‘Retold’ Celebrates Women at UVA, Before and Since 1970

When Abby Palko came to Charlottesville four years ago to become director of the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center at the University of Virginia, she heard over and over again that there were no women at the University before 1970.

Then she learned that was inaccurate despite the traditional story.

“Women have been here from the beginning, and studying since the 1880s – only 55 years after the University first started educating men,” Palko wrote for an upcoming presentation. “These early students were denied degrees, and doors were slammed in the faces of many women. The strong investment in understanding the University as a ‘gentleman’s institution’ has minimized women’s presence and contributions. But the environment around us reveals the full story, if we open our eyes and ears to what it is telling us.”

2020 marks the 50th anniversary of women being admitted as undergraduates at UVA on an equal basis as men, and also 100 years since the Board of Visitors passed a resolution allowing some women to be accepted into select graduate and professional programs.

Today, women make up the majority of the undergraduate student population. Even before 1970, though, about 30,000 women earned diplomas, certificates and degrees at UVA – and not all for nursing and teaching. The history of the University is incomplete without bringing to light the contributions and experiences of women who came to the Grounds to get an education over the last 100 years.

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Alumnae, including some who graduated before 1970, describe their experiences and takeaways from their time on Grounds on the Retold website. (Photos courtesy Alumni Association)

The UVA Alumni Association, in partnership with the Women’s Center and other UVA groups, is doing just that through “Retold,” a series of events and programs to mark the 50th and 100th anniversaries, including a free, virtual conference on Saturday.

“We wanted to create an initiative that would honor these significant anniversaries while celebrating the transformational impact of our 115,000 living alumnae in an enriching, inclusive way,” said Director of Alumni Programs Jess Hamilton, who developed Retold with Liz Crowder, associate director of alumni events and a 2015 UVA alumna. “‘Retold’ was born out of a desire to expand our collective understanding of women’s history at UVA by telling a nuanced, authentic story of women’s experiences, commemorate 50 years of full coeducation and celebrate the experiences of women whose time at the University preceded and followed that milestone.”

Hamilton and Crowder convened an alumnae steering committee and collaborated with the Women’s Center to create the event, also receiving support from the University community, from individuals to libraries, offices, centers and schools. A grant from the Jefferson Trust funded the virtual event platform that will be used to host Saturday’s Retold Virtual Experience.

This conference, like many of this year’s events, was going to be a three-day, in-person gathering, but has been reworked to be presented online as a virtual program. It requires registration that will give viewers access, for free, to a series of back-to-back sessions featuring alumnae-led conversations, intergenerational storytelling, student performances and more. The afternoon’s events, from noon to 5:30 p.m., will be broadcast live and will remain available online to registrants through Oct. 16.

“Thematically, the Retold Virtual Experience will focus on the power of storytelling to foster connection, transform conversation and expand narratives,” Hamilton wrote in an email.

The Retold website also includes a timeline; information about other programs, recent and upcoming; and inspiring stories and interviews with alumnae compiled in the “Share Your Story” project. That effort highlights UVA women talking about authenticity and activism, on the importance of connections and on their successes in many fields, in athletics and in leadership.

Other activities include a virtual walking tour and a Women’s Center project, (re)present,” to reimagine Porte Crayon’s 1850s drawing of “The Student,” which was supposed to depict the typical (male) University of Virginia undergrad. The center is soliciting submissions in all kinds of media that show new images of today’s UVA students.

Palko said she has heard poignant stories of proud achievements and painful exclusions from many alumni who have shared their experiences in recent years. “There have been a lot of moments that have reinforced the Women’s Center staff’s sense that a project like this needed to be done,” she said.

“We’ve heard from proud sons and granddaughters of early graduates. Through one, we learned of the first woman to be granted a B.S. from the College in 1923, in mathematics, Lois Ketcham Carwile. Also the first woman to earn a master’s in ’24 and a Ph.D. in ’27 for physics, she was perhaps also the first triple ’Hoo. Annual reports from the Department of Physics note Carwile’s strong research and progress, clearly positioning her as her male colleagues’ full peer in her academic accomplishments.

“Another [alumnus] has shared his mother’s experiences, when she earned her B.S. in chemistry in 1950. Margaret James Morton was accepted into the master’s program in chemistry, but married shortly after graduation and raised a family instead of continuing her education. He captures an ethos of women’s struggle to gain access to a UVA education in an apocryphal quote, ‘I am a revolutionary, so that my son can be a farmer, so his son can be a poet.’ In that spirit, I imagine my mother as a revolutionary, so her daughters could go to UVA, so their daughters could be leaders at UVA.”

During Saturday’s conference, Palko and a group of students will give a presentation of 20 highlights marking women’s impact and experiences on Grounds, from Addis Meade passing exams for a master’s in mathematics in 1894, but not receiving a degree, to Adelaide Simpson being hired as the first dean of women in 1921, to Carole Kirkland becoming the first woman Student Council president in 1984.

The Retold Virtual Experience will be an opportunity to “honor trailblazers, past and present, and amplify the voices and achievements of UVA women,” Hamilton said.

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Award-winning journalist and Hampton Roads native April Woodard, a 1991 alumna who is an assistant professor at the Scripps Howard School of Journalism at Hampton University, will host the Retold Virtual Experience. An Emmy-nominated TV host and TV personality, Woodard got her start in news as a reporter for WTKR in Norfolk and has worked nationally for “Inside Edition” and BET.

Featured conversations include:

  • “Face the Nation” moderator Margaret Brennan, a 2002 alumna, and The New York Times’ Washington correspondent, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, who graduated in 1983, will talk about women’s perspectives in journalism at this moment in history.
  • Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman, who split half of the only basketball scholarship offered to women players in 1977 and graduated in ’81, and UVA’s Director of Athletics Carla Williams will discuss their roles as leaders in athletics and women’s impact in sports.
  • Nicole Thorne Jenkins, the new dean of the McIntire School of Commerce, will talk about forging your own path to success with “clean beauty” entrepreneur and Briogeo founder and CEO Nancy Twine, who graduated from the Commerce School in 2007.
  • Current student leader and community activist Zyahna Bryant will talk about transforming narratives through activism with public historian Niya Bates, who earned a B.A. in African American studies in 2012 and a graduate degree in architectural history in ’15. Bates is now director of African American history and the “Getting Word” oral history project at Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello.
  • Jill Tietjen, a 1976 graduate of the School of Engineering, and Victoria “Tori” Tucker, a current doctoral candidate in the School of Nursing, will talk about their research on uncovering women’s history locally and nationally.
  • President Jim Ryan, a 1992 School of Law alumnus, will introduce a group of alumnae who will share reflections on their UVA experiences: Ann Brown, who earned a bachelor’s degree in ’74 and a law degree in ’77; Dorothy Lewis Kluttz, a ’66 School of Nursing grad; Sandra Wicks Lewis, who graduated from the College in ’72; Nicole McKinney Lindsay, who earned a joint J.D./M.B.A. from the Darden and Law schools in ’99; and Nancy Park, a 2012 Commerce alumna.

The full agenda and list of participants can be found here.

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications