At Alumnae Gathering, Women Reflect on Four Decades of Progress at U.Va.

March 28, 2011 — More than 320 alumnae attended a conference at the University of Virginia Friday and Saturday to reflect on their experiences on Grounds and hear how the University has changed since it became fully coeducational in 1970.

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"While this weekend provided alumnae with the opportunity to reconnect with each other and with the University, it really served as a lesson to us all, outlining the history and status of women and their contributions to the University," said organizer Cate Brown, assistant director at the Alumni Association.

The Alumni Association event, "Celebrating the Women of the University: 40 Years of Full Co-Education, a Century of Accomplishments," also included a panel of administrators and faculty members who described their observations of female students over the years and the areas they have worked in to create an atmosphere of respect and equity.

Patricia M. Lampkin, vice president and chief student affairs officer; Angela M. Davis, former director of residence life and currently special assistant to Lampkin; Gertrude Fraser, vice provost for faculty recruitment and retention; and Phyllis Leffler, a history professor who has written about women at U.Va., all agreed that it didn't take long for female undergraduates to assume their rightful place alongside the male students.

The situation for professors and administrators has taken a little longer to improve, they said, but the election of Teresa A. Sullivan as president of the University shows how women have filled primary roles of authority at U.Va. and stand as important role models for students.

When Davis joined the English department in the College of Arts & Sciences in 1975, she was the only woman on its faculty.

"I can laugh about it now, but it was a chilly climate," she said, mentioning a male professor who would not acknowledge her presence or speak to her. She received enough support from others, such as now-retired professors Ralph Cohen and Paul Gaston, that she stayed at U.Va., continuing to teach African-American literature and joining the Office of the Dean of Students in 1978 to work with resident staff in the dormitories.

Lampkin and Leffler spoke about realizing there were subtle cues that made it seem women weren't accepted as leaders, a holdover from Southern traditions. Lampkin said when she was working as associate dean of students, she and several other administrators, who were not alumnae or familiar with the University before they arrived, would meet to interpret this informal communication.

"We realized what you hear is not really what's being said," Lampkin said.

When Lampkin became pregnant in 1989, then-Dean of Students Robert Canevari wasn't sure how to handle it, because the office had never had a pregnant dean before, she said. She got a pretty clear message that she shouldn't use children as an excuse if she wanted to advance her career. By the time her first of two children started going to school, she finally asked if there was any good reason an office meeting had to start at 7:30 a.m., because she and other parents might want to see that their children got on the school bus.

Fraser came to the anthropology department in 1990 and said she had a positive experience as a faculty member doing research and teaching. When she adopted a baby two years later, she found a lack of policies consistently addressing time off for children and other family situations, but they have since been remedied.

"Policy changes that recognize women's experiences have also benefitted men," she said – from being able to "stop the clock" on tenure-track responsibilities to having emergency back-up care for children or aging parents.

"There's still work to be done, but there's a recognition of the scope of people's lives," Fraser said.

When Leffler came to U.Va. in 1986 with her husband, Melvyn Leffler, who joined the history department, she said "there was a tension about one's sense of place" for wives who were often referred to as "trailing spouses." Nevertheless, she said she has had the opportunity to do her own work and is now a professor of public history. Her article, "Mr. Jefferson's University: Women in the Village!" is available on the conference website, along with other articles and photos on the history of women on Grounds.

Fraser pointed out that the Board of Visitors has made it a more urgent priority to diversify the faculty, specifically praising board member Glynn Key, who graduated from the College of Arts & Sciences in 1986 and from the Law School in 1989. Key attended the conference and participated on one of the panels.

One of Fraser's tasks is working on job placement for dual-career couples. Women more often are hired for non-tenure track teaching jobs when they come with a spouse who's taken a tenure-track position, she said.

The percentage of women faculty has increased over the past seven years, Fraser said, but at about 25 percent, it is still below the national average of 35 percent. There are good signs for the future, however; while men who are full professors outnumber women six to one, the gender split is equal at the assistant professor level.

It's a different picture when it comes to female undergraduates – they now make up about 60 percent of students in the College of Arts & Sciences, and a little less than that in the total undergraduate population. They no longer think of themselves as pioneers and have a greater number and variety of role models in key positions at the University.

— By Anne Bromley

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications