January 28, 2009

January 28, 1919: A Concerned Citizen Speaks out for the Marys

Coeducation at the College of William and Mary was once again a topic for debate in late January 1919 - this time on the campus itself. A debate took place between the College's literary societies on the topic of coeducation, discussing the reasonings behind it and the impact of women attending classes with men. Though not members of the literary societies, the women students were invited to attend the debate. Janet Coleman Kimbrough opted not to go, but remembered in an interview in the 1970s the attitudes on coeducation and controversy the event created:

"There was a certain resentment [toward coeducation] among the alumni and there were a lot of the students -- it would not have been fashionable for them to say that they approved of coeducation, but they weren't at all unfriendly to the girls. But it was fashionable to feel that this was a man's world and that William and Mary was a man's college, and they were possibly a little condescending in their attitude toward us, but as I remember, the students who were actually in college were very friendly. As I told you the other day, the war [World War I] was on, and everyone was thinking of the war so much more than they were of women's rights and coeducation that we didn't run into -- I don't remember any unpleasant attitude on the part of the men in general. I'm sure you read this little write-up they had this year -- "The Petticoat Invasion" or something like that. The only thing I really remember: there was this one preministerial student who was very much opposed -- I don't exactly remember why -- a young man named Wicker. He went on and studied for the ministry; I don't know what his attitude in later life was, but at that time he felt that this was just all wrong. He felt quite intensely on the subject that women should not go to William and Mary. And at that time they had two literary societies and debates were the big thing; just about every month they had a debate in one of the literary societies. They decided to have a debate pro and con on coeducation. And someone I think with a strong sense of humor put Mr.Wicker on to support coeducation. They just put him on that side. The two literary societies didn't have any women as members but we were invited to that particular meeting. I didn't go; I wish I had. A number of them went, and Mr. Wicker when it came his turn to give his section of the debate in favor of coeducation, stood up and said as there was nothing to be said in favor of coeducation he would have to explain why he couldn't support it, and he launched into a very violent attack on coeducation. Some of the girls were rather upset by it, others were very much amused, and the student body in general had a grand time. They just thought it was a grand, big joke, but there were a few of the girls who felt quite upset and embarrassed about having gone. This was just the age when the flapper was appearing, and he drew a terrible picture of the awful flapper and the awful influence she was on the male students and how her short dresses were disrupting the morals of the world and that the students weren't able to keep their minds on their studies because of the horrible women who were parading around in these short skirts. And the skirts actually -- they wore high shoes at the time and the skirts were actually an inch or two above the top of the high shoes, which was supposed to be just terrible. It [the debate] was a very exciting event but that is really the only incident I remember. There were a lot of students whose individual opinion was that women didn't belong in college, that they didn't need higher education, that this was sort of ridiculous -- but they didn't carry it over to being unfriendly at all. They dated the girls if they liked the girls and they didn't date them if they didn't and that was it."

Kimbrough describes a mixed reaction toward coeducation by the male students. There were some, like Wicker, who felt strongly against women attending a traditionally male college and made their opinions known. Others might have agreed with him, but did not let that prevent them from being courteous towards the female students. And, from reports and photographs of interaction between the men and women on campus, it would seem that some of the male students did not mind women being on campus at all.

News of the debate spread quickly. Within a week, alum J.E. Wilkins wrote to President Lyon G. Tyler, appalled that any student of William and Mary would "[offer] insults and [speak] in derision of the fair women of our state who are endeavoring to receive and education." Moreover, he found it disgraceful that the women might behave in such a manner to provoke criticism and yet go unchecked by the faculty. From this perspective, coeducation was degrading the rules of conduct between men and women, leading to a break down of society on campus. What Wilkins had in mind to fix the situation is open to interpretation - whether ending the experiment in coeducation or simply enforcing common courtesy between the sexes. No other major incidents were reported and "that act remain[ed] on the Statute books."

Copy of letter from J.E. Wilkins to President Tyler, January 28, 1919. From the records of Lyon G. Tyler. Click to enlarge image.

The above oral history excerpt is from an interview with Emily Williams, as part of an oral history project of the College conducted between 1974 and 1976. A longer excerpt of Kimbrough's interview may be found online. Complete transcripts of the project and records of Lyon G. Tyler are available in the Special Collections Research Center.

This post was composed by Jordan Ecker and Kate Hill.

For additional information about the first women students at the College of William and Mary see: When Mary Entered with her Brother William: Women at the College of William and Mary, 1918-1945 by Laura F. Parrish; "The Petticoat Invasion": Women at the College of William and Mary, 1918-1945; The Martha Barksdale Papers; and the Women at the College of William and Mary page on the Special Collections Research Center Wiki.

No comments: