The Daily Tar Heel
Printing news. Raising hell. Since 1893.
Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023 Newsletters Latest print issue

We keep you informed.

Help us keep going. Donate Today.
The Daily Tar Heel

At UNC, Spruill sisters were rebels, reformers

Sisters Marjorie Spruill (left) and Carol Spruill attended UNC during the early 1970s, becoming campus reformers as vocal feminists and anti-Vietnam War activists. Marjorie Spruill recently returned home to North Carolina, visiting her sister in Raleigh for a weekend.

Sisters Marjorie Spruill (left) and Carol Spruill attended UNC during the early 1970s, becoming campus reformers as vocal feminists and anti-Vietnam War activists. Marjorie Spruill recently returned home to North Carolina, visiting her sister in Raleigh for a weekend.

Tar Heel identity tends to run in families, as is the case with the Spruill sisters.

When they sit down to tell tales of their years in Chapel Hill, the conversation consists of characteristically sisterly asides — “Oh no, you can’t tell that story.” “The guidance counselor, remember him?” “You’ve got to tell her about this one.”

Each brags for the other — Carol Spruill is a poverty law expert, Marjorie Spruill a prolific feminist historian. 

Both are alumnae of UNC — a place where they say they came into their own, developing passions that turned into lifelong careers. On campus, they were reformers, feminists, anti-war activists and, yes, students.

Carol Spruill, 65, is now a senior lecturing fellow at Duke Law School.

Marjorie Spruill, 63, is a history professor at the University of South Carolina. 

She returned home to North Carolina on a recent fall weekend, spending time reminiscing with her sister in Raleigh and taking their 93-year-old mother to the North Carolina State Fair. 

Edna Whitley Spruill won two stuffed animals in a ball toss game — something Marjorie Spruill said she couldn’t believe. It’s not all that unbelievable, though, within the context of her family.  

Spruill women don’t often lose. 

Campus reformers

Carol and Marjorie Spruill grew up in Washington, N.C. — a small town of about 10,000 people, whose ideas differed greatly from those the sisters encountered in Chapel Hill.  

“I certainly remember that there were people when we got ready to go to Chapel Hill that, to our parents, said, ‘Are you sure you’re going to let them go there?’” Marjorie Spruill said. “It had a reputation for being progressive.”

Both women grew up with aspirations of attending the school anyway.

“It was the best university in the state and the people’s school, and it was just starting to let women come in freshman year,” said Carol Spruill, who graduated in 1971. “But you had to have several points higher on the SAT to get in.” 

Marjorie Spruill, who graduated in 1973, said her older sister paved the way for her at UNC. 

“I just remember always wanting to go there. It was Carolina, you know. It was like the thing you aspired to,” Marjorie Spruill said. “I think I started wanting to go there before I even realized that they didn’t let women in.”

In 1963, the UNC Board of Trustees approved the admission of women regardless of major, but women still faced different admission standards until 1972, when Title IX banned admissions practices that discriminated based on sex.

The push for equal admissions standards coincided with the on-campus push for equal treatment of male and female students.

For all the years she fought them, Carol Spruill has the gender-based rules well memorized: Female students had closed study three nights per week, during which they had to stay in their dorm rooms and could not make phone calls. There were weekend and weeknight curfews. And on any night that women were out after 7 p.m., they were required to sign out and tell a supervisor where they were going. 

As members of the Association for Women Students, both Spruill sisters took part in the movement to change those rules. 

 “We were brought up not to break rules, so what we were always trying to do was to change rules. So we were reformers more than rebels,” Marjorie Spruill said. “We were reared to be ‘good girls.’”

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.

Carol Spruill agreed. 

“We were rebels in our hearts, but we were practical reformers in our actions,” she said.

The same mentality applied to their protests of the Vietnam War. 

“That was part of the spirit of being a college student in those days — which was that you didn’t just conform to what was wrong,” Marjorie Spruill said. “There was this sort of ’60s mentality, and it was very, very different from the emphasis on conformity that had prevailed on campuses in the ’50s. Things were really changing, and you could kind of see the barriers falling, but you had to push them. You had to push for it.”

Carol Spruill marched in Washington, D.C., to protest the Vietnam War and was attacked with tear gas in the process. It was still worth it, she said.

Marjorie Spruill, who wound up a conflicted feminist when she was nominated to Homecoming Court, enrolled in UNC’s first women’s studies course, which was taught by history professor Peter Filene.

“Women’s history had begun to develop, and the women’s movement had also begun to flourish,” Filene said. 

He said in the class of about 50 students, there were no more than three men. 

“I remember asking, ‘Who are you people, and how many of you consider yourself feminists?’ And every woman in the room raised her hand,” he said. “This was part of the groundswell of protest, nationally and here at Carolina.”

That groundswell of protest eventually resulted in change.

Carol Spruill was a part of  Project Hinton, the first coeducational living learning community and residence hall, which she said was considered radical at the time.

“Things were changing back then,” she said. “If the authority figures were recalcitrant enough to impose ridiculous standards on us, then that was their bad.”

Marjorie Spruill said she remembers witnessing that change and also learning about the Southern resistance to the women’s movement. 

“One of the great things about being in school at that time was that there was such a connection between feeling like you’re living through an important period in history and the things that you’re reading about,” she said.

‘Another wave’

Both Carol and Marjorie Spruill have carried what they learned at UNC with them.

Carol Spruill said anti-poverty efforts moved her most. A former legal aid attorney, she’s now teaching poverty law for the 22nd consecutive year. 

Marjorie Spruill continues to study women’s suffrage, especially as it relates to the South. She’s now working on a book about the women’s rights debates of the 1970s.  

As professors, they’ve tried to embody the best qualities of their UNC mentor, Anne Queen. And their feminist ideals are still alive and well.

“I don’t think the women’s movement ended. I think we’re still very much involved in it,” Marjorie Spruill said. “I think that a lot of young women now realize that when you win these battles, you don’t win them permanently — at least without an Equal Rights Amendment. I think there’s much less visible feminist activity on college campuses than there was then, but it’s still present.” 

Both women said they see sexual assault as the biggest problem facing women on college campuses today. 

In her women’s history survey class, Marjorie Spruill said her students have made her more aware of the issue. 

“All of them knew people who had been victims — if they hadn’t been victims themselves — and they’re just outraged,” she said. 

Filene said he thinks the fight against sexual assault is addressing one of the most significant hurdles to women’s equality today.

“This protest or movement that started here and picked up in other campuses has really been another wave of feminism — and a good one,” he said.

And the sisters who worked on reforming their University in the 1970s have advice for those working to do the same today.

“Just because you see something that’s now the norm — if you think something’s wrong with it, you’ve got to challenge it, because it’s astounding once you get on the other side of that to look back and say, ‘You mean we put up with that?’” Carol Spruill said. 

Here, her legal training and respectful upbringing converge on the appropriate way to stop tolerating those norms.

“We fight the laws,” she says. “We don’t break the laws.”