The First Students
At the close of the nineteenth century, when approximately
two-thirds of colleges and universities across the country
provided coeducational opportunities, the question of the
admission of women to Virginia’s state universities
began to emerge.
In 1892, the University received a petition from Caroline Preston Davis to take the examinations required for a B.A. in Mathematics. The University faculty granted Davis permission, making her U.Va.’s first female student.
In response to Davis’s petition, the faculty members considered the broader question of the admission of women to the University. After some debate, they agreed to admit female students under certain conditions—conditions that Davis successfully met.
Only a few women took advantage of this opportunity. By the following year, the faculty began reconsidering its admissions policies for women. They believed that the current provisions had proven inadequate. In addition, many faculty members feared that providing limited opportunities for women eventually would lead to full coeducation—an arrangement considered detrimental to the University’s traditions and atmosphere, and unhealthy for women.
On June 11, 1894, the Board of Visitors, on the faculty’s recommendation, voted against the admission of women to the University of Virginia under any circumstances.
After receiving a petition from Caroline Preston Davis, the University faculty recommended a series of measures offering women limited educational opportunities at the school. On June 29, 1892, the Board of Visitors passed a resolution allowing women who demonstrated “good character and adequate preparation” to take examinations for an annual fee of twenty-five dollars. The students would not be permitted to attend regular lectures, but could study privately with University professors if they desired. For their efforts, women would earn a “pass certificate,” but not a diploma.
In June 1892, Caroline Preston Davis sent a petition to William M. Thornton, Chairman of the Faculty, requesting special permission to take the examinations in the School of Mathematics for the University’s 1892-1893 session. After approval by the Board of Visitors, Davis took the examinations separately from the male students taking the same test. Davis passed her examinations with distinction and received this “certificate of proficiency” – edited to reflect her special status. The certificate bears the signatures of Thornton and Charles Venable, professor in Mathematics. Davis was the first woman to receive official recognition for her studies at the University.
Appearing among the lists of male graduates for 1893 and 1894 are the names of the first two female students at the University of Virginia. Caroline Preston Davis passed examinations in Pure Mathematics in 1893. Addis Meade received a master’s degree in Mathematics in 1894. Neither student received a University diploma for her efforts but rather, a “Pass Certificate.”
Fannie Littleton Kline, one of the first female students at the University, studied privately with Chemistry professor John William Mallet in 1893. Mallet was in the minority of professors who favored the admission of women to U.Va. Half a century later, Kline recalled her experiences in this letter to Roberta Hollingsworth, Dean of Women. She considered her study at the University to be “one of the greatest privileges of her life.”
In his annual report William M. Thornton, Chairman of the Faculty, wrote that women’s “admission to examination, as the experience of the past session shows, will prove a barren privilege without some systematic and adequate provision for University Instruction.” Many faculty members agreed that allowing women only to take examinations was ineffective and that female students needed some form of instruction as well.
At a meeting of the University faculty on May 12, 1894,
William M. Fontaine, head of the committee charged with
investigating the admission of women, stated, “the
faculty have now come to the conclusion that, upon the whole,
admission of women to the University would be unwise and
injurious to the best interests of the University.”
On June 11, 1894, the Board of Visitors voted against the admission of women to the University under any circumstances. They believed that coeducation would lower the standards of the University and, more importantly, contradict the values of its founding father.