As women nationwide lobbied for equal rights in the years before the ratification of the nineteenth amendment in 1920, the University of Virginia became the focus of a lengthy debate about the establishment of a state college for women.

The Women’s Committee for a Co-ordinate College, headed by Mary Cooke-Branch Munford, sought to provide Virginia’s women with more equitable educational opportunities through the establishment of a co-ordinate women’s college affiliated with U.Va. Munford believed that a co-ordinate college, rather than full coeducation, provided the best solution. The Committee and its supporters brought a co-ordinate college bill to the Virginia Legislature five times, meeting with defeat each time.

Opponents to the co-ordinate college claimed that women had little capacity for higher education and that such learning would negatively impact their health. Most members of the University community—faculty, students, and alumni—did not see a place for women at U.Va.; they also feared that the honor system would suffer if women gained access to the University.

Despite the intense opposition and legislative defeats, Munford and her colleagues continued to lobby for higher education for women. As a result of their efforts, the College of William and Mary became fully coeducational in 1918. Two years later, U.Va.’s Board of Visitors voted to admit women to the graduate and professional schools.

Unsatisfied with these partial victories, Munford persisted in her fight and saw her efforts rewarded in 1943 when Mary Washington College was designated the University of Virginia’s co-ordinate women’s college.

The Co-ordinate College, the State’s Need of It. 1914.

The Co-ordinate College, the State's Need of It. 1914.
University of Virginia Special Collections

Advocates for the establishment of a co-ordinate college argued that while the Commonwealth of Virginia spent thousands of dollars on the education of its men, it made little provision for its women except for the State Normal Schools. A co-ordinate college affiliated with the University of Virginia would provide educational opportunities for the women of Virginia, equal to that of men, and perform an important service to the state. They claimed that "the University of Virginia [would be] strengthened and invigorated by this opportunity for service and further endeared to the hearts of the people of this Commonwealth."

House Bill no. 1915.

House Bill no. 314, A Bill to Authorize and Require the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia to Establish and Maintain a Co-ordinate College ... ca. 1915.
University of Virginia Special Collections

Proponents argued that the co-ordinate college system had proven highly successful at institutions such as Harvard’s Radcliffe Women’s College and Barnard College for Women at Columbia University. Those lobbying for House Bill no. 314 preferred a co-ordinate college to full coeducation, which they considered "highly undesirable."

Letter, Woodrow Wilson,  In The Co-ordinate College at Charlottesville, 1914.

University of Virginia Special Collections

Key supporters of the Co-ordinate College Bill included President Woodrow Wilson, Virginia Senator Aubrey E. Strode, U.Va. President Edwin A. Alderman, U.Va. Rector Armistead C. Gordon, and the Central Committee for the Co-ordinate College in Charlottesville, headed by Mary Cooke-Branch Munford.

Letter, Mary C.B. Munford to Lucy Davis, Richmond, 1914.

Letter, Mary C.B. Munford to Lucy Davis, Richmond, 1914.
University of Virginia Special Collections

During her lifetime, Mary Cooke-Branch Munford (1865-1938) worked tirelessly as an advocate for women, African Americans, and children. She served on the Richmond School Board from 1920 to 1931. She helped establish the Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls and served as a trustee for the National Urban League and for Fisk University. Munford also organized the Virginia Inter-Racial Committee and worked with the National Child Labor Committee.

Munford felt passionately about securing admission for women to the University of Virginia and championed this cause throughout her career. She organized the Central Committee for the Co-ordinate College in Charlottesville, which sought to persuade citizens and lawmakers to establish a co-ordinate college for women affiliated with U.Va. in Charlottesville.

Board of Visitors 6 Oct 1933 with Mary Munford..

Board of Visitors 6 Oct 1933 with Mary Munford.
University of Virginia Special Collections

Munford also influenced University policies as the third female to serve on the Board of Visitors. She held the post from 1926 until her death in 1938. The University installed a commemorative, engraved tablet in Alderman Library (Reference Room) and named the first women’s dormitory in her honor.

College Topics; May 17, 1911.

College Topics: May 17, 1911, "Dr. Alderman's Brilliant Exposition of Coordination."
University of Virginia Special Collections

Appointed University President in 1904, Edwin Alderman was a strong advocate for the higher education of women in Virginia. He supported a co-ordinate college system in which women had an affiliation with the University of Virginia but also belonged to an independent, autonomous institution.

Alderman believed that a co-ordinate college would benefit the University by "assuring economy of force, unity of effort, and a better understanding between the men leaders and the women leaders in social effort."

On May 15, 1911, Alderman spoke before a group of students gathered for "University Hour." He explained his reasoning behind the co-ordinate college system:

Now, I am opposed to co-education. I am especially opposed to co-education at the University of Virginia because of the genus of the place. Its inheritance and traditions and the very nature of life here are against it.

He concluded his speech by forcefully stating:

If there be this sort of notion ... that the very thought is distasteful of a girl ever having a diploma from the University of Virginia, I part company with that thought. God preserve us from such an attitude of mind. God protect us from such small views as that.

College Topics, the student newspaper, praised Alderman for the expression of his opinions.