Our Fair Ladies
Women gain momentum throughout Virginia Tech history
by Netta S. Eisler
More than half a century before Virginia Military Institute and the Citadel became embroiled in legal battles to keep women out, the land-grant institution in Blacksburg--known then as Virginia Agriculture and Mechanical College--quietly opened its doors to women. The number of women has grown from a mere handful--seven in the class of 1925--to near parity with the men. The decision to become coeducational has had an effect on the character of what is today Virginia Tech, and on the lives of many individual women.
Clarice Slusher Pritchard (BAD '27) never even considered going elsewhere. As a "townie," Pritchard rode her bicycle to campus, hiking up her long skirts just enough to permit her to pedal while retaining her modesty. She remembers not being allowed to go onto the "male" territory of the upper quad--not even to the bookstore. Her brother or father bought her textbooks. "When referring to us, the boys called us damn coeds," she remembers. "I knew they didn't want us there." But, despite those feelings, they hurried to open doors and "always greeted me with respect on campus," she says. And, of course, they asked the girls out for dates. But Pritchard says few women chose the school for the boys. "We came because we wanted a degree."
Pritchard, glad of the opportunity to attend college in a time when money was tight, spent most of her spare time studying. "My father wasn't paying tuition to VPI for me to fiddle around," she says. She joined no clubs or organizations--mainly because "there weren't any for women," she says. After completing her B.S., she finished a master's degree in business administration. She served as university registrar from 1936 to 1963, and saw Slusher Hall dedicated to her in 1974. Pritchard and her classmates were not included in the Bugle, the school yearbook, so Pritchard's sister, Mary Vernon Slusher, started a publication called the Tin Horn. "It didn't make a speck of difference to me what book we were in," Pritchard says. "I didn't try to change things. I wanted an education, and I got one."
Her only regret is that women were not allowed in the Corps of Cadets. "If I could have, I'd have been in the corps," she says. "I like the regimented life." Julia Stahl Ballentine (CHEM '33), grew up living on campus while her father, Horatio, taught there. "Some of the professors were awfully hard on us, and said it was a boy's school, but I always felt that I belonged there," Ballentine says. The campus newspaper, the Techgram, asked why the girls didn't go somewhere else, but individual boys were always polite, Ballentine remembers. Ballentine was the sole female in most classes and had only one female professor--a Mrs. Russell. "I wasn't treated that much differently from the boys," she recalls.
Outside of class, there were still no activities for the women. And equality was a long way off. Ballentine remembers that a biology major named Charlotte Deering had close to a 4.0 average. "But she wasn't even considered for valedictorian," Ballentine says. "They gave that to a boy, and she wasn't even mentioned. I'm still angry about that." Yet Deering and Ballentine never complained. "That just wasn't our way," Ballentine says. After graduation from Tech, Ballentine studied x-ray technology at UVa., and worked in that field. Gladys Shawen Allison Lacroix (CTRA '34) had to fight parental disapproval to attend the college in Blacksburg. She began studies at Madison in Harrisonburg, but soon knew she "had to get away from all those girls and all those rules," she says. Although she defied her mother's wishes that she train to be a teacher, Lacroix did eventually teach, in addition to serving in the army, operating a cooking school, running several food-related businesses, and hosting a radio cooking show.
Before her senior year, Lacroix married one of her professors and remembers being graded down on a home economics demonstration because she refused to remove her wedding ring before handling the food. Today, Lacroix is a writer, with two books in the hands of her agent and a third in progress. "I didn't waste time trying to change things when I was at VPI; I just got as much out of my education as I could," she says. Lacroix does not remember any rules, except her self-imposed one--"act like a lady, and others will respect you." By the 1950s, more women were on campus, yet little had changed. Rita Hale Neal (RSOC '52), a Blacksburg resident, found the hometown school the best financial option. She often was the only woman in classes of 80 or more. Yet she never felt discriminated against. "All the men--students and professors--were very polite," she recalls. "I think because so many of the veterans had worked with women during the war, their attitudes had changed."
Neal did run up against a prohibition against females, however, when she was told cheerleading was only open to men. "I accepted it. We really didn't know anything other than to accept things the way they were," she says. After graduation, Neal worked in a welfare department, then taught school before taking a degree in library science and working as a librarian. Rita Sutherland Purdy (CTRA '63) will never forget her first day on campus. Newly arrived from Clintwood, Va., Purdy was shocked when an administrator asked, "What are you girls doing here? This is a man's school." That experience made her determined to succeed, to prove that she did, indeed, belong at Tech.
Purdy worked hard, because professors always knew the name of the only woman in their courses and frequently called on her in class. "Women had to be superior students to get in, and most did very well," she says. Purdy is now associate dean of Virginia Tech's College of Human Resources. Most students accepted Purdy and the other women in classes. But when she ran for class secretary, Purdy discovered she never had a chance of defeating a popular member of the corps. So she became active in the civilian student government--which operated separately from the Corps of Cadets student government. The mid-'60s--a time of turbulence at Tech as well as on campuses nationwide-- brought the greatest influx of women to date. It also brought more women administrators--including Martha Harder, who was hired as dean of women in 1966. When Harder came to campus, the only other high-level woman administrator was Laura Jane Harper, dean of home economics. During Harder's tenure, the number of women admitted rose from 100 a year to 600 or more, and formerly male dorms were opened to women--including Eggleston Hall. Shortly after women moved, Harder received a call from an older professor. He asked, "Do you know there are women on the upper quad?" Harder replied, "I certainly hope so--they live there now!"
In general, though, Harder says, the faculty and administration were more progressive in changing differential rules toward women than were the students. More women professors were being hired, differential sign-in rules for males and females abolished, and "the girls," as they were still called, were studying in areas other than home economics. The women who came to Tech continued to be more interested in preparing for careers than in changing the school environment. Harder, who taught history at Tech and is now associate director of scholarships and financial aid, started the first women's studies committee.
In the 1980s, when the ratio of women to men was closer to 40 percent (about what it is today) opportunities for women still lagged behind those for men. Lucy Hawk Banks (ANSC '80), the first woman inducted into the Tech Sports Hall of Fame, became an All-American in track and field when it was still a team sport. They had no school-sponsored budget or facilities--not even a place to shower after practice. Yet she persevered, and placed fifth nationally in the 80-meter event. She received no scholarship--just a medal and a plaque. Academically, Banks says she found no barriers at Tech. She wonders how much more she might have achieved athletically had the university sponsored her sport. Shortly after she left Tech, track became a varsity sport, and more opportunities opened up for women in athletics. Since graduation, Banks has married, and stays at home with her children.
By the late 1980s, women were enrolled in nearly every program, although men still dominated engineering and some sciences. But for students like Carol Ann Sautner (MKTG '85), Virginia Tech was a place of great opportunity. Sautner participated in numerous clubs and activities while maintaining a 3.6 grade point average. She was one of many women in most of her classes, and felt nothing was denied her because of her gender. But, Sautner says, she had to seek out opportunities. "If you were not a very aggressive person, you could easily be trampled at Tech in the '80s," she says. She adds, for those women willing to make the extra effort, Tech offered great opportunities. "It was pretty much reflective of society," she says. Sautner has moved through the ranks at Bell Atlantic in Philadelphia, where she is currently in charge of a special marketing project. Asked if they would come to Virginia Tech if they had it to do over again, each of the women say they would, without hesitation. As Purdy says, "Despite the problems associated with being a woman at a traditionally male school, I have always felt this was my natural home."
Virginia Tech Magazine Volume 17, Number 3 Spring 1995