McNiel, Maura Catherine Anderson (1921–2020)


By: Samantha Dodd

Type: Biography

Published: November 11, 2021

Updated: November 11, 2021


Maura Catherine Anderson McNiel, pioneer feminist, women’s rights activist, and “mother of the women’s liberation movement in Dallas,” was born on April 11, 1921, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Oliver William Anderson and Hazel Caroline (Anderson) Anderson, descendants of Norwegian and Swedish immigrants, respectively. Maura was the oldest of four children. After high school graduation, she went to the University of Minnesota in 1939 and graduated with a double major in English and psychology in 1942. She then earned a drafting degree from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Her first job was in the display department of a local department store called Donaldson’s.

Maura Anderson married U. S. Marine Corps officer Richard Crouch Arbuckle on December 28, 1943, and gave birth to their son Rick in 1945. Suffering from abuse at the hands of her husband, she left him and returned home where she resumed work in an interior decorating shop before she became a dress designer. She moved to Dallas in 1951 after Thomas Humphreys McNiel of Donovan Manufacturing Company offered her a job. The couple married on February 1, 1953, and Maura gave birth to their daughters Bridget and Andrea. In 1959 she gave birth to daughter Amy, who was diagnosed with Down Syndrome.  

Maura McNiel tended to her children and served as a Campfire Girls leader, PTA officer, and was active at Midway Hills Christian Church, where she was a Sunday school teacher. During the 1950s and 1960s she volunteered in her community and took up many causes, including civil rights and environmental issues. She was a member of the boards of the Dallas Council on World Affairs, Pan American Round Table, Domestic Violence Intervention Association, and National Conference of Christians and Jews. She helped found Save Open Spaces and Block Partnership. As her children grew older, McNiel decided to consider her options. She participated in the first Explore program in Dallas. Explore was a course that challenged women to explore possibilities for their lives beyond the traditional roles of wives and mothers. The class met once a week for eight weeks at North Haven United Methodist Church. At the conclusion of the program, McNiel stayed on as part of the teaching staff of the course.

 McNiel attended the Symposium on the Education of Women for Social and Political Leadership (now the annual Women’s Symposium), a conference initially organized by Emmie Baine at Southern Methodist University in 1966. After attending the Women’s Symposium at SMU, Maura McNiel, along with Judge Sarah T. Hughes, organized a group called Women for Change (WFC) in May 1971. McNiel served as the first president. The group stressed women’s rights and opportunities and created nine initial task forces: child care, counseling, education (early), education (advanced), employment, legal, media, political, and office location. The group held its official founders meeting on campus at Southern Methodist University on October 15, 1971. WFC opened the Women’s Center of Dallas in October 1971 in the old Zale Corporation building in Dallas. The center offered vocational services, counseling, referrals, and information regarding educational opportunities for women.

Membership boomed in 1972 after noted feminist Gloria Steinem spoke to the group at SMU. That year McNiel made approximately seventy-two speeches to various groups—from church groups to Kiwanis and Rotarians. She advocated women’s rights and recruited volunteers. Members of WFC worked hard for the successful passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in Texas.

In 1975 the group officially changed its name to the Women’s Center of Dallas and through the years inspired numerous allied organizations such as The Family Place, Women’s Issues Network, the Dallas Women’s Foundation, and the Summit. That same year, McNiel, as a member of the Dallas Chapter of the United Nations Association, attended the International Women’s Year Conference in Mexico City. In 1976 Dallas mayor Wes Wise named Maura McNiel to the first Dallas Commission on the Status of Women. Tragedy followed her during those years. Her daughter Andrea died in a car accident, and her son Rick was diagnosed with declining mental health.

In 1978 the Women’s Center of Dallas established the Women Helping Women Awards to recognize women who lead the way in improving lives for women and girls in North Texas. McNiel was the first recipient. In 1986 the awards were renamed the Maura Awards in her honor. In 1990 Maura McNiel divorced her husband and moved to California with her daughter Bridget and granddaughter. In her later years she traveled extensively but also regularly visited Dallas. In 2001 the Women’s Center of Dallas closed after thirty years in operation. The group ultimately decided to shutter the organization and pass on its work to several allied organizations. The presence of these groups, combined with a decline in donations and volunteers, signaled its end. The Maura Awards moved to the Dallas Women’s Museum before transferring to the Dallas Women’s Foundation, of which McNiel was also a founding member. In 2018 the Dallas Women’s Foundation became the Texas Women’s Foundation.

Maura McNiel died on July 18, 2020, in Los Altos, California. Her remains were cremated.

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Vivian Castleberry, “Whatever Happened to the Women’s Movement?” D Magazine, November 1987.  Dallas Morning News, October 17, 1971; April 24, 1988; March 9, 2012; August 8, 2020. Norma Tevis Matthews and Bill Matthews. Hope Over Fear: Bridges Toward a Better World: History of the Dallas Chapter United Nations Association of the United States of America 1953–2015 (Lexington, Kentucky: Xlibris, 2017). Maura McNeil, A Leader of Dallas’s Great Feminist Movement, Veteran Feminists of America (https://www.veteranfeministsofamerica.org/legacy/Maura_McNiel.htm), accessed November 9, 2021. Plainview Herald, April 23, 2002.

Categories:
  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Activists
  • Advocates
  • Civil Rights, Segregation, and Slavery
  • Women
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Texas in the 21st Century
Places:
  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Samantha Dodd, “McNiel, Maura Catherine Anderson,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 17, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/mcniel-maura-catherine-anderson.

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November 11, 2021
November 11, 2021

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