Coeducation didn’t come easily to the University of Virginia. That’s why this special issue celebrates two anniversaries, not one, and why they’re 50 years apart.
Women joined the graduate and professional schools in 1920. Gaining full admission to the College took not just another half-century but also a lawsuit. Our story tells the backstory of the legal drama.
Recreating events from 50 years ago can have its challenges. Then add a pandemic, when even the public record goes into lockdown. We discovered that trying to review the case file. Our calls to the Richmond federal court forwarded to a kindly clerk working from home. She located our records, but they were in Philadelphia, in a vast National Archives repository. Picture the final scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Only more imposing, she said. And closed for COVID.
We tried UVA Special Collections. An online search turned up some promising boxes from Edgar Shannon’s presidency but also a facilities closure alert. Librarian Penny White graciously volunteered to use her limited on-site privileges to act as our de facto research assistant. She was the first of several dedicated curators who, hearing our cries, ran into closed buildings for our story. White panned and scanned pure gold for us.
But no pleadings. Then law school librarian Randi Flaherty remembered a trove of donated American Civil Liberties Union documents from our case. Law school archivist Celia Brown in turn ventured into the shuttered law library and sent us pleadings, but not UVA’s defense filings. The ACLU hadn’t retained them, which left us with a one-sided record.
In the nick of deadline, we got a call from Patrick Connelly, the National Archives’ operations director in Philadelphia. He hadn’t forgotten our weeks-prior pleas. He was going in. What did we need? Within hours, we had the missing pieces.
Throughout our quest, frontline participants shared with us their personal collections and recollections, animating the dust accumulated on archival shelves. Our timeline shows a 200-year continuum of women taking their place at the University, including in 1969, when the situation required them to make a federal case of it.
Richard Gard (Col ’81)
Vice President, Communications, UVA Alumni Association