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'Rats and Rouge': The story behind Spencer Hall, UNC's first residence hall for women

The north side of Spencer Residence Hall faces Franklin Street on Sunday, Mar. 1, 2020. Built in 1924, Spencer was the first all-female residence hall, but is now co-ed.

In 1925, the University opened Spencer Hall, UNC's first residence for female students — much to the chagrin of the majority-male student body. 

Inez Stacy, then the dean of women at UNC, advocated for the creation of female on-campus housing to further their role and inclusion as students at the University.

But her ideas were met with opposition — The Daily Tar Heel, then called The Tar Heel, published editorials with headlines such as “Women Students Not Wanted Here” and “Shaves and Shines but No Rats and Rouge.” Male students complained that female students would be distracting and turn UNC into a "semi-effeminate college."

But when Spencer Residence Hall was completed that year, it marked an increased place on campus for female students at the University. 

The dormitory was named for Cornelia Phillips Spencer, a writer and relative of UNC professors.

Sophomores Deanna Gibson (left) and Sarah Brown (right) exit Spencer Residence Hall on Sunday, Mar. 1, 2020. Built in 1924, Spencer was the first all-female residence hall, but is now co-ed.

“Cornelia Spencer was actually not a supporter of coeducation or women’s suffrage, but she was essentially the University’s historian,” Sarah Carrier, the N.C. research and instructional librarian at UNC, said. “She published a regular newspaper column and wrote a lot about UNC history. She was very supportive of educational opportunities for women.”

University archives of Spencer’s writing have shown that she held white supremacist views and did not support equal rights for African Americans. As a result of this, the Cornelia Phillips Spencer Bell Award named for her was retired in 2004.

Katherine Turk is a women’s and gender studies professor who currently teaches a class about women in UNC history. 

The first groups of women to attend UNC faced a lot of hostility, she said. 

“These very first women who came to UNC as a critical mass in the 1950s felt a lot of pressure to do well in their classes, to not rock the boat, to prove that women belonged there on equal terms with men,” Turk said. “I can imagine it was a pretty intimidating climate where your male lab partner or the men in your class might or might not want you there, your professors might or might not want you there.”

Carrier noted that many opposed the general principle of coeducation.

“I think that there was a prevailing concern that women were not to be in the same social status as men and also not unsupervised — and that they were not equal to men,” Carrier said.

Although these women faced educational barriers, many of them seemed to have become part of the campus community, Carrier said.

“You can tell that the women were definitely a part of the social fabric of campus, and we have lots of scrapbooks, like photography and candids of everyday things of women students,” she said.

Kathryn Barnes, a junior majoring in economics and geography who currently lives in Spencer Hall, was interested to learn about the history of her dorm.

“I think them coming onto campus is a really significant move, and I think it’s a step forward in women having more equal rights,” she said. “As soon as you put them on campus, they’re suddenly much more on the map, and they’re actually included in this community.”

She contrasted her experience at UNC to that of the women who lived in Spencer almost a century ago.

“I can imagine there was a lot of discrimination,” she said. “I’m more than comfortable now, but I’d still say there’s a little bit of a gender divide.”

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