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'It’s just whack-a-mole': Women's history at UNC

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Sallie Walker Stockard was the first woman to graduate from UNC. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Wilson Special Collections Library, UNC

With conversations of race and gender, historical context has become increasingly relevant. Because women comprise 58 percent of UNC’s undergraduate enrollment, it can be perceived that the discussion of women on campus is over. Though issues facing women at UNC have changed since its first female graduated in 1898, problems still persist. 

Edwin Alderman, UNC president from 1896 to 1900, first convinced the Board of Trustees to admit women in a post-graduate program in 1897. While Marcy McRae was the first female registered, Sallie Walker Stockard is UNC’s first female graduate. Housed in Wilson Library's Southern Historical Collections is Stockard’s autobiography, “Daughter of the Piedmont,” in which she recounts her time in Chapel Hill.

“I was filled with more than a little apprehension to be entering a University bound by tradition to frown upon coeducation and possibly not yet ready to break from tradition,” Stockard said in her book. 

She received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1897 from  Guilford College in Greensboro. She went on to receive two degrees from UNC: an additional bachelor's degree in 1898 and a master’s degree in 1900. She wrote that UNC's former president Edwin Alderman of Alderman Residence Hall was instrumental during her time completing her degree. 

“President Alderman so introduced me and when he handed me the diploma he said, ‘With little, you have done much,’” Stockard wrote when recalling her graduation. 

What Alderman said would soon become true for more women wanting to attend UNC. During the 20 years after Stockard’s graduation, there was an average increase of 10 female students per year. 

The next step was finding room for all of them. 

Taylor Livingston, a lecturer in anthropology and research specialist, is one of the women behind the Priceless Gem’s walking tour, “Digging in Our Heels: a herstory of women at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill." She said finding a living arrangement was key to the progression of a woman’s place on campus.

“Space on campus for women was always a huge issue, so the founding of Spencer dormitory was really huge,” Livingston said. “It would be something that, throughout the history of women at UNC, would always be an issue.”

Spencer Residence Hall was founded in 1925. Former Dean of Women Inez Stacy had been pushing for a residence hall for women years before plans began in 1921. The student opposition was great, with The Tar Heel, the student newspaper that would later become The Daily Tar Heel, running articles titled “Women Not Wanted Here." Space was key for women in gaining equal footing both at the University and in the admissions office. 

“Until Title IX was passed in 1972, when women were admitted, there would always be this caveat that said, ‘housing permitting,'” Livingston said. “That would essentially mean that women had to have better grades and higher standardized test scores in order to get in because there was limited housing.”

In the 1930s, Kenan, Alderman and McIver Residence Halls were added for women, but the next major step for women’s habitation would be in the late 1960s, with the introduction of co-ed residence halls. 

Leading up to and after the passage of Title IX, the University experienced an influx of women on campus. 

Mark Morris, a 1972 graduate, lived in Hinton James as a first-year student. At the time, Hinton James had just introduced a floor that he remembers being referred to as “the project," because it contained both male and female students. 

The rules and regulations regarding women in residence halls were still existent. 

“Women had to be back in the dorm by certain hours. There were limited times when men could be on the hall in those dorms,"  Morris said. “My recollection was that the doors had to be open."

Morris attended UNC during the Vietnam War and said unrest over the draft and the war overshadowed the concept of women on campus.

"I don't remember any objections, at least from my friends," he said. "Our attitude was a few is better than none, and more is better than a few."

Morris said the social scene was more preferable, and dating and meeting people was easier with women on campus.

“Our freshman year, during the orientation and during the first part of the semester, they would have these mixers where they would have to bus the women over from UNCG to campus in Chapel Hill,” Morris said.

At the same time, he remembers very few women in his academic life. Morris was an English major, and though he noticed women socially, he doesn't recall the dynamic of his classes changing. 

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“When I look back, it’s the memory of what the class looked like that reminds me of how few women there were,” Morris said.

Today, the University’s undergraduate and graduate student population is over 50 percent female. The majority of teaching and adjunct professors are women. The conversation about sexual assault is present at both an administrative and student level. However, Livingston, whose research examines feminist anthropology, said there is still more work to be done.

“Sometimes you’re like, ‘Isn’t this over?’" Livingston said. "No, it’s just whack-a-mole.”

Title IX rules concerning a university’s dealings with sexual assault are changing on the federal level. Livingston recalls the murder of Suellen Evans in Coker Arboretum in 1965. The unsolved murder involves an attempted rape on University grounds and the death of a female student. 

“(In) 1965, we have these problems of sexual assault, and we’re still seeing the ramifications,” she said. "What is disheartening is that a lot of the same issues in the past are still the same issues today."