Women at the University of Virginia Women at UVa
Introduction
Virginia Gentlewomen
The First Students
Coordinate College
Graduate and Professional Schools
Page 1
Page 2
Page 3
Women and University Life
breaking Tradition
Coeducation
Timeline
Resources
Share Your Story


Graduate and Professional Schools

Part 1

In light of the admission of women to the College of William and Mary in 1918, and Mary Munford’s ongoing campaign for higher education for women, U.Va. President Edwin Alderman asked the Board of Visitors to admit white women to the University’s graduate and professional schools in November 1919.


On January 12, 1920, the Board of Visitors agreed by a vote of seven to two to admit women to the graduate and professional schools. The Board, seeking to ensure that only mature, motivated individuals would be accepted, stipulated a set of requirements for female students in terms of age, character, and academic credentials.
Seventeen women boldly joined their male classmates in the University’s entering class in the Fall of 1920. Women’s enrollment gradually increased in the following years, especially in Education, Mathematics, and Graduate Studies.


Initial responses to coeducation were not favorable. Student opinion, as evidenced in University publications, was particularly hostile. In these early years, a woman’s entrance into a classroom was often accompanied by male cries, whistles, and stamping feet. Undeterred, these women persevered. They proved to be exceptional students and gradually earned the respect of their professors and their peers. Women continued to pursue their academic goals at the University. By 1940, approximately 200 female students were enrolled at U.Va.

 

Educational Opportunities for Women in the University of Virginia. 1920.
University of Virginia Special Collections

On January 12, 1920, the Board of Visitors (by a vote of seven to two) approved the faculty’s recommendation that white women be admitted to the University’s graduate and professional schools that September.


The Board later stipulated a series of regulations governing the admission of women. Female applicants had to be at least twenty years old and they had to have completed two years of college work. The Board sought to ensure that only “women of maturity and adequate preparation” gained admission to the University.

 

 

Women Graduates, 1921-1925, University of Virginia, June 1926. 1926.
University of Virginia Special Collections

 

Women Graduates, 1921-1925, University of Virginia, June 1926. 1926.
University of Virginia Special Collections

 

 

As a result of the Board of Visitors’ decision, seventeen women entered the University of Virginia in 1920. Three women enrolled in the Law School, four in Medicine, three in Education, and seven in the graduate department. Total enrollment of students at the University in 1920 numbered 1,581.


By 1925 the University successfully enrolled 102 female students. Women pursued studies in the schools or departments of Education, Engineering, Law, Medicine, Architecture, Commerce, Chemistry, Biology, and Mathematics. More than half of the enrolled women were students in the School of Education.

Portrait of Elizabeth Tompkins
Special Collections, Arthur J. Morris Law Library, University of Virginia

Elizabeth N. Tompkins was the first woman to graduate from the University of Virginia School of Law. Encouraged by her father, she sought admission to the school in 1920. Tompkins graduated in 1923, finishing near the top of her class. She also was the first woman admitted to the Virginia State Bar.


As a female in a male-dominated field, Tompkins initially had difficulty finding work. In 1925, she secured a job at a law practice in Richmond. Tompkins continued to work as an attorney until her retirement in 1979 at the age of 81.

Letter, Elizabeth N. Tompkins to Father. University of Virginia, 22 April 1922.
Special Collections, Arthur J. Morris Law Library, University of Virginia

The first group of women to enter the University often encountered many challenges once they were enrolled as students. They experienced pressure to succeed academically while facing hostility from their male peers.


In this emotional letter to her father, Elizabeth Tompkins discusses the difficulty of being one of only a few females amongst a “mob of men.” She considers leaving the University to pursue her legal studies elsewhere, but acknowledges her wish to fulfill her father’s desire to see his daughter become Virginia’s first female law school graduate. She records a general feeling of dissatisfaction towards academic and social life. However, she later assures her father she will remain strong and “as long as I stay here I never intend to express one word as to how I feel ….”

Zeisberg, Carl. “The Hour Has Struck.” In Corks and Curls. University of Virginia, 1920.
University of Virginia Special Collections

A general sense of dissatisfaction among male students and alumni accompanied the arrival of women at the University. As evidenced by this cartoon, student reaction was particularly hostile. Similarly themed articles, editorials, and illustrations appeared in publications such as the University of Virginia Magazine and College Topics, the student newspaper.

 

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