The year before the founding, Thomas Jefferson declines a prominent planter’s suggestion that he expand his revolutionary ideas about education to encompass women. Jefferson notes the rigorous education he provided his daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph but writes: “A plan of female education has never been a subject of systematic contemplation with me.”
Oberlin College, which offered degrees in its “Ladies’ Course” from its 1833 founding, is the first college in the nation to admit women to its baccalaureate program.
The University of Iowa becomes the first public university to admit women on an equal basis with men.
A succession of public universities begin introducing coeducation, among them the University of Michigan in 1870, University of Arkansas in 1872, University of Wisconsin in 1874 and Ole Miss in 1882.
UVA provides summer instruction to 312 female schoolteachers through its new “Normal School,” or teachers college. For the program’s next 40 years, only men would qualify for course credit.
Caroline Preston Davis applies to take the bachelor’s-level math exams at UVA. While the Board of Visitors says it “is impracticable and inexpedient for the University to undertake the duties of instruction for young ladies,” it allows them to receive certificates of proficiency, not diplomas. Davis would become the first woman to receive a certificate, passing the exams with distinction.
Fannie Littleton Kline receives private instruction from chemistry department head John William Mallet, an early advocate of coeducation. “He thought it would be better for the men as well as the women,” she wrote years later. She went on to Cornell, receiving two years’ chemistry credit for her studies with Mallet.
The Board of Visitors revokes all instruction of women, acting on a faculty report that says higher education “does often physically unsex them, and they afterwards fail in the demands of motherhood.” The resolution says: “all provisions for the registration of women … are unsatisfactory and useless … and the same are hereby rescinded.”
The University of North Carolina, under President Edwin Alderman (seven years before he would come to UVA), opens its professional schools to women.
71 percent of U.S. colleges and universities are coeducational, though not necessarily without restrictions.
A two-year training program for nurses is established at the new University Hospital. Seven women enroll in the school, which won’t grant degrees for another 48 years.
Mary-Cooke Branch Munford, a Richmond activist, presses the General Assembly to create a coordinate college for women in Charlottesville, following the model of the Ivy League’s Seven Sisters. UVA President Alderman views it as a favorable alternative to coeducation, which he opposes as contrary to the “genus” of UVA, saying, “traditions and the very nature of life here are against it.”
A bill to establish a coordinate college at UVA fails by two votes in the General Assembly.
The College of William & Mary goes coed, though with limitations.
The Board of Visitors approves coeducation for UVA’s graduate and professional schools, after a 64-4 faculty vote to allow white “women of maturity and adequate preparation” to enroll in them. Seventeen women matriculate: three in law, four in medicine, three in education and seven in arts and sciences.
Adelaide Douglas Simpson, 29, arrives from Hillsdale College to become the dean of women, charged with focusing on the development of leadership, social poise and integrity of female students, while providing them guidance and consolation.
Emilie Watts McVea, president of Sweet Briar College, is the first woman appointed to the Board of Visitors. She serves a four-year term.
Sarah Ruth Dean (Med 1922) of Mississippi is the first woman to graduate from the UVA medical school.
Elizabeth Nelson Tompkins (Law 1923) is the first woman to graduate from UVA law school.
Thelma Brumfield Dunn (Med 1926) becomes the medical school’s first female instructor, teaching bacteriology and pathology. She becomes assistant professor in 1928 and acting chair of the pathology department for the 1929–30 school year.
Chi Omega becomes UVA’s first national women’s fraternity, the term used at the time for sororities.
The Co-Ed Room opens on the West Range, providing women their own space to unwind. Betty Slaughter, an African American housekeeper affectionately nicknamed “Betty Co-Ed,” makes it a welcoming environment and becomes a friend, confidante and surrogate mother to many.
Agnes Randolph, a great-granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson, raises $50,000 for a school of nursing named for nursing pioneer Sadie Heath Cabaniss. It offers bachelor’s and graduate degrees, advancing nursing education beyond training staff for the hospital.
McKim Hall is completed as a 160-room dormitory for nursing students.
Roberta Hollingsworth Gwathmey begins a 33-year run as dean of women. Holder of a Ph.D. in romance languages, she advises women on academics but also matters of deportment, encouraging them to dress neatly and refrain from smoking and drawing attention to themselves.
UVA bars African American Alice Jackson from entering its graduate program in French, citing the state’s segregation policy. With no in-state equivalent program for African Americans, the commonwealth falls short of “separate but equal,” the dubious legal standard of the era. In response, the legislature establishes a graduate school at Virginia State University, as well as a fund to supplement tuition for African Americans who have to go out of state. Jackson uses the money to earn a master’s from Columbia.
Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, formerly a teachers college, becomes the coordinate women’s college for UVA and comes under the supervision of its president and board. A path opens for women to transfer from MWC into the UVA College in their third and fourth years.
The BOV votes to create a baccalaureate program in nursing under the School of Medicine.
The first women’s dorm opens on Grounds, named for Mary Munford. All female students except nurses and married women must live there.
E. Louise Stokes Hunter (Educ ’53) becomes the first Black woman to earn a UVA degree, a doctorate in education.
Mary Slaughter (Educ ’54), daughter of a UVA physical education professor, plays on the men’s tennis team, becoming the first woman to letter in a sport at UVA. After the season, the ACC bans women from men’s teams. Slaughter transfers to the Women’s College of the University of North Carolina, now UNC-Greensboro.
The School of Nursing is established as an independent school, with Margaret Tyson as its first dean.
Women are allowed access on Sunday afternoons to Memorial Gym, one of very few extracurricular facilities open to them.
Doris Kuhlmann-Wilsdorf is the first female full professor outside the School of Nursing, teaching engineering and physics.
The University of North Carolina approves the admission of undergraduate women. With few housing options, enrollment is limited.
Virginia General Assembly Delegate Richard Middleton writes to UVA President Edgar Shannon asking if he will consider admitting local women as first-year students. In response, Shannon creates a Committee on the Future of the University to consider coeducation , the first of several efforts bringing UVA closer to the question.
Barbara Starks Favazza (Med ’66) is the first Black woman to graduate from the School of Medicine.
President Shannon receives Board of Visitors permission to study admitting women to the College and, if it’s recommended, the feasibility of doing so. The Board of Visitors directs Shannon to conduct a study on the issue of coeducation.
Shannon’s coeducation study committee issues the Woody Report, named for its chairman, French professor T. Braxton Woody (Col 1923). It unequivocally recommends full coeducation of the College, citing the legal and moral imperatives as well as academic and social advantages.
Provost and future president Frank L. Hereford Jr. (Col ’43, Grad ’47) is appointed to study the feasibility of the Woody Report. He wins board approval for a heavily conditioned phase-in of coeducation that was projected to get the College to only 35 percent women by 1980.
Princeton and Yale become coed.
John Lowe (Law ’67) sues the University for gender discrimination in admissions, winning Virginia Anne “Ginger” Scott (Col ’73, Grad ’80, Educ ’89) the right to become the first woman to enroll as a first-year in the College that September. In October, under court order, the BOV resolves to admit 450 women in 1970 and 550 in 1971, and to adopt full coeducation—admitting students without regard to gender—by 1972.
Approximately 1,000 women apply to UVA, and the 450 admitted make up 39 percent of the incoming class.
Mavis Claytor (Nurs ’70, ’85) is the first Black woman to graduate from the School of Nursing.
Open enrollment begins. Women gain entry to the Honor Committee, the Cavalier Daily and other organizations. Cynthia Goodrich Kuhn (Col ’73) is the first female Lawn resident during the school year.
Duke and Dartmouth become coed.
Women’s tennis, field hockey and basketball become varsity sports. Swimming and diving are added in 1974 and lacrosse in 1976, after federal Title IX regulations for athletics take effect.
Lillian BeVier becomes the first female tenured law professor.
Patricia L. Jones (Educ ’60) becomes the first woman to serve on the Alumni Association Board of Managers.
Harvard becomes coed.
UVA establishes the Women’s Studies Program.
The number of first-year women exceeds the number of men for the first time.
The cross-country team wins UVA’s first women’s NCAA championship.
President Robert O’Neil creates a two-year Commission on the Status of Women, examining issues of pay, benefits, sexism, professional development and support programs.
In response to a petition from thousands of students, faculty and staff, a Women’s Center opens to support women’s lives and leadership at the University.
Overall female enrollment exceeds male enrollment for the first time; women have remained a majority ever since.
Glynn Key (Col ’86, Law ’89) becomes the first female president of the Alumni Board of Managers.
Teresa Sullivan becomes the University’s first female president, serving through July 2018.
Helen Dragas (Col ’84, Darden ’88) becomes UVA’s first female rector. Her failed attempt to oust Sullivan the following year would trigger a 17-day leadership crisis.
Carla Williams becomes the first Black female athletic director of a Power Five conference school.
Jenifer Andrasko (Darden ’10) becomes the first female president and CEO of the UVA Alumni Association.
Jennifer “J.J.” Wagner Davis becomes UVA’s first female executive vice president and chief operating officer.
M. Elizabeth Magill (Law ’95) becomes UVA’s first female provost.
Sources: “The Story of Women at UVA,” UVA Alumni Association 2020; “Women at the University of Virginia: Breaking and Making Tradition,” an exhibition in UVA Special Collections, Alderman Library, 2003; “Mr. Jefferson’s University: Women in the Village!” Phyllis Leffler, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 2007; Mr. Jefferson’s Nurses: The University of Virginia School of Nursing, Bjoring Center for Nursing Historical Inquiry; 1901–2001, Barbara Brodie, 2000; among others.
Photo sources: Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, UVA; Cavalier Daily; Corks & Curls; Claude Moore Health Sciences Library; UVA School of Nursing; Marianne Sullivan; David Skinner