Active and Benevolent Ladies: A Short History of Women at Davidson College


Although not always as students or employees, women have played an important role in the shaping the history Davidson College from its founding in 1837 to the inauguration of Dr. Carol Quillen as Davidson's first female president in 2011.

Early Days

Even before the college opened to students, women won recognition for their contributions to the new institution. The February 18, 1837  Southern Citizen  praised the "many active and benevolent ladies" who "have already made provisions to supply parts of the rooms with bedding and other necessary furniture."

Other roles the first women of Davidson played included being boarding house owners and cooks and laundresses for the early Davidson students.

Changing Roles

By the late 1850s, the role of women at Davidson began to change, and expand, in a number of important directions.  In 1858, Ann Brown became the first  hired by the college.  By the 1860s President Kirkpatrick's daughters were attending classes, and by 1896 women were teaching music classes.

Trustee minutes

Although it would not be until 1956 that Carolina MacBreyer would be hired as the first female member of the Davidson faculty, the place of women in the Davidson community was growing.

Coeducation 1860s-1960s

While women would not be allowed to formally enroll students until the 1970s, young women did take classes at Davidson  beginning in 1861, when some of President Kirkpatrick's seven daughters took classes at Davidson.

In the 1870s, Mary Jane Scofield, daughter of a local farmer, took private tutoring from the Davidson faculty.  She mastered Latin but was refused in mathematics. The professor being convinced that she already knew as much math as any woman needed.

By the 1890s, more women were attending classes "by courtesy" of the faculty, not as actual students. Among these women were Blanche Dupuy, Lucy Martin and Annie Brown.

Portion of James Greenlee's letter announcing the arrival of the Kirkpatrick sisters.

According to Mary Beaty, "Miss Brown put the faculty in something of a quandary by her perseverance and success. Far from collapsing under the strain of academic work, she took courses for four years and completed all the requirements for the A.B. degree," though she was not granted it. Instead, Brown was given a certificate stating that she had completed all of the degree requirements in May 1901.

Gladys Summers similarly completed the requirements for the B.S. course of study in 1906, and although she also did not receive the degree, "had the satisfaction of hearing her accomplishments announced on commencement day."

According to the 1909 Quips and Cranks,  Miss Bertha Fleming was pursing the A.B. course of study, while Miss Susan Summers pursued a B.S. degree. These women were following in the footsteps of Brown and Summers, undertaking the degree course of study, without receiving a formal degree. Nevertheless, these women were the first acknowledged in the college annual.

These early female informal/unofficial "students" at Davidson lead to some discussion about the possibility of formally opening Davidson to female students in the Davidson Monthly in 1887-1888. In an article from February 1887, the question "Shall Women Go to College?" was posed. Then in April 1888, the more direct question of co-education was discussed in the the pamphlet. As the article shows, the conclusion was that female and male student bodies should not be mixed as it would unhealthy do so.
page for yearbook
Similarly, the 1916 Quips and Cranks offered a student response to co-education. The essay notes that the college is now a coeducational institution but that "there is only one degree that is conferred in this department and that is the degree of Mrs."
This trend of a few women taking classes continued at Davidson for much of the first half of the twentieth century. In 1922, Davidson three co-eds are listed in the college catalog. During the 1930s and 1940s, there were usually 3-6 women taking classes. Not all of the students thought that having co-eds around the campus was a bad thing however. Albert Simpson, class of 1925, compiled illustrations of women in his scrapbook, adding in humorous titles about coeducation. The titles read: One of our charming coeds studying her Greek lessons. Coed reposing on one of our Chapel seats Coed giving antiseptic dance. Proceeds to buy dice for Bill Joe's Saturday Night Party. [Bill Joe is a nickname for college president William Joseph Martin] Popular Davidson coed preparing to attend weekly dance in Shearer Hall. [a playful reference to Shearer Biblical Hall]
Co-education illustration
Co-education illustration from 1925 student scrapbook
  Miss Nancy Copeland remembers taking classes during the World War II yeas"there were seven us in a student body of 175." After the war, more women began to arrive at campus, as wives of the students returning home from the war. The college provided housing for families, and an organization know as the G.I. wives was formed as a social outlet for these women. The constant presence of these women on campus spanning the entire history of the college helped continue to the pave the path toward full co-education.

Coeducation 1969-2011

In the late 1960s, Davidson students, faculty, administrators and trustees began taking the question of coeducation seriously. Some trustees feared that such a radical change would simply be untenable, on economic grounds but the idea persisted. The first step to coeducation came in 1969 with female "exchange students" from seven other colleges (Hampden-Sydney, Hollins, Mary Baldwin, Randolph-Macon, Sweet Briar, Randolph-Macon Woman's, and Washington and Lee) to take classes at Davidson, usually during the junior year. In the first year, eight students took advantage of this program; 10 women came in the second year. In 1971, Davidson also hosted its first international coed: Regina Jung, of Tubingen, West Germany. By 1971, the trustees were ready to make a change in the place of women at Davidson College. The trustees approved offering degrees to wives of students, and wives and daughters of Davidson faculty who could transfer in as upperclass students. In 1972, the Trustees expanded admission by allowing women without family connections the college to transfer. The final step was to allow women to enter as freshmen, with the first full class entering in the fall of 1973. Initially, the trustees limited the percentage of the student population which could be female, to control the "experiment" with co-education. According a 1979 resolution, the president of the college was instructed to enroll a freshman class of 66.6% men and 33.3% women. In 1982, the trustees increased the cap on female students to 40% of the overall student body. It would not be until 1988 that Davidson finally removed the strict limit that no more than 40% of the student body could be female. The women of the Class of 1996 outnumbered the men when they arrived in Fall 1992. Marianna "Missy" Boaz Woodward '73, an Art major from Charlottesville, VA, was the first woman to earn a degree from Davidson College however. She preceded Switzer because she entered Davidson along side her husband Kesler Woodward, under the trustees first co-education policy. Vicki Switzer '74 would be the first woman to enroll at Davidson as a transfer without a prior family connection. Although originally an applicant for the existing exchange program, Switzer transferred to Davidson as a degree candidate, from Southwestern University in Memphis in 1972, to study psychology, at the suggestion of Dr. Jay Harold Oswalt, Director of Instructional Development.   As the 1970s continued the co-education program continued to expand. In 1973-1974, Julia Deck, Denise Fanuiel, Debra Kyle and Marian Perkins became the first African-American women to enroll at Davidson. Denise Fanuiel would become the African-American woman to graduate from Davidson in 1977, as well as the first woman commissioned through ROTC at Davidson. In 1975 Susan Martin Parker became the first female valedictorian at Davidson College. In 1976, Mary Farmer, a chemistry major, became the first woman to graduate after spending four full years at Davidson; she was one among nine women to graduate that year. She then continued on to medical school after graduation, as the first female alumnae admitted to medical school. With the continued growth of the female student body after the implementation of co-education, the campus began to open up more social and extra-curricular outlets for female students. The YMCA became the YM/WCA and the Male Chorus was joined by the Madrigal Singers in 1975 and the Women's Chorus in 1976. Women also played sports with the first women's varsity teams being formed in 1974. Women joined existing organizations and accepted leadership positions. For example Susan McAvoy was a co-editor of Quips and Cranks in 1977and Catherine Landis became the first woman editor of the Davidsonian in 1977-78.
Rusk Eating House
In 1977, the Rusk Eating House, the first female eating house was organized in the spring to open the following fall semester. The second women's eating house, Warner Hall was established in 1982, followed by Spencer in 1986, Connor in 1991 and Turner in 1998. Davidson women quickly became active in student life. In 1977, Kat Morton Achtemeier became the first female recipient of the prestigious Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award for service and integrity. In 1979, Laurie Bingaman joined Davidson's list of Watson Award winners. In 1983, Elizabeth Kiss became Davidson's first woman Rhodes Scholar. In 1985, Lillian "Beadsie" Woo began her tenure as the first female Student Government Association President serving along with Vice President Christie Johnson. Not everyone approved of co-education at Davidson, as one protestor's property damage demonstrated. The entrance sign for the college was altered to note that Davidson College was "A Liberal Arts College FOR MEN" in a 1975 act of protest. The female population of Davidson continues to grow and gender diversity at Davidson has become the norm in the recent past history of the college. Even as women integrated into traditional campus activities, they also formed a Women's Center in 1980 to address needs of women students and bring in speakers to campus. The group continues its work as the Women's Issue Committee. The first curricula change occurred in 1976, when Classics 151, previously named Greek Views of Man, became Greek Views of Man and Woman. The English department was next, offering English 202 Women Writers in 1977. By 1990, enough courses were being offered to develop a Gender Studies Concentration. In 1998, to foster gender issues on campus, the campus initiated a Gender Resource Center. The mission of the center was to "enhance the quality of life of all Davidson students by fostering community, improving gender relations, and facilitating awareness of sexual diversity and gender inequalities in our community and beyond." In 2009, the first Women's Leadership Conference was held as a way to connect students with alumni, faculty, staff and area social and business leaders. Sponsored by the Chidsey Leadership center the conferences are held every spring.


With the introduction of full co-education at Davidson, one new aspect of campus life that ballooned in the 1970s was women's athletics. Initially however, women were limited to playing on previously all-male sports time. For example, when Tracey Charles '74 became the first woman to letter in varsity sports in 1974, she earned her letter on the men's sailing team.

In 1973-1974, the women's basketball team was organized at Davidson, as well as the first women's tennis team, which was coached by a student-player, Carol Goldsborough.

Pat Drake became the first female full-time coach for varsity athletics in 1974-1975. Drake coached both men and women's swimming, as well as women's tennis. She was joined in 1976 by Susan Roberts, the new coach of women's basketball and also club field hockey.

1978-1979 saw cross-country and track join the list of women's athletics at Davidson, which were coached by the graduate assistant Dee Dee Mayes. Thus, by 1979, Davidson had three full-time female coaching staff, and seven sports for women: two co-ed teams, and five all women's teams.

1984 Tennis Champions

By 1982, female athletes were actively competing in Southern Conference sports. In 1984, women's tennis at Davidson achieved a particularly noteworthy success, winning the Division III National Championship. In 1986, the women's basketball team followed suit and won the Division III state champion.

In 1991, the field hockey team won the Deep South Field Hockey Championships, and the women's tennis team were at it again, winning the Big South Conference Championship, and from 1993-1995 women's soccer retained the Southern Conference Championship.

In 2006-2007, the women's basketball team had record-setting season with at 23-9 record, including a 10 game winning streak. The team followed this with their first post-season appearance in the NIT tournament.

In 2008, women's swimming won the conference championship. Even more recently, Lindsay Martin became an NCAA qualifier in swimming in 2010 and 2011.

In 2009, women's soccer won their first Southern Conference Championship, earning an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament for the first time.

Women's Varsity Sports Chronology:

1973-1974 - Basketball
1974 - Swimming
1974 - Tennis
1976 - Field Hockey
1982- Cross Country and Track/Field
1989 - Soccer- 1989
1986 - Volleyball
1994 - Lacrosse

Faculty and Staff

In July 1858, Ann Brown became the first women hired by the college. As the manager of Steward's Hall, she was responsible for the college's dining hall.

Glee, Guitar and Mandolin Club

Eulalia Cornelius and Gertrude Williamson, however, were the first women to "teach" at Davidson beginning in 1896-1897. Both women privately taught Davidson students music lessons; Ms. Cornelius taught voice, and Ms. Williamson taught guitar and mandolin classes.

The early twentieth century marked a watershed moment in the history of female employees at Davidson. Out of the three non-teaching administrative staff, two were women: Cornelia Shaw and Alice Robson.

In 1907, Miss Cornelia Shaw (1869-1937) joined the staff of Davidson as the first female full-time employee, the first librarian (1907-1936), and the first registrar. Shaw's primary responsibility was to run the library full-time. Preceding her, faculty and students had looked after the library in their "spare time." Arriving at Davidson at age 40, after serving as the editor of the Charlotte newspaper Presbyterian Standard, Shaw took "unquestioned control" over the operation of the library.

Alice Robson, a doctor's widow who moved to Davidson in 1908 to "educate her sons," served as the college nurse from 1908 until her retirement in 1937.

Orrie Steele would join these women on the staff as the president's secretary in 1916.

In 1922, when Mrs. Nancy T. Smith was hired to supervise the dormitories, not only did this increase the female staff of Davidson College, but it also made Davidson the first men's college in the South to have a female dormitory supervisor.

The numbers of early female staff members after Shaw, Robson and Steele would continue to rise. Around 1955, Professor E.A. Beaty dubbed the female members of the staff the "Chambermaids."

Although the college hired women to the staff beginning with Cornelia Shaw in 1907, the college did not hire its first female faculty member until 1956. In 1956, Dr. Carolina MacBreyer was hired as Visiting Associate Professor of Psychology, teaching courses on "Schools of Psychology," "Business and Industrial Psychology," "Experimental Psychology" and the survey course. Dr. MacBreyer came to Davidson from Queens College in Charlotte, and with a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina.

Although Dr. MacBreyer was the female faculty member, Dr. C. Louise Nelson became the first female instructor to reach the rank of full professor, in the department of Economics. Professor Ralph Levering interviewed Professor Nelson about her experience as the first tenured woman among the Davidson College faculty in August 2006. A clip of the interview with Professor Nelson is available online.

The female faculty has continued to grow since MacBreyer and Nelson joined. Geraldine A. Dwyer joined the Department of Sociology and Anthropology for two years in 1970-1971; Jean S. Cornell became Instructor of Speech in 1971-1972, before a promotion to Assistant Professor in 1974; Cynthia Grant was hired as Assistant Professor of Biology in 1972, as was Lois Kemp, Assistant Professor of Spanish. Lois Kemp also became the first female head of an academic department at Davidson in 1972 as well.

The firsts continued as Georgianna Ziegler became the first female instructor of English in 1973-1974. Tonia K. Devon joined the faculty as the first female Assistant Professor of Political Science in 1974-1975, and later became the Director of South Asian Studies (1974-1978). Verna Miller also joined the biology department in the same year. The French and Physics Departments both hired their first female faculty member in 1975-1976 respectively, in Elizabeth Chesney and Elizabeth Banes (respectively).

Twenty years after the implementation of full co-education, in 1992, Professor Maurya MacNeil '87 made Davidson history, as the first female alumna hired into a tenure-track faculty position. MacNeil went on from Davidson to receive her Ph.D. in industrial psychology from Ohio State University. After completing her doctorate, MacNeil was hired to teach course on Research Design and Statistics, Tests and Measures, and Introductory Psychology at Davidson the following fall. Upon returning to Davidson, she remarked that "It's an honor, very much so. I want to pave the way for other women graduates, set an example, and fulfill the expectations that have been placed upon me."

Professor Rosemary Zumwalt made a particularly important mark in the history of women of the Davidson faculty and staff, when she became the first female faculty vice-chair pro tem in 1998. A leadership position within the faculty, this position required Zumwalt to "represent and articulate the sentiments and concerns of the faculty to the administration and the trustees." An article from the Davidson Journal (Spring 1998) reported on her impact in the college's history: Assuming the position just in time to chair the search for a replacement Robert Williams as Vice-President for Academic Affairs, Zumwalt had her hands full. Already a very engaged anthropologist, students and colleagues knew her to be "evenhanded, sensitive, and perceptive," thus the Davidson Journal confidently reported that in a time of major turnover in the college administration, "the faculty leadership is in the hands of one of Davidson's finest--a revered teacher, scholar, researcher, trusted colleague and friend."

More recently, Nancy Cable, originally hired in 1992 as the first female director of Admission and Financial Aid became one of the first women vice presidents. Her promotion followed Kristin Hills Bradbury, class of 1985, appointment as Vice President of College Relations in December 2000.

More recently still other women have joined the administrative staff at Davidson. Karen Goldstein joined the college as the Vice President for Business and Finance in 2004, and Eileen Keeley became the Vice President for College Relations in 2006.

And of course, in 2011, Davidson College hired Dr. Carol Quillen as full Professor of History, and as the first female president of Davidson College.

Trustees and Benefactors

Even before the college opened to students, women were making contributions. The February 18, 1837 Southern Citizen praised the "many active and benevolent ladies" who "made provisions to supply parts of the rooms with bedding and other necessary furniture." Presbytery minutes recording Jane Lide's bequest After the school opened, women served the college as boarding house owners and cooks and as laundresses. They also made financial contributions. Jane Lide's bequest of $1,100 in 1838 was equivalent to a full professors salary. Although not employed by the college presidential and faculty wives helped host and feed trustees, nurse students and correspond with parents. Local women took an interest in the college, to the point that in 1855 a group decided to improve the grounds by painting the interior of the chapel building. By 1901, President John Shearer financed the remodeling of the chapel. The newly renamed Lizzie Gessner Shearer Biblical Hall was dedicated in honor of his wife and became the first building on campus dedicated to a woman. In 2000 and 2004, two campus buildings were renamed to honor the extraordinary service of Nancy Blackwell and Lula Bell Houston. Both women worked for the college for over 50 years.   Marcia Bell Mitchell Although Davidson was an all male school, in 1962 President D. Grier Martin remarked that it "would be a poor place without ladies." Marcia Bell Mitchell gave a new meaning to his words with her donation of $835,000 tha year, which was the single largest bequest in the history of the college to date. In 1943, the Quadwranglers Wives Club, later known as the Distaff Club and College Service Club was founded with the intend to "to aid the President and the Administration of the College in every possible way, and to promote the social life of the campus." Operating from 1943 to 1987, these women planned receptions, organized the flowers for commencement, and worked to enrich the life of the college community. The Board of Trustees went coed in 1974 with the election of Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans. By 2011 around 30 women have served as trustees, including the first African-American female trustee, Thelma Adair, who began her term in 1983. As the number of alumnae grew, so did their contributions to the college. In 1985, Carol Connor Willingham became the first president of the Alumni Association. In 1996, Deborah Carlton Wallace, class of 1981, received the Alumni Service Award and in 1998, both Patricia Cornwell, class of 1979 and Emily Follin Smith, class of 1981, received the Distinguished Alumni Award.

Firsts at Davidson

  • 1907 - Cornelia Shaw: First to serve as a Davidson College Administrator, College Librarian, and the Registrar
  • 1956 - Caroline MacBreyer: First to become a regular, full-time faculty member; First member of the Psychology faculty
  • 1961 - Bonnie Cone: First to receive an honorary doctorate from Davidson
  • 1964 – C. Louise Nelson: First member of the Economics faculty
  • 1970 – Geraldine A. Dwyer: First member of the Sociology faculty
  • 1972 – Cynthia Grant: First member of the Biology faculty
  • 1972 – Lois Kemp: First member of the Spanish faculty; First to head an academic department (Spanish)
  • 1972 – Vicki Switzer '74: First to enroll after the Trustees\' decision for full coeducation
  • 1973 – Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans: First elected trustee
  • 1973 – Marianna Boaz ("Missy") Woodward '73: First to receive a degree
  • 1973 – Georgiana Ziegler: First member of the English faculty
  • 1974 – Tracy Charles '74: First to letter in a varsity sport
  • 1974 – Tonia K. Devon: First member of the Political Science faculty
  • 1974-1975 – Susan Martin Parker '75: First to serve as full-time coach of a varsity team
  • 1975 – Elizabeth Banes: First member of the Physics faculty
  • 1975 – Elizabeth Chesney: First member of the French faculty
  • 1975 – C. Louise Nelson: First to become a Full Professor
  • 1975 - Susan Martin Parker: First to become Valedictorian
  • 1976 – Mary Farmer '76: First to go on to medical school after Davidson College.
  • 1976 – Karen Husted Synder '76: First to be admitted as a freshman (being related to a faculty member) and first to graduate after having spent four years at Davidson College
  • Kat Morton Achtemeier '77: First awarded the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award
  • Renee Denise Fanuiel Blackwell '77: First woman commissioned through ROTC
  • Rebecca E. Stimson '77: First to receive the Rebecca E. Stimson (Athletic) Award
  • 1977-1978 – Rusk Eating House: First all women\'s eating house established
  • Catherine Landis Henschen '78: First to edit The Davidsonian
  • Laurie Bingaman Lackey '79: First awarded a Watson Fellowship
  • Pamela Camerra-Rowe '80: First awarded a Fulbright Scholarship
  • Meg Campbell, Meredith Durden, Mary Hay, Mary Chester Morgan, and Jamie Watt: First women to be elected to the Honor Council (then known as the Hearing Committee)
  • 1979 – Melinda Lesher: First member of the Art faculty
  • 1980 – Cynthia A. Curtis '80: First to receive the Susan K. Roberts (Athletic) Award
  • 1980 – Sarah Womack Parham '80: First to have her jersey retired
  • 1981 – Anne R. Elliot: First elected president of the Black Student Coalition
  • 1982 – Emily Knobloch '82: First All-American athlete
  • 1982 – Esther Wruck: First member of the German faculty
  • 1982-1983 – S. Sherburne Laughlin '83: First elected Senior Class President
  • 1983 – Susan Keefe: First member of the History faculty
  • 1983 – Elizabeth E. Kiss '83: First chosen as a Rhodes Scholar
  • 1983 - Rosemary Zumwalt: First member of the Anthropology faculty
  • 1984 – Ruth Freitag: First member of the Chemistry faculty
  • 1985-1986 – Lillian Grace "Beadsie" Woo '86: First elected SGA President
  • 1986 – Carolann Connor Willingham: First elected president of the Alumni Association
  • 1988 – Yvonne Kendall: First member of the Music faculty
  • 1988 – Bonnie Marshall: First member of the Russian faculty
  • 1988 – Rosemarie Tong: First member of the Philosophy faculty
  • 1988 - Rosemary Zumwalt: First elected faculty vice-chair pro tem
  • 1990 - Lynn Poland: First member of the Religion faculty
  • 1992 – Maurya MacNeil '87: First alumna to become a regular, full-time faculty member
  • 1992 – Donna Molinek: First member of the Mathematics faculty
  • 1992 – Nancy Cable Wells: First to serve as Dean of Admission and Financial Aid
  • 1992 – Class of 1996 women outnumber men in the class
  • 1994 – Ann Marie Costa: First member of the Theatre faculty
  • 1994 – Jeanne Neumann: First member of the Classics faculty
  • 2000-2001 – Nancy Cable and Kristen Hills Bradberry: First women to become Vice-Presidents.
  • 2011 – Carol E. Quillen: First female President

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