Educational Opportunities for Women in the University of Virginia. 1920.

University of Virginia Special Collections

In light of the admission of women to the College of William and Mary in 1918, and Mary Munford's ongoing campaign for higher education for women, U.Va. President Edwin Alderman asked the Board of Visitors to admit white women to the University’s graduate and professional schools in November 1919.

On January 12, 1920, the Board of Visitors agreed by a vote of seven to two to admit women to the graduate and professional schools. The Board sought to ensure that only "women of maturity and adequate preparation" gained admission to the University. It stipulated a set of requirements for female students in terms of age, character, and academic credentials. Female applicants had to be at least twenty years old and they had to have completed two years of college work.

Seventeen women boldly joined their male classmates in the University's entering class in the Fall of 1920. Women's enrollment gradually increased in the following years, especially in Education, Mathematics, and Graduate Studies.


Initial responses to coeducation were not favorable. Student opinion, as evidenced in University publications, was particularly hostile. In these early years, a woman’s entrance into a classroom was often accompanied by male cries, whistles, and stamping feet. Undeterred, these women persevered. They proved to be exceptional students and gradually earned the respect of their professors and their peers. Women continued to pursue their academic goals at the University. By 1940, approximately 200 female students were enrolled at U.Va.

Women Graduates, 1921-1925, University of Virginia, June 1926.

University of Virginia Special Collections

As a result of the Board of Visitors’ decision, seventeen women entered the University of Virginia in 1920. Three women enrolled in the Law School, four in Medicine, three in Education, and seven in the graduate department. Total enrollment of students at the University in 1920 numbered 1,581.

By 1925 the University successfully enrolled 102 female students. Women pursued studies in the schools or departments of Education, Engineering, Law, Medicine, Architecture, Commerce, Chemistry, Biology, and Mathematics. More than half of the enrolled women were students in the School of Education.

Letter, Elizabeth N. Tompkins to Father. University of Virginia, 22 April 1922.

University of Virginia Special Collections

Elizabeth N. Tompkins was the first woman to graduate from the University of Virginia School of Law. Encouraged by her father, she sought admission to the school in 1920. Tompkins graduated in 1923, finishing near the top of her class. She also was the first woman admitted to the Virginia State Bar.

As a female in a male-dominated field, Tompkins initially had difficulty finding work. In 1925, she secured a job at a law practice in Richmond. Tompkins continued to work as an attorney until her retirement in 1979 at the age of 81.

Zeisberg, Carl. “The Hour Has Struck.” In Corks and Curls. University of Virginia, 1920.

Zeisberg, Carl. "The Hour Has Struck." In Corks and Curls. University of Virginia, 1920.
University of Virginia Special Collections

A general sense of dissatisfaction among male students and alumni accompanied the arrival of women at the University. As evidenced by this cartoon, student reaction was particularly hostile. Similarly themed articles, editorials, and illustrations appeared in publications such as the University of Virginia Magazine and College Topics, the student newspaper.