In 1897, when the first co-eds were admitted to the university, the student handbook described UNC as
“a little world in itself, a sort of miniature state, where young men of all classes, conditions, faiths, temperaments and talents mingle freely together on terms of equality, breathe the atmosphere of liberal culture, and learn the lessons of self-reliance, of respect for the opinions of others and of love for the truth.”
Women were not part of this “little world,” and instead orbited just outside of it, attending classes but nothing more. All other aspects of campus life were denied them. Campus housing was not provided for them, and women either stayed at the homes of faculty or in boarding houses along Franklin Street. The Swain Hall cafeteria was off-limits, as was Bynum Gymnasium.
But it was more than just the lack of amenities that isolated co-eds. The behavior of the male students made them feel like oddities on display. Mary Graves, class of 1906, described how she and other co-eds ran a “gauntlet of critical eyes.”
“You always have a creepy feeling that your hat is on crooked, or that your hair is coming down.”
Stares were not the only unwelcome behavior co-eds endured from their male peers. Mary Graves continued to describe her experience in the classroom:
One of the most remarkable things about being a coed is the amount of room you take up. You start towards an empty seat on the end of a bench and by the time you get there the whole row is vacant.
Not surprisingly, this did little to foster camaraderie between male and female students.
In some cases women had to show a bit of extra gumption in order to attend classes at UNC. In 1915, when the all-male medical school voted not to allow Cora Corpening to be admitted, she chose to ignore the vote and came to class anyway. Her persistence paid off–eventually she was formally enrolled, and when their class picture was taken in 1916, she was included, front and center.
While male students acted as if their female counterparts were laden with cooties and avoided them accordingly, the faculty was unanimously in favor of coeducation. UNC President Edward Kidder Graham recognized the need for women’s inclusion in campus life, stating in 1917:
“To continue to admit…[women] in the half-hearted way, and to furnish them with classroom instruction without the other features which make up college life, is a rather doubtful kindness to them.”
To try to rectify the situation, he created the position of women’s adviser to provide a voice for the co-eds. First to be appointed was Clara Lingle. In her first annual report as women’s adviser, she wrote:
In taking up the work, I had no precedent to follow, and the duties were but vaguely defined for me. I was indeed left very free to find my own place and work, and to fit in with the young women and with the officers and faculty as best I could.
One of Mrs. Lingle’s main goals was to help unify the co-eds by organizing the University Woman’s Association. Members gathered at least once a month for a “social evening,” and then once a week for patriotic work (the association was formed during World War I). She obtained a hall on campus where the women could meet for these events, and for use as a study hall.
Slowly the co-eds worked their way into campus activities, such as the Tar Heel newspaper and the theatrical society. But until women were allowed a place to stay on campus, they would not be able to call UNC home. Part III discusses the great housing debate.
Miss the first installment? Read it here.
Sources: Women on the Hill: A History of Women at the University of North Carolina by Pamela Dean, and Report by Clara S. Lingle (UNC Archives)
Photographs from UNC Archives