Written by Katlin Swisher

New beginnings

All is quiet as July turns to August. The sidewalks are empty, save for a few errant summer school students making the most of the rare five-minute stroll from one end of the downtown to the other despite the staggering heat.  

 The quiet doesn’t last long. Momentum builds with the return of faculty, of resident assistants preparing their halls for move-in. Stray notes from the Pride of West Virginia’s band camp can be heard as they get ready for their first performance. Finally, a multitude of new students hurriedly make their way into their new home away from home on move-in day. 

It is a new beginning for the 5,000-plus freshmen entering West Virginia University. It’s a transition for everyone who experiences it. Even if we don’t like to admit it, we’ve all been there. We’ve all felt those unsettling nerves that change initiates. Will I make friends? Will I make a good impression on my professors? 

Caught in the whirlwind of a new semester, it is easy to take for granted the opportunity to study at a 21st century land-grant, Research 1 (R1) university. To major in any subject we choose. To launch a new student organization. To raise our hands in class without fear of retribution. 

And it should be easy. We can live without worry, without fear of judgment. But we should also take time to remember the first women who arrived on WVU’s campus — their lives may seem like just history to us, but it is a history that makes our present different than it would have been otherwise. 

The majority of the members of the faculty had been vigorously opposed to coeducation and many of them did not hesitate to let us feel their disapprobation.
- Sallie Norris Showalter

A door just ‘ajar’ 

Ten women enrolled at WVU for the first time in 1889. Of those, Harriet Lyon, a transfer from Vassar College, was the first woman to receive a WVU degree, graduating at the top of her class in 1891. 

While these early pioneers of coeducation likely experienced the very same hesitations and nerves as today’s college students, they also had to overcome many other obstacles. Severe campus regulations and dress codes, snide remarks and outright vulgarity from male students, ignorant professors, isolation and loneliness marked the early years for women at WVU.

The battle for coeducation in the West Virginia State Legislature was just as prolonged as the acceptance of women students at WVU once they were permitted to enroll. Fighting for a more compassionate and inclusive world for themselves, their mothers, their sisters, their daughters and their friends, they became resilient role models for the generations to come. 

“When these 10 girls presented themselves for matriculation, they found the doors only ajar, and their reception was anything but cordial,” writes Sallie Norris Showalter, an early female WVU student, in “The Beginnings of Coeducation at WVU.” “The majority of the members of the faculty had been vigorously opposed to coeducation and many of them did not hesitate to let us feel their disapprobation.” 

Much has changed for women at WVU in those 125 years. The women who were first admitted to WVU faced an immediate challenge — a nonexistent women’s restroom. A cloak room was added near the end of their first semester with just a few hooks and a bench. Upon inspection, the women deemed the space inadequate and boycotted the facility. 

Early WVU women were not only oppressed by discriminatory actions and a lack of resources, but also by strict University rules. They could not be absent overnight from their residence without permission from the dean of women. They had to return to their residence each weekday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. for quiet hours. Freshmen were only allowed to go on one date Monday through Thursday and one date on the weekend, returning by 10:30 p.m. Sophomore curfew was 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 p.m. on the weekends. The nightly curfew for juniors and seniors was 11 p.m.

Students under the age of 21 who planned to marry while still enrolled required permission from their parents or guardians as well as from the dean of women and dean of men. If they failed to comply, they could be expelled. 

Because of the stringent curfews, it was often challenging for women to find housing, especially as both enrollment and the area’s industrial worker population increased from 1901 to 1911. The Woman’s League initiated a campaign in 1908 to expand housing options for women beyond the filled-to-capacity Woman’s Hall and local boarding houses. However, the additional 200-bed Woman’s Hall (known today as Stalnaker Hall) did not open until 1918. 

Women also had to follow a strict dress code. Prior to World War II, all freshmen women were required to wear a distinctive insignia, usually an armband featuring WVU’s colors, any time they were in public, Monday through Saturday. In the 1960s, all freshmen were required to wear beanies during the school day. Bermuda shorts were also permitted during this time, but only with a coat. 

The Associated Women Students, with support from other student organizations, advocated for an identical privilege of the longtime no-hours policy male students enjoyed. The curfew for women was eventually lifted by then-president James Harlow in 1969. He said in the Morgantown Post on April 23, 1969, “I am heartily in favor of the principle that men and women students should be governed by the same regulations. The principle of equal rights for women and men, with no discrimination, is a hope for the future of West Virginia University.” In 1973, women were permitted to visit men’s residences, wear shorts to class and drink beer on campus. 

Initially, curriculum for women was limited to enrollment in certain programs, including the Preparatory School and domestic science department as well as music and fine arts. During World War II, when women’s enrollment grew to outnumber men 809 to 592, women not only dominated arts and sciences, education, the graduate school, journalism, music and physical education; they were also permitted to enroll in engineering, law, medicine, and pharmacy for the first time. The only male school remaining in 1943-44 was the School of Mines. 

While the Mountaineer Marching Band did not officially accept women members until 1972 via the passage of Title IX, 24 women did join during World War II as the draft initiated a mass exodus of male students. The Daily Athenaeum also featured an all-female editorial staff at this time. 

Many women’s advocacy groups, like the Woman’s League and Associated Women Students, formed over the course of WVU’s history. The Woman’s League was the first, seeking to unite women together and ultimately advocate for equity among the entire student body. Groups like these and today’s Council for Women’s Concerns are leaders in advocacy for women’s rights not only at WVU, but nationally, from the right to vote to birth control, maternity leave and childcare to equal pay and domestic violence awareness. 

These changes and the obstacles women overcame over time at WVU are depicted in WVU Women: The First Century.  

“Not all of what you will read paints a ‘pretty picture’ of the past. Women and women’s advocates have fought many battles in efforts to achieve ‘excellence through equity’ at WVU, beginning with the all-important first battle of simply being admitted to what was, after all, a public institution. Later struggles included winning rights that today’s women students take for granted and would probably be amazed to find did not always exist: the right to march in the Mountaineer Band, the right to be president of the Student Administration, the right to wear shorts to classes, the right to be out of the residence hall all night if she wishes, the right to major in any field.”  

While those are just a few of the many milestones women have achieved in the last 125 years, it truly has taken over a century to reach this point. 

In March, WVU celebrated the future it helps make possible for young girls by hosting a “When I grow up ...” activity fair on campus for grades K-8.

More than an anniversary 

To commemorate the 125th anniversary of women at WVU, the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies hosted a celebration throughout 2016.  

Kicking off with a symposium hosted by the WVU Libraries, it included forums on breaking through the glass ceiling of mathematics featuring the first female mathematics Ph.D. recipient Marjorie Darrah, and the triumphs and tribulations of WVU women of color. Kelly Doyle, WVU’s first Wikipedian-in-Residence for gender equity, hosted an edit-a-thon to increase the footprint of West Virginia women in Wikipedia’s content, where nearly 90 percent of volunteer editors are male. 

“This celebration is important because, even in the best histories of WVU, women do not play a huge part in what is written,” said Carroll Wilkinson, university librarian and bibliographer for the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies. “We need an ongoing history that documents not only the past and present but where we are going in the future for advancing women’s opportunities and the whole picture of what women can accomplish as WVU students and alumnae.” 

The cornerstone event of the 125th anniversary celebration was the raising of the WVU Women’s Centenary time capsule, first buried on March 20, 1991. A quote from West Virginia native Pearl S. Buck, the first American woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, imprinted on the capsule captures the importance of empowering current and future generations of WVU women through the lens of the past: “One faces the future with one’s past.” The Center for Women’s and Gender Studies has embodied this charge as it seeks to serve all women of WVU — students, faculty and staff.

The time capsule included artifacts capturing the climate of the time, from the obstacles experienced to the resulting changes or, in some cases, lack of progress: a letter from an HIV positive student who had just learned of the disease, safe sex promotional buttons and bathroom condom dispensers from the height of the international HIV/AIDS crisis; a report on homophobia at the University inscribed with tumultuous comments from faculty decades before gay marriage would be passed in West Virginia; and a letter from first women’s basketball coach Kittie Blakemore to then-president James Harlow advocating for women’s athletics and his response in approval on the brink of Title IX legislation. 

While most time capsules are backward-looking, this time capsule is forward-looking — it is an opportunity to not only capture the past but reflect for the future. 

“There are obstacles we face. We go on around them, but they are still there. It is just good to keep that in the back of our minds as a theme of our history,” Wilkinson said. “That’s why we need a public record for people (especially women, but also men supporting women) so that we don’t forget that it’s extra hard for women to be successful in life. The individual stories of women’s experiences get lost if we don’t make a real effort to focus on them.” 

The Center for Women’s and Gender Studies reburied its time capsule on November 3, 2016, as part of Mountaineer Week. It will be buried and reopened every 25 years until the bicentennial in 2091.

The Center for Women’s and Gender Studies reburied its time capsule on November 3, 2016, as part of Mountaineer Week. It will be buried and reopened every 25 years until the bicentennial in 2091.

What’s next?   

This 125th anniversary celebration and the anniversaries to come are vital opportunities for documenting the history and spirit of WVU women’s achievements for future generations. But celebration of history only goes so far until it loses its focus, its purpose, the cause for celebration in the first place.

To prevent that loss, we must tell the full story as part of history — we must ask the questions that aren’t being asked. 

“What kind of values, knowledge and hopes do different groups bring in to the picture? How do we make sure those are heard and valued?” said Judith Stitzel, founding director for the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies. “It’s not just about including women or other minorities. It’s not just making sure they are part of the story, but asking how the story changes when what is important to these groups are valued.” 

The challenges of exclusion remain — inclusion is unfinished business. WVU is making strides to overcome some of these challenges with the establishment of the endowed Harriet E. Lyon Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies. This interdisciplinary chaired professorship is a joint position for any current WVU professor in their primary discipline as well as the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies. They will be supported to initiate a program, curriculum or research of their choice that simultaneously enhances their own department as well as the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies.

Because the appointment lasts two to three years, it offers the chance for faculty from a variety of disciplines to apply on a rotating basis, demonstrating that women’s and gender studies is not just an add-on to the curriculum, but integrated in every aspect of academia. 

“Knowledge is always an opportunity to be open to people, to take risks on the side of diversity, of inclusion, of love for other human beings,” Stitzel said. “This is the kind of view that the world needs in very dangerous times.”