Attending UNC Chapel Hill is a history geek’s dream. Not just because of the libraries chock-full of historical collections, but because the university is a historic site unto itself. Founded in 1795, UNC is the country’s oldest public university. Old East, Carolina’s oldest building, was constructed just two years later. As a student, I walked past it every day. And while many UNC students didn’t give it a second thought, I did. I wondered about those students who had come before me. What was attending Carolina like for them?
Well, if you were female, it was completely off-limits until 1897. That is, unless you were a daughter of a faculty member, in which case you might have the privilege of sitting in on the occasional lecture. This caused quite the distraction for the all-male student body, as one student wrote in 1841:
“The Ladies of the Hill…attended our lecture on Wednesday morning, and it is useless to add the interest of the proceedings was greatly enhanced…The Lecture was not very interesting, however, and my eyes were on the fair faces far oftener than on the experiments.”
As a result, women were moved to an anteroom when attending lectures, so the students could focus on their academic studies.
As the 19th century wore on, schools in the North and West began admitting female students, so that by 1870 the number of co-educational institutions outnumbered female colleges by more than 2 to 1. But the South clung to the old concept that educating a woman was a bad idea–not only was it not necessary for their role as wife and mother, but it might cause physical harm like sterility or madness. And we wouldn’t want that now, would we?
All that changed in 1897, when UNC President Edwin Alderman convinced the Board of Trustees to allow women to attend post-graduate courses (they did so reluctantly, noting that they caved to “satisfy envious tongues”). Alderman decided to interpret this to mean junior and senior level courses as well, because the female schools in the South simply did not have the resources to prepare their students for post-graduate work. Women therefore enrolled after first attending women’s colleges such as Salem, Meredith, Guilford, or St. Mary’s. By the way, women were not allowed to enroll as freshmen at UNC until 1963.
Five women enrolled as Carolina’s first co-eds. On paper they were now accepted at the university, but in practice they still had a long way to go. Part II explores the co-ed struggle to be accepted by the male students of the university.
Source: Women on the Hill: A History of Women at the University of North Carolina by Pamela Dean.
Photos from the UNC Archives.