The same year UVA’s first class of female undergraduates arrived on Grounds, signaling a new era of equality, Mary Brown began working as a secretary in the Department of Physiology. It was reminder there was still an old era, a status quo in which women worked disproportionately in support roles.

Clockwise from top right: Office of African-American Affairs Associate Dean Sylvia Terry (Grad ’72); instructor and assistant professor Thelma Brumfield Dunn (Med 1926); first female full professor outside the School of Nursing Doris Kuhlmann-Wilsdorf Illustration by Eleanor Shakespeare; photos courtesy Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, UVA

Brown had completed a year of business school when she started on April 1, 1970. She typed 96 words per minute on her IBM Selectric, mastered complex medical terminology and offered her opinion to her male bosses—but only when asked.

“You knew your place, let’s put it that way,” Brown says.

Fifty years on, Brown serves as chief financial officer of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. Her career spans an era of sweeping yet hard-won change for female faculty and staff that is not as well-documented as the struggle for coeducation. Indeed, while 1970 was a watershed year for admissions, there’s no comparable date that marks the moment when women began to find equal opportunity in UVA’s paid roles.

Not many stats are available before 1979, but by that fall, the majority of women worked in lower-level jobs—38 percent of them designated as clerical/secretarial and 14 percent as service/maintenance, according to the University’s Office of Institutional Analysis. In the grander scheme of things, women made up 58.7 percent of the total workforce—an indication of their importance to the functioning of the University—yet just 15 percent of the instructional faculty (compared with 41 percent in the fall of 2019). Instead, they made up 92 percent of the clerical/secretarial jobs and 61 percent of the service/maintenance headcount.

“There were women who were highly respected at the institution, but they were kind of behind the scenes,” Brown says.

Taking a Stand

As far back as the mid-19th century, women were part of the economic ecosystem. Board of Visitors minutes from the time mention contracts with women who ran boarding houses for students.

Early in the 20th century, a few women held leadership positions. One of them was Florence Eugenia Besley, who was recruited in 1901 from Children’s & Columbia School of Nursing in Washington, D.C., to open a new nursing training school at University Hospital.

Besley also might have been one of the first women to stand on principle in defense of her gender. In 1907, she resigned over doctors’ requiring student nurses to work such long hours in the hospital that they were missing classes.

“She made her point known and she left because she knew she was not going to win against the doctors,” says Barbara Brodie, an emeritus professor of nursing and the author of Mr. Jefferson’s Nurses, a history of the first 100 years of the nursing school.

Beyond nursing, women began taking their places behind the scenes as secretaries, librarians and stenographers. In 1919, Anna Tuttle Heck, daughter of one faculty member and wife of another, was hired as registrar, replacing a man. Her salary of $2,062 for the 1920-21 school year was roughly comparable to that of an assistant professor.

A painted portrait of A.E. Walker, hired to provide  a “feminine touch” to the all-male University Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, UVA

Around the same time, A.E. Walker was hired in 1918 to provide a “feminine touch” to the all-male University, as described in a 2003 UVA Library retrospective. Walker stayed on for 35 years as hostess at the student union, which had her running Sunday afternoon teas and chaperoning dances.

The admission of women to graduate and professional schools in 1920 created the need for a dean of women. Adelaide Douglas Simpson, a scholar of languages from Columbia, was the first, hired at a salary of $2,500, equal to that of the University physician.

While women made inroads elsewhere, faculty jobs were mostly closed off to them. There were rare exceptions, such as Thelma Brumfield Dunn (Med 1926), who became an instructor in pathology and virology in 1927 and was promoted to assistant professor in 1928. Dunn left in 1930, however, and it wasn’t until 1974 that Catherine Marie Russell (Grad ’51) became the first female full professor in the medical school. She had joined the faculty in 1952.

Doris Kuhlmann-Wilsdorf, who taught engineering and physics, was hired as the first female full professor outside the School of Nursing in 1963.

Cold Shoulders, Icy Stares

When Sharon Hostler (Res ’67) arrived as a medical resident in 1965, she encountered an overwhelmingly male and traditionally Southern environment, a double-whammy of culture shock for the native of Rutland, Vermont, who had attended Middlebury College, a coeducational school, and the University of Vermont Medical School.

Assigned to the nursery at University Hospital, Hostler caused a stir when she walked Black babies through the white maternity section.

“I had no filter to see what was happening, but there was this unspoken resistance,” she says. “Finally, after about six weeks, someone pulled me aside and said, ‘Look, you’re walking through the white women’s maternity section, and nobody there wants to see these Black babies.’”

Hostler felt very much the outsider. As an unmarried woman from the North, she was viewed with suspicion, she says. With few affordable housing options available for single women, she stayed in the nurse’s dorm, McKim Hall. When she had to leave in the middle of the night to cover medical emergencies at the hospital, the housemother at McKim didn’t hide her anger at having to let her back in.

At cocktail parties, she got more pushback from women than men about her career choice.

“They were indignant when they found I was here training to be a physician, because I was taking the place of a head of household, of a man, who would actually practice,” Hostler says.

Hostler was indignant herself when she joined the faculty and learned that she was paid less than men with the same qualifications. She became medical director of the Kluge Children’s Rehabilitation Center and was the first woman to hold an endowed chair at the medical school. She served on committees that addressed concerns of women University-wide and chaired a task force that reviewed the medical school’s promotion and tenure policies. It was not until she became a senior associate dean for faculty development for the medical school in 2003, however, that her own pay gap closed, she says.

In 2008, she received the Thomas Jefferson Award, the University’s highest honor.

“Probably we’re not there yet,” she says of the current status of women. “But we’ve made a hell of a lot of progress.”

In Fall 1979, nearly 59% of the UVA workforce was female, but only 16% of the instructional faculty were women.

Double Discomfort

Like Hostler, Lillian R. BeVier was something of an exotic when she came to Grounds from California in 1973: a divorced mother of two who drove an old Camaro convertible and aspired to be a law professor.

“I’m sure there was a lot of gossip behind my back because I was just such a weird thing,” she says. “[But] I was treated with such great decency. It would be very hard to identify anything I could complain about in the way I was treated as a person.”

For BeVier, a one-year visit turned into a distinguished 37-year career. She had been one of just four women in her Stanford Law School class, and she was the lone woman on the UVA law school faculty for nine years, she says.

“Women of our generation didn’t think about professional careers. They didn’t go to medical school or law school in great numbers. If you did, you were seen as a little bit strange.

“I don’t think we felt strange. We felt driven.”

The daughter of educators, Sylvia Terry (Grad ’72) was driven as well, growing up in rural, segregated Courtland, Virginia, in the 1960s. Terry graduated from Virginia State University with a degree in English and immediately enrolled in a master’s program at UVA. She taught high school in Charlottesville before returning to the University in 1980 to lead the admission office’s efforts to recruit Black students.

Enrolling Black students was a University priority. Retaining them was not, something that didn’t occur to Terry until a student mentioned it.

That was a defining moment that would lead to the signature achievement of Terry’s career: the creation of the Peer Advisor Program for Black students that won national awards and contributed to the University’s having the highest graduation rate for Black students of any public school in the nation from 1994 to 2009, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.

Terry moved to the Office of African-American Affairs in 1989 and retired in 2009 as associate dean. Early in her career, however, she encountered the challenges that came with being a minority on two fronts.

She recalls attending a meeting in which women were invited to share their experiences.

“When it came to my turn, it was difficult for me from this standpoint: I was a woman but also a Black woman,” she says. “It was an experience with which the other women did not have to deal. They had to deal with the issues of being in a predominantly male environment. I had to deal with issues of being female in a male environment but also an environment that had few African Americans in administrative roles and not many overall.”

When Terry encountered resistance, such as a time when she got icy stares from a room full of men for bringing her 2-year-old daughter to a meeting, she wondered whether it was because of her gender or her race. She drew support from other women at the University, she says.

“I saw us as a group being supportive of one another, but also cheerleaders for one another.”

Ed Miller is associate editor of Virginia Magazine.