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Introduction
Virginia Gentlewomen
The First Students
Coordinate College
Graduate and Professional Schools
Women and University Life
Breaking Tradition
Coeducation
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Virginia Gentlewomen

The University of Virginia is a man’s University. It was founded as a man’s University and it has obtained a high history as such. Its history, its traditions, its system of government are all founded on the teaching of men for the teaching of men …

– a U.Va. alumnus, 1914


Throughout much of its history, the University of Virginia has been a “Gentleman’s University,” an idea rooted in the institution’s traditions, history, and principles as established by its founder. Mr. Jefferson intended for his University to educate “Southern Gentlemen” – no provisions were made for either blacks or females at such an institution. This exclusivity persisted well into the twentieth century. Thus, by the turn of the century, while many colleges and universities nationwide opened their doors to women, the Commonwealth of Virginia offered no public or private coeducational institutions.


The lack of educational opportunities for women in Virginia was tied to prevailing ideas about women in the South during this time. The “Virginia Gentlewoman” received no encouragement to pursue activities which required intellectual development. Higher learning was thought to foster a bold, boisterous temperament in women – traits considered undesirable by a society that valued demure, modest women whose primary concerns lay within the household.


Despite these generally accepted views of women, a few advocates for women’s education did emerge in the late nineteenth century. Virginia’s first Superintendent of Public Instruction, William H. Ruffner, identified the necessity of educating women and outlined plans that led to higher education opportunities for the women of Virginia.

Letter, Thomas Jefferson to Nathaniel Burwell. 14 March 1818.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

 

“A plan of female education has never been a subject of systematic contemplation with me,” writes Thomas Jefferson to Nathaniel Burwell in 1818, on the eve of the founding of the University of Virginia. In this letter, Jefferson demonstrates his limited view of education for women. Drawing on the example of his own daughters, he explains the value of education to prepare women, when they become mothers, to “educate their own daughters, and even to direct the course for sons, should their fathers be lost, or incapable, or inattentive.” He adds that the study of some literature, poetry, French, drawing, and music is useful. Jefferson also mentions the importance of managing the household economy – an area “in which the mothers of our country are generally skilled, and generally careful to instruct their daughters.” In closing, he confesses that the concept of educating women “is a subject on which I have not thought much.”

 

Transcript

DEAR SIR, -- Your letter of February 17th found me suffering under an attack of rheumatism, which has but now left me at sufficient ease to attend to the letters I have received. A plan of female education has never been a subject of systematic contemplation with me. It has occupied my attention so far only as the education of my own daughters occasionally required. Considering that they would be placed in a country situation, where little aid could be obtained from abroad, I thought it essential to give them a solid education, which might enable them, when become mothers, to educate their own daughters, and even to direct the course for sons, should their fathers be lost, or incapable, or inattentive. My surviving daughter accordingly, the mother of many daughters as well as sons, has made their education the object of her life, and being a better judge of the practical part than myself, it is with her aid and that of one of her élves that I shall subjoin a catalogue of the books for such a course of reading as we have practiced.

A great obstacle to good education is the inordinate passion prevalent for novels, and the time lost in that reading which should be instructively employed. When this poison infects the mind, it destroys its tone and revolts it against wholesome reading. Reason and fact, plain and unadorned, are rejected. Nothing can engage attention unless dressed in all the figments of fancy, and nothing so bedecked comes amiss. The result is a bloated imagination, sickly judgment, and disgust towards all the real businesses of life. This mass of trash, however, is not without some distinction; some few modelling their narratives, although fictitious, on the incidents of real life, have been able to make them interesting and useful vehicles of sound morality. Such, I think, are Marmontel's new moral tales, but not his old ones, which are really immoral. Such are the writings of Miss Edgeworth, and some of those of Madame Genlis. For a like reason, too, much poetry should not be indulged. Some is useful for forming style and taste. Pope, Dryden, Thompson, Shakspeare, and of the French, Molière, Racine, the Corneilles, may be read with pleasure and improvement.

The French language, become that of the general intercourse of nations, and from their extraordinary advances, now the depository of all science, is an indispensable part of education for both sexes. In the subjoined catalogue, therefore, I have placed the books of both languages indifferently, according as the one or the other offers what is best.

The ornaments too, and the amusements of life, are entitled to their portion of attention. These, for a female, are dancing, drawing, and music. The first is a healthy exercise, elegant and very attractive for young people. Every affectionate parent would be pleased to see his daughter qualified to participate with her companions, and without awkwardness at least, in the circles of festivity, of which she occasionally becomes a part. It is a necessary accomplishment, therefore, although of short use, for the French rule is wise, that no lady dances after marriage. This is founded in solid physical reasons, gestation and nursing leaving little time to a married lady when this exercise can be either safe or innocent. Drawing is thought less of in this country than in Europe. It is an innocent and engaging amusement, often useful, and a qualification not to be neglected in one who is to become a mother and an instructor. Music is invaluable where a person has an ear. Where they have not, it should not be attempted. It furnishes a delightful recreation for the hours of respite from the cares of the day, and lasts us through life. The taste of this country, too, calls for this accomplishment more strongly than for either of the others.

I need say nothing of household economy, in which the mothers of our country are generally skilled, and generally careful to instruct their daughters. We all know its value, and that diligence and dexterity in all its processes are inestimable treasures. The order and economy of a house are as honorable to the mistress as those of the farm to the master, and if either be neglected, ruin follows, and children destitute of the means of living.

This, Sir, is offered as a summary sketch on a subject on which I have not thought much. It probably contains nothing but what has already occurred to yourself, and claims your acceptance on no other ground than as a testimony of my respect for your wishes, and of my great esteem and respect.

 

Corks and Curls. University of Virginia, 1895
University of Virginia Special Collections

 

In this dedication in Corks and Curls, a publication of U.Va. fraternities, the yearbook staff pays homage to the ideal Southern woman, who possesses the desirable female traits of a mild disposition and unparalleled beauty. The yearbook features fraternities, social clubs, and athletics at the University. The only women pictured are those who appear in the illustrations of “Virginia belles” and “fair village maidens” that serve as artwork in the publication.

 

Hay, James, Jr. “The Honor Men.” 1903.
University of Virginia Special Collections

 

James Hay, Jr., a 1903 graduate of the University, wrote “The Honor Men” for that year’s edition of Corks and Curls. This historic poem paints a romanticized portrait of University life at the turn of the last century. The poem opens with:


The University of Virginia writes her degrees on the souls of her sons.
The parchment page of scholarship—the colored ribbon of a society—the jeweled emblem of a fraternity—the orange symbol of athletic prowess …


The gendered language that appears throughout the poem depicts the University as a place reserved exclusively for male students.

 

"Our Colleges" in Emerson's Magazine and Putnam's Monthly, Jan 1858, Oaksmith & Co., NY

University of Virginia Special Collections

 

Colleges and universities across the United States, including many state institutions, began to embrace the concept of coeducation in the mid-nineteenth century. The Commonwealth of Virginia, in contrast, made no provision for the higher education of women.


In this article, the author promotes the idea that universities should be accessible “to the people of both sexes.” In making her argument, Austin includes profiles of three institutions, highlighting the educational opportunities at each. Her description of the University of Virginia contains words of praise for the school and its founder, but also calls attention to a significant deficiency–“we can see that no plan of education is complete which excludes women.”

 

Ruffner, W.H. Ninth Annual Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction for the Year Ending July 31, 1879. Richmond: R.E. Frayser, 1879.
University of Virginia Special Collections

 

While serving as Virginia’s first Superintendent of Public Instruction from 1870 to 1882, William H. Ruffner reflected on how “strangely they [women] have been neglected by the ruling sex.”

In his Ninth Annual Report, Ruffner outlines a plan for providing higher education for Virginia’s women based on models adopted by institutions in other states. His proposal involves admitting women to existing state institutions and establishing a female state college and normal (teacher training) schools. In concluding his argument, Ruffner writes, “coeducation is repugnant to our prejudices, and yet it would be unwise to reject it without examination.”

 

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