Though the fight for coeducation at the University of Virginia started in the 1890s, it was only in 1969 that the undergraduate College of Arts and Sciences opened its doors to women on an equal footing with men, after Virginia Anne Scott and three other young Charlottesville women successfully sued the University for gender discrimination.
The issue of admitting women into the graduate and professional schools rose for the first time in 1895 but the UVA administration decided against it because they thought that gaining higher education would "physically unsex" the women and cause them to lose their power in the home. In 1920 the Virginia General Assembly passed a bill allowing for women to enter publicly funded professional and graduate schools. But according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, UVA employed a unofficial quota system that limited the enrollment of women in those schools to no more than ten percent.
In 1967, the Board of Visitors commissioned President Edgar Shannon Jr. to study the issue of co-education in the College. After eighteen months of study, a committee appointed by Shannon submitted its report to the Board, concluding that restrictions on the admission of women should be rescinded. "If the University of Virginia is to fulfill its function as the state university," the committee stated, "it must open its doors to all qualified citizens of the state without discrimination with respect to race, color, religion, national origin, or sex." The majority of UVA students opposed the idea of co-education and threatened the future withdrawal of alumni support. The student-run Honor Committee issued its own report, recommending against the admission of women because it "would hurt the Honor System." [DOCUMENT #1]
The University knew that it would have to address the issue of coeducation because by this time Virginia was one of the last states to sanction gender discrimination in its publicly funded universities. In 1969, the Board of Visitors implemented a plan that had already been unofficially used to admit the wives of present students and the wives and daughters of staff to the third- and fourth-year college classes after completing at least two years elsewhere. Meanwhile the Board also considered a plan, introduced by University Provost Frank Hereford, that would have gradually increased the enrollment of female students in the College; the plan was criticized by both students and the ACLU as a token quota system. [DOCUMENT #2]
While UVA searched for ways to avoid full and immediate coeducation, four young Charlottesville women had other plans in mind. Nancy L. Anderson, Nancy Jaffe, Jo Ann Kirstein, and Virginia Anne Scott were denied admission to the College, and each approached the ACLU individually. They filed suit in May 1969 and the court case was set for September 30 of the same year. Since this date was after the start of classes, ACLU lawyer John Lowe (an alumnus of the University) argued that the women would suffer "irreparable harm" if they could not enroll in 1969, and asked for a temporary injunction requiring UVA to admit them before the court case was heard. [DOCUMENT #3] The injunction was granted, but brought with it the risk that if the women enrolled and then lost the case they would forfeit their tuition fees. Virginia Scott was the only plaintiff who took advantage of the injunction, becoming the first woman to enroll in the College who would not have qualified under the traditional, restrictive admission policies. The other three women agreed to enroll in the University's General Studies for the time being, which admits women on a part-time basis. [DOCUMENT #4]
On September 30, 1969, the three-judge federal court panel ruled in favor of the women, and ordered UVA to present to the judge within a month a new plan for coeducation that admitted students regardless of their gender. [DOCUMENT #5] UVA's case was not helped by the fact that it was the only publicly funded college in the nation that directed female applicants to a "sister" school more than sixty-five miles away. Moreover, many witnesses testified that the quality of the education at Mary Washington was not comparable to that of UVA.
It is important to acknowledge the key role in the case played by Mary Whitney. Dean of Women and Assistant Professor in the Education School, Whitney resigned from both positions so that she could testify in court as to why the women should be admitted. Her sacrifice pushed forward the cause for women in which she so adamantly believed. The ACLU tried to raise the broader constitutional issues of single-sex public schools, but the court ruled that such issues were "beyond its capacity to decide" within this case.
Virginia "Ginger" Scott thus became the first woman to enroll in the College and to graduate under the new plan. Scott was 19 at the time of her application. After graduating from Albemarle High School in Charlottesville, she spent a semester at the College of William and Mary, but under school regulations she was unable to stay there for more than a semester, and returned home. After spending four days of summer school at Mary Washington, she became even more committed to enrolling at UVA because of the higher quality of education she would receive there. According to an interview with her in the Charlottesville Daily Progress, "She could not readily afford after her mother's death in January 1969 to go away to another college." She was working at the time as a secretary in Charlottesville, and after applying to UVA in April and getting the "bureaucratic runaround and the flat nose from the university," she decided to fight the anti-women rules "more on principle than anything else since I thought my rights had been discriminated against because of my sex."
In reflecting on her experiences in the College after she graduated in 1973, she said , "I had to defend my action [to the men in the College] -- and it changed me…all I could say was that I wanted an education. It would have been a pretty weak excuse not to go to UVA just because I was a woman." Her experiences were difficult, and most of the men either treated her badly or ignored her. "I guess it depended on what sort of relationship you wanted with men. If you wanted a normal one of mutual respect, the school was the farthest thing from it," she later reflected.
Scott graduated in an honors program that allowed her to create her own curriculum with a 3.2 GPA on UVA's 4.0 scale. As a result of her lawsuit and her resolve, the University changed its admissions policy over a four-year period, allowing for 450 women to enroll in 1970, 550 in 1971, with open admissions regardless of gender beginning in 1972. In 1971, a local newspaper reported that "with 550 spaces for entering undergrad women and more than 3000 young women wanting to occupy them, the University of Virginia is turning away qualified Virginia women for next fall." [DOCUMENT #6] The numbers soared year after year, and by 1974 women made up 43% of the entering class. Scores and grades were improving, competition increased, and the honor system was still intact!
Though UVA was moving inexorably toward some type of co-education at the undergraduate level, it would not have been free admission regardless of gender, as the Scott case established. If not for those four courageous women in 1969, it is likely that some sort of quota system would have been introduced, and it would have taken many more years before Virginia opened its publicly funded universities.