History of Women at UVA

Quotas and the Status Quo: Women at UVA

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.

UVA alumnus, 1914

The story of women at the University of Virginia, whether as students or faculty, is a story of struggle against 19th century southern aristocratic values and gender and racial norms that became embedded as UVA traditions. This portion of the (Re)Imaging Women in STEM exhibit looks at the larger historical context of women as students at UVA. Because of Virginia segregation laws, much of the early history focuses on white women’s efforts to attend UVA. As with the oral histories from the faculty, this history highlights the high level of accomplishment women had to achieve in order to be taken seriously and the lengths to which white men went to maintain gender norms and exclude all women.

The most prominent tradition used to exclude women from UVA was the Honor Code. Southern aristocrat culture dictated that only white men had honor. This highly gendered and racialized notion of honor was often linked to beliefs that white women’s education should focus on the domestic sphere as caregiver and mother. Although women were formally excluded from UVA as students and faculty, a few white women nonetheless found ways to attend the University until the full admittance of all women in 1972.


UVA hosts the state’s first summer program for Virginia primary school teachers. Named the UVA Normal School, it drew almost 500 students—312 of whom were women. However, only men could earn credit and degrees for the courses they took.


Caroline Preston Davis, daughter of a faculty member, applies to UVA to take the bachelors-level math exams. She had not studied at the University, but the Board of Visitors (BOV) approves her application provided she pay a fee and take the same exam as the men students, but separately from them. She passes with distinction, but is not issued a diploma and, instead, receives a Certificate of Proficiency.


Inspired by Davis’ success, the faculty and BOV agree to let women register as “special students” if they demonstrated “good character and adequate preparation.” As special students, women could be tutored privately by professors, but could not attend classes with the men students. They could not graduate or receive a diploma, but would receive a “Pass Certificate” upon passing the same exams as the men students.


Fannie Littleton Kline is the first woman to attend UVA as a “special student” studying Chemistry privately with Professor William Mallet. Ms. Addis Meade receives a master’s Pass Certificate in Math. She is the last woman to attend UVA as a “special student”.


The BOV votes against coeducation at UVA explaining that giving women higher education will “physically unsex” them, causing them to lose their power in the home, arguing further that coeducation would lower the standards of the University, contradict the values of Thomas Jefferson, and ruin the honor code because only men have honor.


The Supreme Court decides Plessy v. Ferguson case establishing ‘separate but equal’ education for African Americans.


71% of US colleges and universities are coeducational. UVA remains a “gentleman’s university” and Virginia will be the last state in the union to provide post-secondary co-education.


The nurse training program begins at UVA with 7 female students, making nursing students the first women to attend UVA regularly. However, the university refuses to support accreditation and did not allow the program to grant degrees until 1946.

Life as a Nursing Student

From the beginning, nursing students were segregated from the men students in the academic and medical schools, and subjugated to strict rules: they had a curfew; they were escorted to and from class, hospital rounds, and their dorm every day; they had to follow a dress code; they could not be married, attend fraternity parties, graduate on the Lawn, or participate in student government. Rather than “alumna” their official title was “female alumnus”, making them conform to the male environment of UVA. These restrictions persisted into the 1960s, and, as a result, nursing students felt isolated and subordinate.

We were constantly told we were NOT part of the university and made to feel inferior.

The male students in the academic wing called us ‘McKim Pigs’, our dorm was McKim Hall.

We were not accommodated because we were female. . . We signed the honor pledge on our honor ‘as gentlemen’.


Congress passes the 19th Amendment to the Constitution giving women the right to vote.

The Virginia General Assembly passes a bill allowing white women to enter publicly funded professional and graduate schools in Virginia.

UVA complies with the new state law, but uses admittance requirements as a quota system to limit women’s attendance to 10% of the overall student population. Similar to the 1894 requirements, these stated that only “women of maturity, ability, and adequate preparation” could attend and defined these as women at least 20 years old who had completed 2 years of college elsewhere or already held a degree. Further, women could only enroll in law, medicine, education, engineering, science, math, architecture, and commerce. The Deans of the Law and Medical schools were adamantly opposed to “these new and strange beings” on Grounds, believing women took the places of deserving men. As a result, they further limited the number of women accepted into their schools.


“New and Strange Beings on Grounds”

Hundreds of women attended UVA between 1920 and 1972 as graduate students. Admittance of women, even on a limited basis, was reserved only for white women. References to women in what follows documents the history of white women who were the first women admitted to the university. Attending UVA was not easy for these women. The all-men professoriate and student body went to extraordinary lengths to embarrass and intimidate them in the hopes they would quit. The gentlemen of UVA began new traditions, such as “stomping”—stomping their feet when a woman entered a class or tried to speak in class, drowning them out. Men students would not sit next to women or speak to them. Professors graded women more strictly than men, and made derogatory comments during class. Some gave lectures on “vulgar” topics, such as sex, attempting to shock women out of the University. They made public statements about being “forced” to accept women in their classrooms and openly told women students that they did not belong on Grounds. These public statements often invoked patriarchal gender relations through UVA traditions. For example, women students were called “Mr.” in accordance with the traditional, Jeffersonian way to address men students and faculty. If women corrected faculty on this title, they were marked absent for the day. Women graduate and professional students lived with the same restrictions as nursing students, but lived in boarding houses off Grounds because the alumni and BOV refused to construct a dormitory until 1952.

Women who attended UVA between 1920 and 1971 came from across the country. Due to the admittance requirements, women students tended to be older, married, and to already hold a bachelor’s degree from another university. A significant number were already working as math and science teachers, engineers, or other professionals. In some cases, their employer, the GI Bill, or a National Science Foundation grant paid their tuition. Married women from out of state accompanied their husbands who had been accepted at UVA, while those residing in Virginia often commuted to UVA, only spending time on Grounds to attend class. Women who were married discovered they were less threatening to the faculty and students, and were often invited to attend dinners and lectures in faculty homes. One woman in the engineering school recalled:

Being married gave me the freedom to interact freely with any student and some professors. But I was still expected to be a stay-at-home-mom by self/family/friends/society. So no choices, really.


Elizabeth Tompkins, UVA Law, 1920-1923

Elizabeth Tompkins was the first woman admitted to the Law School in 1920, graduating in 1923. She already held a master’s degree from Columbia University. In a 1921 letter to her father while at UVA, she explained how she felt about the men students and faculty:

They are beginning to know that I am not after them and that they have nothing that I want; I don’t notice them. In fact, if they did but know it, this mob of crawling humanity has destroyed any liking I might have once had for men, and they are now more repulsive than snakes that crawl in the grass. This town is just what my idea of H___ will be, and they are the devil in men’s clothing. But as long as I stay here, I never intend to express one word as to how I feel about it. As long as I say nothing, I can’t be a center for gossip, and I don’t care to have my name besmirched by the old hussies.

Elizabeth Tompkins, 1921



Alice Jackson, an African American woman over the age of 20 with a bachelor’s degree, applies to UVA Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. The Board of Visitors rejects her application citing Virginia segregation laws:

The education of white and colored persons in the same schools is contrary to the long established and fixed policy of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Therefore, for this and other good and sufficient reasons not
necessary to be herein enumerated, the Rector and Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia direct the Dean of the Department of Graduate Studies to refuse respectfully the pending application of a colored student.

Letter from Alice Jackson to the Board of Visitors (click to enlarge)

1935-Alice-Jackson 1935-Alice-Jackson-pg-2
Reply Letter From Board of Visitors (click to enlarge)


 Alice Jackson




 Alice Jackson and the Dovell Act

Alice Jackson’s application to UVA challenged Virginia’s compliance with the 1896 Supreme Court ruling Plessy v. Ferguson, which stipulated that states had to provide separate but equal education for African Americans. At the time, Virginia did not have a graduate school for African American students, and, in response to this violation of federal law, the Virginia legislature quickly established a graduate school for African Americans at the Virginia State University. The General Assembly then passed the Dovell Act, which allowed qualified African Americans residing in Virginia to receive a state scholarship to pay for tuition and travel for graduate school outside of Virginia. Hundreds of African American graduate students used this scholarship to earn their advanced degrees, including Alice Jackson who received her MA in English from Columbia University in 1937 and taught college until her retirement.


1936 Virginia is in violation of the Plessy v. Ferguson law because it does not provide access to graduate education for African Americans.


The Nursing Alumnae Association pays for the accreditation of the Nursing school.


Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg becomes the coordinated college of UVA for undergraduate women’s education.


The Co-Ordinated College

In 1911, UVA and the Board of Visitors began discussing the possibility of a coordinated women’s college that would be separate from, but linked to UVA similar to Harvard’s Radcliffe and Columbia’s Barnard. Between 1911 and 1944, multiple bills came before the Virginia General Assembly proposing a coordinated school, but were rejected after staunch opposition from the University faculty, students, alumni, and BOV. Opponents to the coordinated college invoked gender norms and the honor code to justify excluding women. They claimed that women had little capacity for higher education and believed the honor system would suffer if women were admitted, since women did not have honor. Plans to have the coordinated college adjacent to UVA drew the largest opposition, as faculty and the BOV viewed a nearby women’s college as akin to the “evil of co-education.” They invoked the masculine, southern aristocratic culture of UVA through its traditions and Jeffersonian legacy, and argued that this culture should be maintained. One of the reasons Mary Washington College was approved as the coordinated school was its distance of more than 60 miles from Charlottesville.


UVA President Colgate Darden approves Collegiate School of Nursing 45 years after nursing program starts, despite objections from students, faculty, alumni and the BOV.


First students in the BS in Nursing degree program begin. Nursing program begins a practical nurse training program for African American women high school students.


The first dorm for women opens on Grounds, and is named for Mary Munford, who advocated for the co-ordinate college and served on the BOV.


The Supreme Court passes Brown v. Board of Education requiring public schools to integrate. Virginia begins the Massive Resistance campaign to delay and obfuscate the law and interposition to defy the court. Virginia would not fully integrate schools until the 1970s.


Doris Khulmann-Wilsdorf is the first female full professor at UVA outside of the Nursing school. She teaches in Engineering and Physics.



The Supreme Court passes the Civil Rights Act.


President Shannon questions whether UVA could attain a reputation as a first-class institution while excluding women students. The Board of Visitors requests President Edgar Shannon Jr. conduct a study on the issue of coeducation.

““We want to stress from the outset of such debate that we look with horror upon the prospect of a large-scale female invasion, other than for the purposes of a party weekend, of these traditionally male Grounds”
—Editors of the Cavalier Daily, 1967

Women have no honor, only deception. They would undermine the honor system.
–UVA student, 1967

If you admit women, the university will never receive any alumnus funds from me
–Third year student, 1967

I am completely opposed, it would deteriorate the atmosphere and make it a ‘state-U.
–UVA student, 1967

Cavalier Daily article, “Where The Girls Are” (click to enlarge)1967-Article



The committee studying coeducation at UVA recommends that the university remove all restrictions on admitting women and African Americans. The Student Honor Committee issues its own report stating the admittance of women “would hurt the honor system.”

Nursing school admits the first African American woman, Mavis Claytor, a degree seeking student.


The Board of Visitors implements a plan to gradually allow women undergraduates at UVA under a quota system. Applicants would have to complete their first two years of college elsewhere or be the wives or daughters of faculty, staff, or students. Provost Herford suggests the University cap women’s enrollment at 35%.

Four college-aged women living in Charlottesville apply to UVA and are not admitted based on their gender. They file suit against the University in federal court through the ACLU citing gender discrimination. The federal court rules in favor of the women and orders UVA to present the court with a plan for full coeducation within three years and without a quota system.

UVA develops a two year transition plan for coeducation that would admit 450 women undergraduates in 1970, 550 in 1971, and admit students without regard to sex by 1972.


450 women undergraduates admitted to UVA. Male students will not sit next to them in class. There are no women’s bathrooms in most of the buildings.



550 women undergraduates admitted to UVA even though the university receives 2,500 applications.


Open enrollment for women undergraduates begins at UVA. The Federal government passes Title IX prohibiting sexual discrimination in higher education institutions that receive federal funds.

Undergraduate Women in the Village

By 1969, the BOV approved a plan to admit white women undergraduates to UVA, again using a quota system. Applicants would have to complete their first two years of college elsewhere or be the wives or daughters of faculty, staff, or students. Provost Herford suggests the University cap women’s enrollment at 35% by 1980.
While the BOV was approving its plan, four college-age women living in Charlottesville applied to UVA and were denied admission. They filed suit against the University through the American Civil Liberties Union, claiming the University “severely discriminates against women in their admissions policies” and appealed for a change to the policy to allow women to enter the College as undergraduates.
In September 1969, the federal court heard the case. The new Dean of Women, Mary Whitney, resigned from her position at UVA to testify in court for the women students, describing UVA’s inequitable admissions policy and cruel treatment of women students. The court ruled that UVA’s admissions policy was discriminatory and ordered the University to develop a three-year plan to make the University co-educational. Yet the stomping and discrimination continued at UVA into the 1980s, and men faculty and students told women, “You girls have ruined this place”.


Women are 43% of the undergraduate student body.



Women are 54% of the undergraduate student body.

Women are 22% of the STEM tenure track teaching faculty at UVA and 38% of the overall full-time teaching faculty at UVA.

Women Graduating on the Lawn in 20042004-Women-Graduating-on-the-Lawn


About These Portraits | A History of Women at UVA | The National Conversation on Social Media

Expand your experience and join the conversation @UVaCHARGE or #voicesandvisibilityuva on twitter logo grayTwitter.


U.Va. CHARGE – Discovery. Innovation. Diversity – Follow us on Facebook at uvacharge.facebook-logo-png-2


Tell us what you think
Tell-us-what-you-think-icon300x190 of the exhibit!

© Copyright 2017 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia

For more info, to join our listserve, or to get involved contact: uvacharge@virginia.edu

Sponsored by the NSF ADVANCE AWARD #1209197.