted to one, Fabiola. She trained Native American and farm women in traditional and modern skills, including gardening, cooking, and preserving their native foods. In 1939, she published the extension circular titled Historic Cookery. A decade later, this became the heart of her acclaim to Hispano traditions and one of the most famous circulars published by a native New Mexican. By her retirement from NMSU in 1959, more than 100,000 copies circulated in the U.S. and several foreign countries. Fabiola wrote recipes in The Good Life using exact amounts and measures to prepare New Mexican food.

Recipe for Tacos

Fabiola’s recipe for Tacos. The first recorded recipe for tacos to be fried and folded. New Mexico Extension Circular No. 161

Her recipe for tacos filled with meat was the first time the tortilla was folded and not rolled like a burrito. Yes, tacos used to be a snack, not the main entree that they have become today. Fabiola agreed to an oral history interview in 1983; she was almost 90 years old, her memory was failing, but the recollection of her career as an extension agent was solid. Historic Cookery is in Special Collections, and digital copies of Extension publications by Fabiola are available in the digitized ACES Historical Publications. The oral history conducted by Ruleen Lazell (RG-T153) is in the Rio Grande Historical Collections.  

Elizabeth Garrett (October 12, 1885 – October 16, 1947)  

Elizabeth was more than the daughter of famous Sherriff Pat Garrett, and she was much more than a woman with a disability. She was a halfLatina musician who studied voice in Chicago and New York. She entertained soldiers during World War I and was an advocate for women’s suffrage and the blind. In 2019, we had the opportunity to meet a researcher and great-grandson to Pat Garrett, Scott Davis. Davis recommended reading a Place of Her Own: The Story of Elizabeth Garret by Ruth Hall. Garrett’s short biography tells of her friendship with Helen Keller and details the obstacles that Garrett overcame. Elizabeth was still very young when her parents Apolinaria and Pat Garrett moved their family to Las Cruces.

B & W image of two young girls. One is blind

Amador Col. – Ms0004 image 0049553 Historian Mary Daniels Taylor suggested that these might be the Garrett sisters.

Elizabeth was taken to a school for the blind in Austin, Texas. There her native musical talent was encouraged and promoted. In 1916, she composed ‘O Fair New Mexico. Governor William C. McDonald approved it as the state anthem after hearing Elizabeth perform it before a joint session of the New Mexico Legislature. O’ Fair New Mexico is the only official state song of all the 50 states to contain bilingual language. The sheet music is available in the NMSU Special Collections (M1658.N57 G322 1915).  

Travel, performances, and advocacy for women filled the latter part of Elizabeth’s life. The El Paso Herald-Post reported in the 1930s that Garrett’s music appeared in the Federation of Women’s Clubs programs and at the dawn of the recording industry, Elizabeth recorded O Fair New Mexico and Señorita. That recording was rediscovered by New Mexican, James Keller, who discovered the recording several years ago on an online auction from a dealer in Germany. Listen to a snippet of the 1924 recording performed by Elizabeth here. The record is a bit scratchy and high pitched, but over 100 years ago, Elizabeth Garrett was known as the Songbird of the Southwest and the Blind Nightingale. She never let her disability slow her or prevent her from leading a life of advocacy. Sheet music for O Fair New Mexico and several other of Garrett’s works are in the Special Collections unit. Although used to the darkness, Elizabeth fell in 1947 during a blackout on a Roswell street. She died with a gash to her forehead and possibly a heart attack while being transported to the hospital.  

Maria Gutierrez Spencer (December 17, 1919 – August 12, 1992)  

Maria Gutierrez Spencer was born in 1919 in Las Cruces and was an advocate for bilingual education within the Land of Enchantment. At a young age, Maria aspired to be involved in the education profession due to her personal experiences she encountered at a young age. Maria experienced language barriers while attending grade school due to only knowing Spanish. As a result, she was ordered to the principal’s office because she could not follow directions from her teacher. After experiencing obstacles in her schooling, she was determined to change the education landscape.

Color image of Maria Gutierrez Spencer

Maria Gutierrez Spencer (RG2020-007)

Upon graduating as salutatorian from Las Cruces High School in 1933, she left New Mexico. She was accepted to Riverside Junior College in California then attended Berkeley to complete her studies and fulfill her dream. Maria majored in Spanish and Latin American history and was the first woman to hold the position as a teaching assistant while attending college.

After completing her studies, Maria dedicated herself to become an advocate for bilingual education within New Mexico schools. In Silver City, Maria is credited with developing an English as a second language program to teach English and critical thinking skills to assist students in developing “self-worth.” In 1992, Maria succumbed to her battle with cancer, but her legacy continues.  A historical marker honoring her accomplishments can be found on the New Mexico State University campus. 

Color image of historical marker honoring Maria Gutierrez Spencer

Historical Marker located on Espina Street between University Avenue and Stewart Street honoring Maria Gutierrez Spencer. Image by KRWG.

Notable accomplishments: 

  • 1978 – Awarded the New Mexico Bilingual Association Hall of Fame Award 
  • 1984 – Awarded the Wonder Woman Award (Honored contemporary “wonder women” – women over age 40 whose patterns of personal growth have led them toward achievements based on their principles and humanitarian ideals). 
  • 1989 – Awarded the New Mexico Commission on the Status of Women’s “Outstanding New Mexico Women” and Governor’s Award for Outstanding New Mexican Women. 


Frances Williams (October 16, 1928 – ) (Ms 0284)  

Frances Williams was born in 1928 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She moved to New Mexico in 1952 when her husband was transferred to White Sands Missile Range (WSMR), where Frances began her employment. During her time at WSMR, which spanned from 1952-1987, she held the following positions: supply systems analyst, logistician, director of administrative services for the Instrumentation Directorate, Federal Women’s Program manager, and director of Equal Employment Opportunity Directorate.  


Frances Williams receiving an award (02840477)

While holding her job title in the Instrumentation Directorate, Frances volunteered to go to Long Binh, Vietnam as a logistician, where she was assigned from 1967-1968. In 1969 she assumed the position as the first Federal Women’s Program coordinator at WSMR. In 1973, she became the first full-time Federal Women’s Program manager at WSMR in which she started innovative programs to improve the employment status of women, not only at WSMR, but also in neighboring communities.  

In 1975, the New Mexico Governor Jerry Apodaca recognized Frances’ work within civil rights and she was awarded the Public Service Award for her work in the field of equal opportunity. Soon after receiving the prestigious award, she was appointed as the program chairperson for New Mexico for the United States celebration for International Women’s Year. Frances was active in the international scene. In 1975, she was selected to serve as a delegate to the United Nations International Women’s Year in Mexico City from the Department of Defense and as well she was chosen to represent New Mexico at the United States Conference for International Women’s Year in Houston, Texas.  


In 1978, she became the Equal Employment Opportunity Officer, a position at the WSMR she held until her retirement. After retirement, Frances established a consulting firm dedicated to supporting equal employment opportunities for citizens. She continues to educate individuals and teaches civil rights classes for various public and private sector employers, investigates complaints of discrimination, and serves as a technical expert in the area of civil rights.  

Notable accomplishments:  

  • 1953 – She was a founding member of Temple Beth-El 
  • 1975 – Frances’ work within civil rights was recognized by the governor of New Mexico with the Public Service Award, and she was selected to serve as a delegate to the United Nations International Women’s Year in Mexico City  
  • 1978 – She became the Equal Employment Opportunity officer at WSMR until she retired. 
  • 1995 – Inducted to the WSMR Hall of Fame. 
  • 2003 – Ran for Las Cruces mayor 
  • 2018 – Named the Las Cruces Sun-News distinguished resident. 

These remarkable and extraordinary ladies trailblazed a path for New Mexico women.  An exhibition of the Women’s Clubs and notable New Mexican women will be held later in the Humboldt- Casad  and Evangeline Smith Mandell Gallery located on the 4th floor of Branson Library.  We look forward to sharing more details about their stories soon.

This entry was posted in Archives in the News, Border Region, Did You Know?, Exhibits, Finding Aids and Guides, Oral History, Rio Grande Historical Collections, Special Collections and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.