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Females forgotten in University history

STUDENTS who come to the University of Virginia often assume that the University always has been what it is now. Look around -- we're a diverse mix. Women and men, both in the student body and faculty. Students and faculty of different "racial" backgrounds -- if there is still such a concept as race. Students and faculty with many different ethnic associations, both within the United States and abroad. Although we certainly have goals to be even more diverse, to be more international, we're nonetheless fairly cosmopolitan, and most of us feel pride in that accomplishment.

But was the University always that way? And if not, does that reality affect us in any way? Is the past behind us, or does it haunt us?

My current research focuses on women at the University before there were women! When I say that, I mean that most people -- right up to the present moment -- can be overheard to say that female students did not come to U.Va. until 1970. But, in fact, there were thousands of female students here, from the earliest years of the 20th century. Women have been here in a variety of programs for close to a century, yet our institutional mythology does not remember them.

So, who were these women? They came with a diversity of interests, and entered several different programs. Some had previous college experience; some had none. They were in both undergraduate and graduate programs. Most, especially in the early years, were residents of Virginia, although this changed as time went on. They were, of course, overwhelmingly white, until the 1970s at least. Their numbers increased during war years -- especially during World War II, when the University had openings and needed to fill classrooms.

And where were these women? What did they study? What were their interests? They were in nursing programs as early as 1901. These women trained at the hospital, spent approximately 40 hours in the wards and hallways assisting patients, and then had their classwork as well. Some of them went out to rural areas of the Commonwealth as part of their training, some worked on mental wards, some helped deliver babies, some assisted in operations. They are not remembered because for a very long time, they could only receive diplomas, and thus were not considered bona fide students. The baccalaureate in nursing didn't get established until the 1950s, and then women began to be regarded as students. But they were still sidelined in McKim Hall -- the nursing students' dorm, and were kept so unbelievably busy that they did not have much time for engaging in student life. What is clear is that they felt themselves to be students, even though they were not remembered or acknowledged as such.

Then there were the students in the School of Education. It is important to remember that Edwin Alderman, the University's first president, strongly endorsed the concept of delivering educational services across the state to serve teachers in rural areas and to improve the quality of teaching and learning. As part of this effort, a summer session was formed, and women began attending in the first decade of this century. By 1913, the summer session was larger in terms of absolute numbers than the regular academic sessions. Women could not apply credits to their degree, but they were here on Grounds in significant numbers.

Then, beginning in 1920, when women were formally admitted to the University in graduate and professional programs, the Curry School expanded significantly. By the mid-1920s, the number of women exceeded the number of men, and to accommodate the influx of students, a dean of women was hired. Between summer session, in-term academic programs, weekend courses and evening courses, many women matriculated and received degrees. Often they felt isolated from the larger University programs, but their personal circumstances, such as marriage, career and motherhood, had a lot to do with that.

And finally, we should take note of the women who attended since 1920 as professional students -- in the Schools of Medicine, Law, Architecture, and as graduate students in Arts and Sciences. Their stories are filled with examples of intellectual engagement as well as marginalization and discrimination. They were there in the College, but often experienced the "stomping" technique of fellow students when they entered the classroom, or the rudeness of faculty who refused to acknowledge their presence.

What, you may ask, is the meaning of this for us today? Does it matter that women were here or were not? The percentage of female students now outnumbers that of male students. Women hold some of the most prestigious positions in student governance. But I challenge you to think about whether women are represented in equal numbers elsewhere -- among the professoriate and in upper-level administrative positions of governance and leadership. As long as we write these early women out of the institutional memory, we have an easy excuse as to why women are so thin in the higher ranks. Were we to truly acknowledge the important history of women at the University, we should feel compelled to correct some of our current imbalances. And if that is true for women, is it not equally true for other groups as well?

(Phyllis K. Leffler is director of the Institute for Public History.)

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