Women, women everywhere: Trying to jump the gender bar

"This is a man's, a man's, a man's world

But it wouldn't be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl."

James Brown wailed these words more than a century too late for them to cause any great stir in the mind of Thomas Jefferson, who apparently didn't give a thought to including women when he planned his academical village. In 1819, just before the opening of the University of Virginia, Jefferson wrote, "A plan of female education has never been a subject of systematic contemplation with me."

While Jefferson concluded that women benefited from proper instruction in more traditional subjects such as the French language, much of a proper education for the "fair" sex lay in the realm of social graces: "The ornamental too, and the amusements of life are entitled to their portion of attention. These, for a female, are dancing, drawing, and music."

One hundred and eighty-four years later, visitors to UVA's Alderman Library Special Collections exhibit, "Breaking and Making Tradition: Women at the University of Virginia," can catch a glimpse of some of the ways women have circumvented the great founder's ideas for female education. The collection surveys women's roles at UVA from its earliest days through the implementation of full co-education in 1970.

The exhibition is the brainchild of its curator, history graduate student Larissa Mehmet, who "got on her hands and knees" in the library's special collections to sift through the archive's massive quantity of documents in search of a historical Holy Grail or two.

Evidence of the extent to which women have always been a part of the former "Gentlemen's University" abounds behind the glass cases– from letters to yearbooks to photos capturing long-forgotten Cavalier traditions.

The exhibit follows women's experiences through the late 1970s, a time many might consider the beginning of women's involvement. Not so.

Though the more general descriptions of women's lives at the University are richly descriptive of the times, the collection's greatest strength is the way it highlights the individual experiences of the women who surmounted early barriers.

Exhibit coordinator Mercy Quintos regrets that not every experience could be represented. "There are so many stories that we unfortunately have to leave some out," she says. She adds, however, that those included in the collection are "gems."

For instance, the exhibit showcases the measly recognition that Caroline Preston Davis received in 1893, after she passed with distinction examinations administered in the School of Math. For her achievement, Davis received a "certificate of proficiency"– a diploma with the word "graduate" officially crossed out. Exhilarated at her find, Mehmet notes that the blatant denial of merit "says it all."

Other examples of the difficulties women faced include a letter sent by the University's first female law school graduate, Elizabeth Tompkins, to her father. The letter captures her discontent with her hostile reception from her classmates and an appeal to transfer elsewhere to escape the school's "mob of men."

And how many are aware that Georgia O'Keeffe attended summer drawing lessons and taught art classes at the university from 1913-1916, the same year her work first appeared in galleries in New York?

The exhibit catalogues the kinds of experiences that precluded advancement not only of women as a whole, but particularly of minority women. Quintos affirms that while the exhibition "is primarily about women," its larger goal, she says, is to "challenge the traditional notion of who should be studying at UVA."

The careful attention paid to how race shaped women's experience reflects a commitment to acknowledging the ways in which "Mr. Jefferson's notions of UVA as a place to educate southern gentleman" were very much based, according to Quintos, "on gender, race, and class."

While white women gained admittance to the university through the nursing school in 1901, and the professional and graduate schools in 1920, women of color struggled to make a space for themselves. Alice Jackson, the university's first African-American applicant, was denied admission in 1935. (The state ended up giving her a grant to study elsewhere.) While the two-year nursing program opened for white women in 1901, African-American women were allowed access only to a "practical nurse program," and not until 1968 would they be admitted to the university's accredited nursing school.

One recent graduate, Amy Dumlao, believes the collection's non-controversial presentation tempers the negative impact of UVA's reluctance to admit both women and minorities

"The exhibit is so objective that the controversy of the entire situation seems muted," she says in frustration. However, Dumlao is impressed with the collection's ability to show community "among women across status levels."

Amid some of the more serious documentation of women's struggles to become full-fledged Wahoos, the collection is full of various articles whose absurdity evokes hilarity. The increasing presence of women on Grounds necessitated codes for proper behavior. For instance, a 1929 letter sent to new female students by the Women's Student Association defending the 11:30pm curfew says, "As one Dean of Women once remarked, 'If you haven't had a good time already, there is no use prolonging the agony, but start anew another day.'"

There are no provisions, alas, for those women who might be actually enjoying their date.

Some years, women received a "Handbook for Women Students." The 1960s versions all primly repeat the university's advice on proper attire: "Look your best, feminine but not foolish." The helpful tip might explain an accompanying photo of three women playing ping-pong in pumps.

While it probably never seemed inevitable to the women whose struggles are chronicled, visitors to the collection can appreciate the way the presentation highlights the momentum and urgency that prompted every advance.

Quintos stresses her hope that students, especially, will find the collection valuable: "As a student, I was totally unaware of so much of what is here," she says. Excited to be a part of a history that is often overlooked, Mehmet believes the project will make visitors aware of the ways in which "The early women helped create the more equitable situation we have now."

For those unable to make the trip to Alderman Library, the exhibit can be viewed on-line at http://www.lib.virginia.edu/speccol/exhibits/women. There's a place on the website for visitors to add anecdotes about their own gender-related experiences at UVA. Feedback left at the exhibit in Alderman, which runs through November 3, reflects visitors' responses.

One new First Year's mom believes the exhibit serves as a reminder: "The wheels of change grind slowly," she writes, "but they do grind."