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Women's history of arriving at U.Va.

From unofficial students to College graduates

<p>Women have been at the University in some form since the early 1900s, but were not officially admitted as undergraduates until 1970.&nbsp;</p>

Women have been at the University in some form since the early 1900s, but were not officially admitted as undergraduates until 1970. 

Although the University’s first female president Teresa Sullivan’s term is quickly coming to an end, less than 50 years ago, women were not integrated members of the University community. The University has made great strides in its inclusion and treatment of women — today, besides just being academically integrated, women at the University hold elected office, live on the Lawn and are esteemed faculty members. However, some say the University still maintains traditions that harken back to its early days before co-education, and that it could take broader steps towards the inclusion of women.

History of women at the University

Contrary to the popular narrative, women were a presence — albeit a minor one — at the University since 1919.

Alexander Sandy Gilliam, professor emeritus and the former University history professor and protocol officer, said the wives and daughters of faculty members were an informal presence on Grounds at the time, though the Board of Visitors officially voted to allow women as degree candidates to the graduate schools in 1919.

They were not allowed to be in undergraduate programs — except the four-year undergraduate education program — of which they were allowed to participate in the final two years. The Nursing School was entirely women at first, until the school became co-educational in the 1960s.

Despite the small cohort of women who studied at the University early on, women were not admitted as undergraduate students in the College until 1970, and their numbers did not number half the incoming class until 1972.

Gilliam — who was an undergraduate at the University from 1951 to 1955 — also said women were fully integrated in the University community by the time he returned to the University in 1975.

“One thing that I found refreshing when I came back in 1975 is that a good many — not all — but a good many of the student organizations, things like the Z society and so on, were co-ed, so that women were actively involved not only in life of the University in general but in positions of responsibility,” Gilliam said.

Compared to other peer institutions, the University was slow to integrate.

“Of the major universities, we were probably about the last to have unlimited co-education,” Gilliam said. “The University was not co-ed, [Virginia] Tech was not co-ed, and one way that I guess Tech and U.Va. got away with that was that there were coordinate colleges that were designated as the women’s branches.”

In 1944, the University’s official women’s branch was the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., and remained affiliated with the University until women joined the College in the fall of 1970. However, there was little coordination and interaction between the two, partly due to the locations of the universities.

“The legislature established what became known as George Mason University [in 1949,],” Gilliam said. “It was established as a satellite of U.Va. and that was co-ed from the very beginning, and that was about 20-something years before Charlottesville became completely co-ed.”

Challenges with integration

The impetus to include women in the College’s undergraduate class in 1970 came partly as the result of a lawsuit brought against the University and the Board of Visitors by the American Civil Liberties Union, on behalf of four women seeking admission.

Represented by University alumnus John Lowe, they claimed the University “severely discriminates against women in their admissions policies.”

The plaintiffs argued for greater admission of women on the grounds of equal protection.

Although the Board of Visitors had already voted to include women by the time the decision was made, the federal court rejected their original 10-year timeline, and approved a co-education transition timeline of three years. Furthermore, the court said the University’s proposed 35 percent cap was unlawful.

Phyllis Leffler, professor emerita of history, has used a number of surveys conducted in 1998 from women who were a part of the initial co-educational classes to analyze their experience. Though she acknowledges the anecdotal nature of survey data, her research indicates a less smooth transition than the one Gilliam observed.

“When women students first came, very very little was done to change the resources that existed, so women students reported that it was hard to find women bathrooms readily accessible on Grounds,” Leffler said. “The University didn’t do much to really get ready for this onslaught of women students … women students remained aware of that, and didn’t necessarily feel like they were being accommodated all that well. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem like it took very long for women to get pretty well adjusted.”

Leffler also said safety on Grounds, harassment and a lack of lighting were initial challenges, which were concerns former Dean of Women Mary Whitney also noted at the time.

“There were reports early on of male students who were very unhappy that the women were here — especially in the College — and who would walk by their dorm rooms and call out insulting things but I think it was a year or two before all of that ended,” Leffler said. “I don’t know that it was a general reality.”

In contrast, Gilliam said his father, who was a medical student at the University in 1931, never discussed such faculty attitudes towards women.

While there were clear instances of harassment and targeting of women, it is not clear that these were institutional. The University attempted to provide resources for women, such as having a Dean of Women and a specific women’s dormitory and student government association.

Women at the University today

Today, the University’s undergraduate population is majority female, with it being about a 56 to 44 percent female to male ratio. Although women are clearly an essential part of the University community, Leffler commented on norms that she said perpetuate the ‘old boys network’ the University used to typify.

“I personally have long felt that some of the ways we continue to talk about the University carries on that tradition,” Leffler said. “We talk about it as the school of Virginia gentleman, Mr. Jefferson’s University — well, Mr. Jefferson’s university was a school of male and all privileged men, or mostly privileged men. They make some people feel less comfortable at the University, less valued, and I would say that over the years that has had some kind of an effect on women.”

Other issues of equity on Grounds include salary equity and the percentage of faculty women in high-ranking positions. Although Leffler has not conducted independent data analysis of these factors, and acknowledged the University has, she said her time as a faculty member showed her that many women at the University feel there is a disparity between women and men in these areas.

“The percentage of women faculty in senior positions is quite low at U.Va.,” Leffler said.

She suggested aggressive spousal hire policies to attract more women and families to the University.

“If you want to attract a woman to a particular position, then you have to have a way to accommodate the spouse,” Leffler said. “Now sometimes it’s just impossible, sometimes the spouse doesn’t care, but sometimes the University has to stretch to figure out some meaningful position for a spousal hire. I know that there are efforts to do that, but I also know that there are universities that are more aggressive than we are which might accommodate the hire of more women.”

Despite these observations and recommendations, Leffler said the University has made incredible strides since the early days of co-education, and can continue to move forward with time.

“I think history and the tradition of history linger for far longer than we often think is appropriate,” Leffler said. “It’s just very very hard to turn those things around.” 


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