Holly Smith (Col ’72) was in her sophomore year at Sweet Briar College when she heard that UVA had opened its doors to female undergraduates. She applied and was happy when she got in. “Apparently Dean of Admission Ernest Ern purposely chose female applicants who were active and aggressive. It was fair to say I fit that bill,” says Smith.
During the summer before she arrived at UVA, Smith discovered Our Bodies, Ourselves, a book significant to the women’s movement of the ’60s and ’70s. “It explained that women were equal to men and should be treated equally,” says Smith. “With my outlook on life rearranged, I arrived in Charlottesville in September of 1970 ready to do battle in the cause of making sure that women were given equal treatment at the University.”
Times were turbulent. Smith remembers protests against the Vietnam War, but she found that male students were generally pleased to have women at the University. “There was a tradition, though, that no male student would sit next to a female student in class unless all the other seats were taken. Often the men were just shy, not resentful.”
Perhaps because the University had to quickly comply with a 1969 court order to admit female undergraduates, Smith noticed some areas of student life where the University did not adequately provide for women’s needs. She joined the staff of the Cavalier Daily and wrote about UVA’s transition into a fully coeducational institution. She covered topics such as the development of health care for women on Grounds and attitudes toward women’s athletics. In 1970, women seeking birth control were directed by Student Health officials to get care from physicians in the city of Charlottesville. Athletic scholarships were awarded only to men.
Smith also tackled the controversy about opening up Lawn rooms to women. In an interview, Smith asked Ralph Main, director of housing, why women couldn’t live on the Lawn. “Bathrooms,” he told her.
Valerie Smith Kirkman
Although Valerie Smith Kirkman (Nurs ’75) and her sister, Holly Smith, were both students in the early ’70s, they had very different undergraduate experiences. While Smith ran into some speed bumps as one of the first female undergraduates, Kirkman says that when she arrived two years later, women had already assimilated into University culture. “I think the transition happened pretty quickly,” Kirkman says. “Because I came in the fall of ’72, women had already been there long enough and the men were used to women being around.”
She says her fellow nursing students were career-oriented like her and that nursing was a career that was flexible enough to fit several life stages. “I loved nursing because it allowed me to work part time when we were raising kids, or to take a break and go back into it.”
During her third year, Kirkman was a cheerleader and remembers how the men from the fraternities traveled to nearby universities to pick up dates to bring to football games and big weekends. “One thing I noticed,” she says, “is that the girls who were from UVA would wear bell-bottom blue jeans, while girls who were imports from schools like Sweet Briar wore plaid skirts and matching sweaters.”
Kirkman says that the women’s movement wasn’t a major issue on Grounds. “We knew that women could do whatever they wanted to do,” she says. “It was just an attitude of knowing that.”