By the early 1920s more and more co-eds were enrolling at UNC, making the issue of housing for these women ever more pressing. In 1917, when the position of women’s adviser was created, most co-eds lived off campus in boarding houses. Clara Lingle wrote about this in her first annual report.
Visiting the girls in their boarding houses and meeting the people with whom they live has given me first hand information as to their living arrangements. In three cases a change of residence was effected. I have encouraged the boarding house keepers to get the girls to keep early hours, and to have good reading lights.
Mrs. Lingle made the following suggestions in her report, based on her observations:
A woman’s building is becoming a necessity from the point of view of health, economy of time and social life. This building (or group of units on the cottage system) should include dormitories and dining hall and all such equipment, as gymnasium and shower baths, as can not be shared on campus.
She also suggested that a special hall be designated for joint use of both male and female students to help create a more “democratic social life.” Her notes were the first of many made by the women’s adviser with regard to the need of on-campus housing for co-eds.
In 1919 Inez Koonce Stacy was appointed women’s adviser. She wrote in a report that:
The students are scattered from one end of town to the other, and lose much valuable time going back and forth…They have few comforts and in their social life none of the finer things which come from contact with one another.
UNC finally responded to these reports in 1921 by purchasing two adjacent houses able to accommodate 45 of the 65 females enrolled. Stacy was not satisfied, however. Only one small parlor was provided for entertaining. In addition, the university was responsible for furnishing wood to heat the houses, which they often neglected to do. One student wrote about her experience, describing having to go out with her roommate to pick up twigs on campus to have enough wood to heat their room so they could study in relative comfort.
When the houses provided by the school burned down (perhaps due to the small tin stoves in each room), Mrs. Stacy stepped up her campaign for a female dormitory on campus. She had the full support of UNC President Harry Chase, as well as history professor Frank Porter Graham, who stated “My belief in c0-education at the University is a part of my belief in the University.” The co-eds had overwhelming backing by the faculty and administration, as well as from numerous female alumnae. Mrs. Stacy’s goal was within reach. The male student body, feeling threatened by these changes, fought back in what became known as “The Battle for Spencer Hall.”
A female dormitory would break through one of the final barriers preventing women from truly becoming a part of the university experience and campus men sought to maintain that barrier. The Tar Heel went so far as to publish a special edition on the subject, with a headline reading “Shall Coeds Have a Dormitory Built Here? Representative Student Opinion Says No.” The writers of the newspaper went on to state that the co-eds’ petition for a female dormitory was “the most ludicrous assemblage of nonsensical and sentimental rubbish that could be found in the history of grammatical phraseology.”
The boys of UNC were happy with the way things currently stood, with co-eds mainly attending graduate or professional studies. There were not enough women in these programs to pose a threat. But if a female dormitory were to open, it would be a clear signal that women were welcome. In the male student’s opinion, girls already had their women’s colleges, and their attending UNC would take spots away from men. The Tar Heel stated:
This university has always been a college of, by, and for men, which fact largely accounts for its strengths of character.
Obviously the male students were a bit adverse to change. One student wrote in an editorial to the Tar Heel:
We can think of nothing more distasteful than [general coeducation]…The women here would only prove a distracting influence, could do no possible good, and would turn the grand institution into a semi-effeminate college which would certainly have no attraction for us.
When a vote was cast among the students as to whether a female dormitory should be built, the “no’s” had it, 937 to 173. But in the end, the students really had no official say in what happened. The faculty continued to support coeducation, along with many influential alumni and alumnae, and $100,000 was provided by the legislature for the construction of Spencer Hall, named after Cornelia Phillips Spencer, a long-time supporter of coeducation and the university. The building was completed in 1925.
The Tar Heel, admitting their defeat, wrote:
Thus ends a rather heated controversy. We congratulate the women and commend them highly on the splendid attitude they have taken in the fight that has ensued. We plead not guilty on all charges that we bear any grudge, and the stand that we have taken, wrong or right, has been through our sincere best wishes for the welfare of all concerned.
Mrs. Stacy remained in her post until 1946. During her years as women’s adviser she saw many changes take place, as the number of co-eds continued to grow at UNC, and more dormitories were constructed (none with as much controversy as Spencer Hall). Over 1,000 women were enrolled during World War II. The “ladies of the hill” were here to stay.
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)
Photos courtesy of UNC Archives and North Carolina Architects and Builders: A Biographical Index