I write this letter as we approach July 1 and are looking ahead to an uncertain fall, one that will be unlike any we have faced in our lifetimes. We are also in the midst of upheaval and serious discussion and reflection regarding issues of racism and police brutality, and the entire country is undergoing a reassessment of both the present and the past. In these tumultuous times, it can help to recollect both the difficulty and ultimate benefits of change.
Fifty years ago this month, the first class of undergraduate women entered UVA’s College of Arts & Sciences. As you’ll read in this issue of Virginia Magazine, the road to full coeducation was a long and difficult one, and was only possible thanks to generations of women who fought, sacrificed and paved the way.
People like Caroline Preston Davis, who successfully petitioned to become the University’s first female student in 1892 but was only issued a Certificate of Proficiency instead of a diploma. People like Mary Cooke-Branch Munford, whose lobbying of the Virginia Legislature led to UVA’s accepting women into its graduate and professional programs in 1920 and establishing a coordinate school for undergraduate women at Mary Washington College in 1944. People like Cynthia Goodrich Kuhn (Col ’73), who in 1972 moved into 28 East Lawn and became the first female Lawn resident.
And then there are the women whose names we may not know, but who are trailblazers in their own right. The members of those early classes of women who had to endure the intimidation and ridicule of male professors and students openly telling them they didn’t belong at the University. The women who knew, firsthand, that change does not always come easy. And the women who later helped protect, and expand on, hard-won progress.
Thanks to all of them, by 1980 the number of first-year women exceeded men for the first time. In 1995, overall female enrollment exceeded male enrollment for the first time—something it’s continued to do ever since. And, in part, because women have become a larger part of our community, the University is stronger today than it’s ever been.
We are stronger thanks to people like: Dr. Vivian Pinn (Med ’67), the only African American and only woman in her class to graduate from the School of Medicine, who went on help lead the National Institutes of Health and has long been a vocal advocate for women and minorities in biomedical careers; Barbara Kelly, the University’s first full-time female athletic staff member and a driving force behind the development and expansion of our women’s athletic programs after the passage of Title IX; and Sharon Davie (Grad ’69, ’72) who helped found both the Women, Gender and Sexuality program and the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center at UVA.
Today, women make up about 54 percent of the University’s student population. Women currently hold executive leadership roles in influential student groups such as the Black Student Alliance, Student Council and the University Judiciary Committee. UVA sponsors 27 varsity sports, 14 for women, and those women’s teams have won 59 Atlantic Coast Conference titles and 7 national titles. And the last three Rhodes Scholarship recipients from UVA have been women.
I mention all that to show how, in so many ways, women have made—and continue to make—UVA what it is today. And the wider we open our doors, the better off we’ll all be.
That work continues today. It’s why we recently announced that all students, regardless of citizenship or immigration status, will now be eligible for admission and enrollment at UVA. It’s why the most recent first-year class, like the one before it, is the most diverse in school history. And it’s why the first goal in our strategic plan is to recruit and support exceptionally talented, diverse, and service-oriented students, regardless of their economic circumstances.
Recruiting and supporting a more diverse student body isn’t just about making UVA better reflect the state and the community we serve—although that’s important. It’s also about making everyone feel like they belong, building bridges across apparent lines of difference, and modeling the kind of world we want to live in. Working to make our community not just more diverse but more inclusive has become even more urgent recently, after the killing of George Floyd brought conversations about racial equity to the fore.
Luckily, we have examples of what it takes to have those conversations and take action here at UVA—including the example set by women 50 years ago.
The road ahead may be bumpy, just like it was for the women who led the way for those who would follow. But we know the result will be a university that is closer to our ideals and stronger as a result.