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History of Women at UVA

early image of woman among students walking

One woman student can be seen among all those passing the Amphitheatre and walking in front of Minor Hall.

Missing in Plain Sight

The University’s history has long been told as a man’s history. As an alumnus declared in 1914, “The University of Virginia is a man’s University. It was founded as a man’s University and it has obtained a high history as such. Its history, its traditions, its system of government are all founded on the teaching of men for the teaching of men.” The investment in the ethos of the Virginia Gentleman is strong, and it is still common to be told, “there were no women at UVA before 1970 –or none, at least, outside the School of Nursing.” But this perception is just inaccurate.

By 1970, when the first officially co-ed class enrolled and 450 women arrived on Grounds to take their seats in UVA classrooms, over 30,000 women had already made their mark on UVA, pursuing –and earning –their diploma, certificate, or degree (bachelor’s, master’s, medical, law, and doctoral). Their presence is recorded in the archives. The existence of women on Grounds is a fact hiding in plain sight. To borrow McIntire alumna Margot Lee Shetterly’s (Com 1991) formulation, they are UVA’s hidden figures –some hidden once for their gender, others hidden twice for their gender and their race.

Their journey to UVA followed a path of reluctant acceptance, each door slowly opened largely in hopes of staving off full coeducation –but in the end, what was long feared and ardently fought for came to be –and UVA is a better institution for it.

womens education at uva photo

Women's education at UVA

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Director's Acknowledgements

A project like this History of Women at UVA tour is not the accomplishment of a single individual. A number of students, faculty, and staff  assisted with the research, writing, and development of this tour and/or shared their own research with us. The members of the Women's Center Planning Committee for Retold, the 2020 Celebration of Women's Education at UVA  were the first to suggest that some form of a virtual reality experience would be a powerful way to commemorate the strength women drew upon to endure and overcome the struggles they encountered.

I want to thank the following students, without whom this project would never have come into being. We are inspired by their powerful commitment to finding long-buried stories and belief that telling the full history matters deeply. Lauren Bredar (Col 2019) played an integral role at every step of the project, from conducting archival research to learning new technology skills to drafting text for the tour. Her commitment ensured that we finished this project. Spencer Goldberg (Col 2021), as Historian for the UGuides, has driven student efforts to know and share the full history of women’s education at UVA. Natalia Heguaburo (Col 2019, Law 2024) undertook archival work of her own for her distinguished majors project, which she generously shared with me. Emily Sackett (Grad 2021) also provided invaluable archival research, compiling a list of 100 objects to represent the highlights of women’s education at UVA.

My deep gratitude goes as well to the students and staff who provided invaluable technical and fact-checking assistance. The hours they logged on this project carried us over the finish line: Emma Abraham (Col 2023), Carol Gilbert (Women’s Center), Elyse Girard (UVA Library), Guada Pinto (Col 2021, Batten 2022), and Holly Robertson (UVA Library).

Our colleagues across Grounds have been working for decades to document the experiences of women at UVA, and this project is indebted to their research. Phyllis Leffler, Professor Emerita of History, graciously and generously shared a treasure-trove of files and provided encouragement at every step of the project. Liz Crowder (Alumni Assocation) collaborated on fact-finding missions, and Ervin Jordan (OAAA) pointed me to additional sources.

In the years of preparing to commemorate the milestone anniversaries of 2020, I have heard poignant stories of proud achievements and painful exclusions. I save my final thanks for the many alumni who have shared their experiences with me. There have been a lot of moments that have reinforced the Women’s Center staff’s sense that a project like this needed to be done. As the University prepared to launch the Bicentennial Celebration, Women’s Center intern Devin Garcia (Col 2018) published “Why Our Bicentennial is Really a Guy-centennial” in Iris, reminding us how unknown women’s history is on Grounds. We’ve heard from proud sons and granddaughters of early graduates. Through one, we learned of the first woman to be granted her BS in mathematics from the College, Lois Ketcham Carwile (Col 1923, MS 1924, PhD 1929), perhaps also the first female triple Hoo. Another shared his mother’s experiences in the 1950s, when she earned her BS in Chemistry. Margaret James Morton (Col 1950) was accepted into the Master's program in Chemistry, but married shortly after graduation and raised a family, instead of continuing her education. He captures an ethos of women's struggle to gain access to a UVA education:

There is an apocryphal quote, “I am a revolutionary, so that my son can be a farmer, so his son can be a poet.” In that spirit, I imagine my mother as a revolutionary, so her daughters could go to UVA, so their daughters could be leaders at UVA.
Harold (Chip) Morton III (Col 1976, 1979)

 

Another alum, Becky More (Col 1970), has shared memories of a moment of great transition, life in the College the year before full coeducation arrived. I offer my deepest, most sincere thanks to all of you who have reached out to share your story with us. We are continuing to collect them for additional archival projects. If you have a story about how you (or a loved one) broke barriers for women at UVA, please contact me. We’d love to hear your story, as this work continues.

Abby Palko, 
Director

 

Resources

To learn more about the history of women at UVA, stayed tuned for further projects coming from the Women's Center. In the meantime, we recommend these sources.

Our colleague Phyllis Leffler's expertise is available here:

  • Phyllis Leffler, “Mr. Jefferson’s University: Women in the Village!” (Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 115, No. 1 (2007), 56-107.)

Other sources which (along with UVA websites and archives) informed the History of Women at UVA tour are:

Page header image photo credit:
Collection: University of Virginia Visual History Collection Location: Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Va. Retrieval ID: prints01421 Call Number: RG-30/1/10.011

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