MAKING
HERSTORY

It’s the “Year of Women” in many ways, but particularly here at the College, which is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first female students and the other groundbreakers who followed them. This is their story, in their words.


by Maura Hogan ’87
images courtesy of College of Charleston Special Collections

Since 1843, the official seal of the College of Charleston has burnished diplomas and dignified documents. Recently, it received additional love, spiffed up by an artist to render its lines refined, its provenance researched. Even so, the seal’s prevailing visual statement remains the same.

Within its rounded emblem, which first came to prominence as the official insignia of the City of Charleston, there sits a towering, toga-robed woman. From her regal perch, she extends one elegant arm to place a laurel wreath atop the bent head of a coated man who grasps a scroll. Two Latin phrases encircle this image, Sapientia Ipsa Libertas, or “Wisdom Itself is Liberty,” and Ædes Mores Juraque Curat, meaning “She cares for her temples, customs and rights.”

This year, the College of Charleston commemorates the 100th anniversary of welcoming women students. Looking at the seal, one wonders whether or not the aspiring female students before 1918 caught the irony of this larger-than-life female conferring knowledge on the young man. Perhaps it was a source of curiosity, or even consternation. For many years before, that which so sealed a man’s future had been the sole representation of women in the student body.

Anyone strolling through Cougar Mall in a semester’s full swing would be hard pressed to reconcile today’s woman-strong throngs with the all-male bastion of a century ago. The undergraduate demographic scales now tip solidly female, and women are visible leaders both on campus and beyond.

But what of then? College of Charleston yearbooks capture black-and-white images of young women from decades past, and the coifs and clothes that shift with each new era. The voices are now largely muted by the passage of time; however, some bits and blurbs, culled from interviews and letters, have endured. These firsthand accounts offer insight into a few of the women who shared their experiences bobbing and weaving in uncharted waters, who through wits and will made their way upstream in a man’s world.

It was women, in the end, who powered their own admission in 1918, by making appeals, by chipping away, by drumming up funds – in short, by persisting. Their eventual triumph was hard won and overdue. After all, coeducational colleges began emerging in the United States as early as 1833, with efforts to do the same at the College of Charleston dating back to 1894. That first initiative was rejected; a second one was then attempted and thwarted in 1903.

For those curious as to what finally moved the needle, just follow the money. “Every advancement at the College of Charleston is connected to money,” says Nan Morrison, former chair of the Department of English and the author of A History of the College of Charleston, 1936–2008. So it goes with coeducation. With World War I at full tilt, the financial pressure at last pushed open the classroom doors.

With most able-bodied men enlisted into the war effort, enrollment coffers were markedly spare. The shortfall incentivized President Harrison Randolph to offset it by way of admitting women, with the College accepting the first 13 that fall of 1918. In doing so, he at last made good on the words he wrote in the 1898 College of Charleston Magazine, “A higher education cannot but be beneficial to anybody, whether man or woman,” though he had previously resisted efforts to benefit the latter.

Pay Toilette

When in 1918 the opportunity at last seemed ripe, another obstacle presented itself:
the lack of a ladies’ loo – and the funds to construct one. In stepped Carrie Pollitzer of the City Federation of Women’s Clubs, a champion of women’s inclusion on campus. Undaunted, she found that where there’s a will, there’s a water closet. In her words:

Harrison Randolph was young and wonderful. But he was all about academic things. First he told me the alumni, the board, and so forth of the College would all have to acquiesce. Then, after an unending number of letters and replies, they finally said a number of changes would have to be made and it would cost $1,200. We decided the Charleston Federation of Women would raise that money.

And raise it they did, according to Pollitzer’s account, first by darkening the decidedly all-male door of the Chamber of Commerce, and then by going house to house in order to solicit donations. They succeeded just in the nick of time for the fall matriculation of those first 13. “The reason there were so few was because nobody knew until the last minute that women would be admitted,” she recounted.

Plumbing paid for and in place, the first class came to campus. Pierrine Smith Byrd would be the sole female graduate in 1922. By her own recollection, the reception was less than warm:

“The professors didn’t show any particular interest in us at all. You felt like they resented the fact you were there. After freshman year they began to ease up a bit, but what impressed me the most was the brilliance of the men who did the teaching. They were all very distinguished looking people and people you would naturally respect. We just sat quietly in class and listened.

We didn’t have much social life to start with because the boys just looked like they were scared of us. It was uncomfortable. After the freshman year, we began to form societies and organizations and do things they had at other colleges. By the time I was a senior, it was very pleasant. I was the only girl in my class by then, but there were many on campus.”

Those early female students also exerted considerable energy going from campus to the community. After taking pre-med courses at the College in the late 1920s, Hilla Sheriff went on to earn a medical degree at the Medical College of the State of South Carolina (today’s Medical University of South Carolina) in 1926, and eventually a master’s from Harvard in 1937. She then became one of the country’s earliest experts in family planning practices, establishing the first clinic in the U.S., in Spartanburg, S.C., affiliated with a county health department.
“Starting out on my own,” she inscribed on a 1929 photo of her astride a car, seemingly en route to treat a farm family in Spartanburg. The young physician’s “have wheels, will travel” approach to taking care of impoverished mill families in the Upstate went further than that. She dreamed up a so-deemed “healthmobile,” described in the April 1995 Journal of American Public Health as “a trailer pulled by a truck containing an examining room, an area for cooking demonstrations, seating for 16, and a staff of three medical professionals.”
The article continues, “Observers noted the mountain people’s curiosity on seeing ‘that lady doctor’ and her strange vehicle. … Sheriff remarked ‘when they learned that this healthmobile and its crew had come to crusade against pellagra and other diseases, their curiosity developed into enthusiasm.’”

Women Can Be Anything

Still, well into the 1930s, it was tricky territory for women seeking to strike a balance between professional advancement and personal lives. Betty Ann Moisson ’38 offered one perspective in the form of a poem:

If you’re efficient, Girlie,
I advise you to beware,
As efficient women are the kind
For which men seldom care.

If you’re the kind who takes a pride
In running office forces
You may be sure you’ll never have
The worry of divorces

If on the other hand you get
Esthetic joy from pans
Then you’re the kind who never feed
Your husband out of cans.

So Girlie I advise you,
You had better soon decide;
If you’d rather be efficient,
Or you’d rather be a bride!

At the same time, Pat Carter ’37 was proving to be efficient indeed. Upon graduation, she enrolled in the Medical College of the State of South Carolina (today’s MUSC), receiving a medical degree there in 1941. In The Past in the Present: Women’s Higher Education in the Twentieth-Century, Amy Thompson McCandless (former dean of the College’s Graduate School and professor of history) charts Carter’s tricky path to becoming a physician, negotiating a system in which many courses weren’t offered to women. Nonetheless, she managed to earn her medical degree and was eventually the first female chief of staff at a Charleston hospital. Reflecting on her journey, Carter noted, “I hate when people ask, ‘What is the best specialty for women?’ Women can be anything in this day and age.”

Preservationist Jane Lucas Thornhill ’45 and ’46 similarly demonstrates the power of persistence. In her days as a student at the College, she diligently complied with codes of conduct. In College of Charleston Voices: Campus and Community Through the Centuries, Thornhill recalled, “Classes were very demanding, and we were all well prepared.” When it came to codes of dress, she added, “We never wore slacks on campus.”

While Thornhill tended to toe the line in those days, in 1971, she was compelled instead to draw the line to save a historic house. The Wagener House, a historic home on what is now College Way on campus, had been deemed too costly to move and was slated for demolition. To stop its scheduled destruction, Thornhill joined Elizabeth Jenkins Young ’39, a Historic Charleston Foundation trustee. The two stood between the house and the bulldozers that were at the ready to rev up and raze it. The duo’s determination won out, and President Ted Stern agreed to move the building to 8 Green Street, where it remains today (and is used by the Honors College).

By the late 1950s, women on campus were sweeping up top national honors. Joyce Dahlgren Remsburg ’56 and Catherine Oliver Jones ’60 were among the first females on campus to become Fulbright scholars, a testament both to their achievement and to the gender-blind support of College faculty members. Upon graduation from the College, Jones traveled to the University of Grenoble in the French Alps, then traveled around Europe:

I was editor of the Meteor [the school newspaper], and held several positions on campus, and it was not considered unusual at all. The student body at the College was small, everybody knew everybody, and there were many women in positions of extracurricular leadership. I went to interview Professor Widener who was coordinator for the Fulbright program for an article in the Meteor and he said, “Well, why don’t you apply?” He was very encouraging and other professors were, too, so I did apply. I didn’t even realize I was one of the first women. I sent off the application and was very busy my senior year and it didn’t occur to me that I would win. Down in Grenoble, there were people literally from all over the world. For the little school that the College was, I had gotten an outstanding preparation.

The College furthered its commitment to inclusivity in the 1960s, with the admission in 1967 of the first two African American women students, Carrie Nesbitt Gibbs and Angela Brown Gilchrest, who were soon joined on campus by two other women, Linda Dingle Gadson and Audrey Dingle Cooper. All four graduated in 1972.

Gibbs went on to become a lifelong educator in South Carolina, but her pioneering role on campus contributed to her achievement. “The integration experience allowed me to participate in a culture different from mine and better equipped me to prepare my students for success in an ever-changing world,” she said.

FIRST FEMALE FACULTY

It was not until the late 1960s that the College employed its first female faculty member, Maggie Pennington, who joined the College in 1962, teaching biology and botany over her 35-year career there, while also serving as its first and only dean of women, from 1967 to 1972.

“She was a woman of stature both in size and demeanor,” recalls Morrison, who joined the pioneering Pennington on campus five years later as part of a group of women who were offered positions in the early 1970s. “She was a really good mentor and she had that even disposition that made people trust her, so men did not object to her at all.”

Pennington’s success may well have paved the way for the eventual hire of other women. Her supportive treatment of her female colleagues also likely contributed to their success. “She was not at all a crusader, but she was extraordinarily nice to all the women who came after her,” says Morrison, while noting that Pennington was by no means a feminist.

“As a matter of fact, I was campaigning for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, so I asked her and Alva Stern [first lady of the College] if they would sign a petition,” she recalls, “and they said, ‘Heavens, no. We’re not going to vote for the equality of women. We are so superior to men.’”

As for Morrison, she saw fit to draw as little attention as possible to her gender as a young English professor in the 1970s, particularly after some early professional stumbles with a dean’s concerns. She managed to deflect, assuring him she had no plans to start a family. In her words:

Then, lo and behold, I get pregnant. So I am scared to death and slightly mortified. I had my first two children induced over Thanksgiving holiday so that I wouldn’t miss any school. My third one came on Good Friday, which was still a holiday at the College, and I would go back to school on Monday. I was the source of a lot of urban myths, but that was true. Then, my next big problem was childcare. So I went to Mr. Stern and said, “Can we have a nursery?” And he said, “Let’s get a committee and you can be chair.” So I started working on it and it was taken over and became the Early Childhood Development Center. That was wonderful, but, of course, all my children were in school by then.

In the early 1980s, the College formalized its curriculum on women’s studies when philosophy professor Cheshire Calhoun came to campus. She helped create a minor in the subject, by cobbling together courses from philosophical theory and other documents, as there was little academic work to support them.
“It was sort of making it up as you go along, which is sort of fun, but it’s also frustrating when you don’t have a body of scholarship that legitimates what is going on in class,” says Calhoun.

This eventually evolved into the robust Women’s and Gender Studies Program that exists today, offering a major in the focus and hosting an annual “Yes! I’m a Feminist” fundraising and awareness event.

As an academic, Professor Calhoun faced additional challenges in devising this new curriculum. Charged by her department head to create courses on philosophy and feminism, she quickly learned that she had her work cut out for her:

The kind of issues that I had to take up in this feminist philosophy class I think no one in their right mind would take seriously now. One of the more striking ones is the idea that women were by their very nature, biologically, unfit for certain vocations or certain areas of thought – this idea that they are worse at mathematics or aren’t capable of administrative positions. The disproportionate representation of women in different jobs wasn’t regarded as a problem because it was seen as reflecting natural differences. So I had to take up that whole view and try to provide a persuasive, reasoned argument against thinking that they were such natural differences and that they would justify discriminatory treatment against women. And nobody would do that today. There were also these opportunities to discover how bad the situation was for women in South Carolina. When I was doing background research to educate myself to teach in feminist philosophy, I read a lot of law, like actual legal statutes. Husbands were legally heads of households, regardless of whether they were providing an income or not. Wives were required to reside in whatever domicile their husbands had. These sorts of horrifying facts about a woman’s position actually made teaching feminist philosophy interesting in the South.

Today, women students swell the admission rosters, and faculty and alumnae of the College of Charleston land Emmys, discover exoplanets, save lives – and indeed pursue whatsoever calls to them. They do so by the scores, spanning fields, breaking glass ceilings and shining light on the limitless potential of a liberal arts and sciences education at the College. And, of course, they do so in pants if they so choose – as they will for many, many years to come.

“The College and our society have come a very long way,” says Kris De Welde, director and professor of women’s and gender studies (WGS). “The curriculum is far more multicultural, diverse and polyvocal in many departments. With some exceptions, women students, faculty and staff are taken seriously across the College such that the notion that women are biologically inferior is in the dustbin of history, where it belongs, and the WGS program is thriving with close to 80 undergraduate minors and majors.”

De Welde, however, is quick to add that there is always room for improvement. “There are many places on campus where inequity and inequality stubbornly persist, such as in service responsibilities that women, and especially women of color, take on: in pay inequity across fields; in the gender disparities of support staff; or in the representation of women and minorities in the highest levels of authority, such as on the president’s cabinet. We have work to do yet!”