Against the Odds: Women at VPI

Founder's Day Speech by Laura Jane Harper
April 11, 1980

I was honored when President Lavery indicated to me that I was being considered as a possible speaker for today's events. Later Dr. Smoot came to my office and extended the invitation. At that time, we discussed a possible topic and he suggested that I might talk about women at VPI. That idea appealed to me. When I stop to think about it, for 31 out of the 59 years that women have been a part of VPI, I have been a part of that history also. These years have been exciting years and have provided me with many opportunities and experiences I would not have had otherwise.

On a Friday, a few weeks ago Dr. Smoot asked for a title for what I would say; I gave his question some thought and discussed the idea with two graduate students who are also women with whom I work and who were undergraduates here in the 1960's. In my discussions with them for ideas and topics, the conversation always came around to the odds involved in being a woman at VPI as a student or as a faculty or staff member. Thus I asked these students if I might borrow this concept for my remarks today: Against the Odds: Women at VPI.

Historically the odds for and against women here have been effected by a series of events and a number of individuals.

One of the odds against women gaining prominence at Virginia Tech was the length of time it took this institution to embrace coeducation in the first place. VPI has always prided itself on its land-grant college philosophy and mission. Certainly the 49-year exclusion of women from the opportunities provided here both as students and academicians is not a part of the best land-grant philosophy or mission. Except for a few isolated cases, such as Oberlin College for example, establishment and growth of our nation's land-grant colleges was a significant factor in the coeducational movement in U.S. higher education. In the last half of the 19th century when many of the land-grant colleges were chartered, coeducation rapidly became an integral part of those colleges and has flourished in them, usually from the very beginning. VPI, established in 1872, was one of the last 5 or 6 land-grant colleges in the U.S. to admit women as students. Why? If one looks at the pattern of resistance to coeducation in the "hold-out" colleges, for the most part they were southern colleges, all with the student body organized around a compulsory cadet corps. Being a land-grant college in the south alone was not a deterrent; but a college in the south with a compulsory military component was an obstacle. Thus, if VPI's being a land-grant college was one of the odds in favor of co-education, the compulsory cadet corps system was apparently an overriding factor against it.

One of my former advisees, Patricia (Hodges) Miller, class of 1959, wanted more than anything else to be a member of the Cadet Corps. Her father, a career officer in the U.S. Army, had participated in the VPI Corps of Cadets as an undergraduate For nearly all of the 12 quarters Pat was a student here she pre-registered for the required military subjects, but each quarter she was told the Corps was not open to women. During the winter quarter of her senior year she told me she had applied for a commission in the Medical Specialists Corps and planned to be commissioned at graduation along with the graduating cadets. I was frantic when I considered what the alumni, student body, and especially the cadets, would say and do. Tradition was very strong in that period of our history. She said, "Don't worry; I've talked to the Surgeon General and he would very much like to come to the exercises, deliver the address, and commission me along with the other graduates." I think every student in Hillcrest Dormitory stayed over to see Pat commissioned in Miles Stadium that year, in one of the hottest June days ever remembered in Blacksburg. Out into the field marched the cadets: those who would be commissioned into the U.S. Army, the Air Force, the Navy, the Marine Corps, and the Coast Guard. Pat came on to the field alone and last. All stood in the hot sun through the entire commissioning exercise. If I remember the order of commissioning correctly, first commissioned were those for the Army, then for the Air Force, then for the Navy, then the Marine Corps, followed by the Coast Guard. By this time, the women students from Hillcrest were furious. Why, they asked, did Pat have to be the last one? My answer was: "Those men must get a head start on her; even with that she will overtake them."

Many years passed, however, before women students were admitted into the Corps of Cadets at VPI. I wonder if they ever would have been admitted if the Corps could have maintained enrollments without them? What is your opinion? One thing we know, there was very little increase in percentage of women students at VPI before enlistment in the Corps of Cadets became optional. Except for World War II years, each year enrollment of women hovered around 3-5 percent of the student body. I do not wish to judge the influence of the Corps of Cadets on this tragic situation, however; and I will comment later on other possible cause and effect factors relating to the odds women students have faced at VPI, proof of which is hidden in an undocumented history.

A number of people have been instrumental in making the odds for women students at VPI more favorable, and to them all women here owe a debt of gratitude. The first one to whom I would like to give credit is Dr. Julian Burruss, our eighth President. Dr. Lyle Kinnear, in his history of VPI, The First Hundred Years, stated that President Eggleston as early as 1908 had wanted to admit women but was unable to get the support to do so. I wonder if he tried hard enough? The student bodies in most other land-grant colleges included women.

The honor of opening the doors to women students at VPI went to Presiden Burruss, who in 1921, was able to get the necessary support. Dr. Burruss made many changes during his term of office. Dr. Kinnear, however, credits the admission of women as the most significant innovation introduced here during the 26 year presidency of Dr. Burruss. There are those of us - one of us, at least - here today, Dr. Kinnear, who would like to strengthen your statement even further to say that in our judgment this 1921 innovation stands second only to establishing the college itself in 1872.

Prior to assuming the VPI presidency in 1919, Dr. Burruss (a VPI alumnus and the first one to be named a VPI President) had for 11 years served as President of the woman's college at Harrisonburg, VA, now known as Madison University. At the January 1921 Board of visitors meeting (only 16 months after assuming his position) President Burruss asked the Board for permission to admit women to VPI beginning with the fall term, 1921. This recommendation was passed unanimously. President Burruss evidently had powers of persuasion lacking in earlier presidents.

President Burruss is quoted as saying that "The interests of the state and of this college make it advisable to extend to our women citizens the full privileges of instruction offered here. The Virginia Polytechnic Institute will thus no longer discriminate against a large number of people of the state supporting it; and further nothing will be left undone to provide satisfactory conditions for all earnest women who come seeking the instruction provided at this institution." (The italics and emphasis are mine, not those of President Burruss.) From my study of the situation, the key phrases of the statement are "earnest women" and "who come seeking." Very little was done to attract women to VPI and apparently a great deal of resistance was placed in the way of those "who came seeking." At least, many of the early women graduates from whom I have received first-hand reports have testified to the resistance they faced. Lucy Lee Lancaster has compiled and kept up to date an interesting narrative concerning women students here.

Except for a remodeled faculty residence on campus (1925-26) to house a few women students, no dormitory facilities were provided for-women until 1940 when Hillcrest Dormitory, built to house a maximum of 96 students, was completed. The limited provision of on-campus housing for women students for so many years was a great deterrent to enrollment of women at the University. Just how great it was I do not know, except that each time dormitories have been provided for women they have been filled quickly. I know also that when I came to Blacksburg, for the most part, women students were not accepted into the town of Blacksburg as desirable tenants. From 1940 until the middle of the 1960's very little additional dormitory housing was provided for women. During this same period of time, on-campus housing for male students increased dramatically. Whether lack of available dormitories for women was a greater or lesser obstacle to enrollment of women than was the military environment, very likely we will never know.

Ten women matriculated that first year (fall 1921),five of whom were fulltime students. Lucy Lee Lancaster who received the 1979 Founder's Day Award entered VPI as a freshman that fall and was awarded her baccalaureate degree with the first graduating class.

In spite of the statement President Burruss made about the "best interests of the state and the advisability to extend to our women citizens the full privilege of instruction at VPI," guess what happened to a large portion of VPI's program for women during the depression years? By that time the largest group of Virginia Tech's women students were enrolled in the Department of Home Economics, the only department on campus with an all-female student body. That department was "temporarily" suspended for a period of three years during the depression; the reason given for this was "lack of funds." No other curricula, all of which were composed predominantly of males, were so treated. Funds were found to continue their support.

I would like to say something about the students from those early years whom I got to know after I came to VPI in 1949. They were truly as President Burruss described: "earnest women," highly motivated toward academic success, mature in their actions and extremely professional in their approach to education. They had to be to survive.

In mentioning individuals who strongly influenced the opportunities for women students at VPI in a very positive way in the "early days," we must not overlook Dr. Mildred Tate. In 1937, when the home economics program was reinstated, President Burruss employed Dr. Tate to serve as head of that department; she also served as VPI's dean of women. I had the good fortune to work under Dr. Tate for six years. She was intelligent, very creative, an excellent organizer, and concerned about the welfare of students. Possibly no faculty member at VPI who is a woman has been more highly respected than she was. Among other things, she played a big part in planning and furnishing Hillcrest Dormitory, a haven of good taste, excellent food, and gracious living on campus. She quickly got the programs for women moving again and enrollments began to increase. During Dr. Tate's tenure at the College, women's education here suffered another reversal. The Virginia General Assembly in 1944 developed a plan, as they called it, to prevent duplication of programs in higher education. This restriction, however, again only applied to women. Mary Washington College became the Woman's Division of the University of Virginia and women who wished to study at U. Va. must enroll for their first two years of study at Mary Washington. A similar restriction was imposed on V.P.I. in a consolidation with Radford College. Radford College for 20 years (1944-1964) was known as Radford College, the Woman's Division of VPI and programs of study included on one campus should not be duplicated on the other. For the most part, this applied only to home economics and business education since Radford College did not offer most of the specializations included in VPI programs. All home economics students, except those who were bonafide residents of Blacksburg were required to enroll at Radford College for their first two years of study. Those desiring to qualify to teach completed their studies at Radford; those preparing for other professions in home economics were allowed to transfer to VPI for the junior and senior years. This structure seriously curtailed the number of women students on this campus. This 20 year restriction was most detrimental to programs for women here, and especially so for women in home economics. A full generation of women students were thus prevented from studying at Virginia Tech.

Very likely the greatest positive force for increasing opportunities for women students came about when Dr. T. Marshall Hahn was President of VPI.

Shortly after Dr. Hahn was named VPI's eleventh President (1962) but prior to his assuming the office, he addressed the Virginia Chamber of Commerce meeting in Richmond and in this speech he made a statement of his goals and objectives for V.P.I. His presentation made the headlines of a Sunday issue of the Richmond Times Dispatch. In this speech he espoused some of the same philosophy expressed by Dr. Burruss. President Hahn stated that one of the ways VPI had failed to fulfill its land-grant charter was the lack of educational opportunities provided to women and that he intended, as President, to right the wrong. I cut the article out of the paper, and with a red pencil wrote across it in large script these words: "Please don't ever make this statement again if you don't mean it. Women students wishing to attend VPI have had all the disappointments they can stand!" I stopped at the post office on my way to church that Sunday and mailed this clipping to Dr. Hahn at Kansas State University. On the following Wednesday my telephone rang and the voice of Dr. Hahn came through to me with the comment: "I do mean it and I plan to do something about it."

In 1960 some of us in Home Economics had persuaded President Newman, Dr. Hahn's predecessor, to let us have a large residence on Prices Fork Road, which had been acquired by the VPI Education Foundation, to use as a dormitory for 18 students in home economics. Members of the Virginia Extension Homemakers Clubs provided the space for thirty-six additional students. In the late 1960's beginning with 1966, two additional dormitories built to house men and adjacent to the drill field were converted to dormitories for women: first Eggleston and then Campbell. Beginning in 1970 undergraduate students were permitted to live off-campus. In 1973-74, a new dormitory (Slusher Hall) was opened for women the first since 1940.

Increase in housing facilities has certainly contributed to the explosion of women students at VPI. We are now in the business of educating women for real! We still do not provide equal numbers of opportunities for women, since each year approximately equal numbers of academically able males and females graduate from high school - but we have made a good start. What a change: from 3-5% of the student body twenty years ago to 37% in 1979-80; Think what this has meant to VPI and the citizens of the Commonwealth. Economically this increase in women students dramatically increases the University's financial support and the variety of programs we are able to offer. It means a student body of 20,000 instead of 13,000; it means that for every ten faculty positions and the auxiliary support staff provided at Tech, this number would be reduced to six without the women students who have joined us; it means new and exciting programs of study in the humanities and social sciences and the introduction of new modes of thought in most of the professional programs.

Many people in Dr. Hahn's leadership team played prominent roles in changes and expansion of the academic programs that provided the initial impetus to women. Dr. Warren Brandt, Dr. Hahn's Academic Vice President, deserves special recognition. Dr. Kinnear wrote this about him: "In him (referring to Dr. Brandt), Hahn found an able ally as the two men worked side by side for the next several years to develop high quality educational opportunities for Virginia youth."

I do not wish to discredit the other members of President Hahn's leadership team who followed Dr. Brandt. They, too, made contributions; but it is usually much easier to expand established programs than to make the bold curricula changes required to launch new programs and directions. This is the reason I single out Dr. Brandt's contribution.

More recent - and certainly bold - educational developments under President Lavery and Provost Wilson are providing additional opportunities for women in important areas of graduate education. Events and personalities in tandem can change the odds; they have changed them. When women make up 50 percent of the student body at both undergraduate and graduate levels, we can stop placing our bets. The "odds" will be "even"!

The chronicle relating to women faculty at VPI indicates far less success. Tragically, no dramatic changes seem eminent.

In the 1920's, when women students were admitted, A few women joined the academic faculty. Through the years, however, infusion of women into the faculty has certainly not kept pace with VPI's growth. The latest year for which comparable figures for the U.S., Virginia, and VPI have been published was 1977 (1979 Digest of Educational Statistics and Fall 1977 Faculty Profile, State Council on Higher Education, September 1978). In that year colleges and university faculties in the United States were made up of 75% men and 25% women; for Virginia this figure was 78% men and 22% women; at VPI that year the faculty was composed of 88% men and 12% women (less than one-half of the national average and 54% of the average for all 4-year colleges in Virginia.)

When one looks at the prestigious academic rank of professor, our standing is even worse. In 1977 nationwide, 9.5% of the full professors were women; in Virginia as a whole 5% were women; at VPI this figure was only 2.5%, approximately one-fourth of the national average and one-half of the average for 4-year colleges in Virginia as a whole. At VPI in 1977 the percentage of full professors who were women was the lowest of any of Virginia's doctoral granting institutions. I do not have figures with which to compare our standing with national figures for 1979-80. I did, however check VPI figures for 1979 and the percentage of women who are full professors has increased by one percentage point to 3.6%. We cannot boast about this small gain. Neither can we look with pride - if we are women, that is - to the number of women in leadership roles at the University. Why are the odds against us?

If President Lavery would ask me to write the goals and objectives he would present to the Board of Visitors for Virginia Tech for the 1980's, I would paraphrase for him the statement Dr. Burruss used to get unanimous support from the 1921 Board in regard to admission of women students. My statement for President Lavery would read something like this: "The interests of the state, this University, and particularly the Virginia Tech student body make it advisable to include on its faculty and administrative staff in prominent leadership roles increasingly larger numbers of highly qualified women. In this regard, by 1990 one fourth of our faculty and administrators and at least 10 percent of the full professors at the University will be chosen from the finest group of women academicians in the United States. At least half of this increment of women scholars will be added by 1985."

President Lavery, when I read in the Sunday news that you have made a speech to the Virginia Chamber of Commerce where you have stated that one of the ways Virginia Tech has failed to fulfill its land-grant charter is through the disproportionately small number of outstanding women engaged in scholarly careers and leadership at the University, I will clip that article, too, and write across it these words: "Please don't make this statement again if you don't mean it; women who have entered careers in higher education or are preparing to do so have had all the disappointments they can stand."

Then when Dr. Kinnear or his successor writes the chronicle of Our Second Hundred Years, he will certainly state that "The most significant innovation introduced during the Lavery years was the infusion of the VPI faculty and their administrative leadership with large numbers of highly qualified women from all over the world."

Achievement of this goal will bring as much prestige and benefit to the University as the inclusion of 7,000 women into the student body. It will provide excitement, new directions, a magnificent renaissance to higher education in Virginia.

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Last updated September 10, 1998