In the fall of 1918—nearly 90 years ago—24 women joined the student body and turned the formerly all-male school coeducational, making the College the first Virginia state school to admit women.
According to student Laura F. Parrish’s 1988 master’s thesis about the admittance of women, many of the women came with the “desire to be well-educated,” while a few others intended their education to be the foundation for a career.
But women’s acceptance at the College did not come without struggle.
The Strode Bill, which the Board of Visitors passed Feb. 12, 1918, allowed women to enter the College. However, there was still opposition. The Feb. 21, 1918, issue of The Virginia Gazette denounced the bill.
“If a senate bill becomes law, historic old William and Mary will be a coeducational institution after this session,” the editorial stated.
“Shades of all the great alumni of that great college, it is enough to make them turn in their graves! What would Jefferson, Tyler, Monroe, Ewell, Taliaferro and hundreds of other of the illustrious men who have gone forth from her portals, say if they knew? Yet what less is to be expected in these days when women aspire to all the rights and all the privileges of men, their place, their power, and their might.”
Yet a March 13, 1918, editorial in The Flat Hat shared a different point of view.
“College life here will without doubt be entirely altered when Mary is allowed to enter with her brother William,” it stated. “One result, which is almost bound to follow with the incoming of Mary, will be the addition of another social element to our student body. Still another result will be the addition of another social element to our student body. Still another result will be the breaking of the historical tradition of the College. Now, we are hindered by it and do things in terms of those who have preceded us; but with the incoming of women, traditions will be changed to a great degree.”
This view was shared by then-College President Lyon Gardiner Tyler, who worked to make the College as comfortable for entering women as possible. A new position opened up for a dean of women. Two new departments, physical education and home economics, were created for women. Women were housed in the newer Tyler dormitory, while men moved back into older living accommodations on campus.
For the most part, the integration of the College went smoothly.
Parrish’s research paper interviewed one of the first women to attend the College, Janet Coleman Kimbrough.
“The war was on, and everyone was thinking of the war so much more than they were of women’s rights and co-education,” Kimbrough said.
Nonetheless, there were a few bumps on the road to integration. Some clubs, such as men’s literary societies, would not allow women to join. The women eventually began the Alpha Club, a “literary, music and dramatic society for women [that also had] a focus for social activities.” In January 1919, there was a report that “men had insulted women at a literary society debate.” The women also had an organization called the Women’s Student Government, which dealt with campus issues surrounding women.