One hundred years ago, the first class of undergraduate women enrolled at the University of Georgia.However, women had been attending graduate classes at the University for several years by this point. As we look to the future, we also take a moment to look back on our history and the legacy of the remarkable individuals who established a place for women in graduate education at UGA.
At the time of the Graduate School’s founding in 1910, women were still excluded from graduate study at the University. In the mid-1890’s, Yale, Brown, Pennsylvania, Columbia, Chicago, and Stanford had opened graduate admissions to women. Two women earned Master of Arts degrees at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 1899. UGA and the University of Virginia were the last holdouts among public universities denying women admission.
In 1911, UGA trustees reconsidered and relented, but with the qualifier that women earn credits toward a Master of Arts degree during summer studies only. Five years later, women were admitted into the regular Graduate School. Finally, in 1918, women were admitted into undergraduate junior and senior classes (by a vote of 12 to 11) – two years before the passage of the 19thamendment allowing white women the right to vote.
Previously, Mary Creswell, one of the first women to take graduate courses at UGA, was forced to do so in secrecy befitting a mystery novel. She hurried to classes on North Campus as inconspicuously as possible. Creswell received private instruction behind locked doors, a fact well-documented by later scholars, including Sara Bertha Townsend.
And so it happened that before the University officially had admitted women into undergraduate school, women were sometimes able to complete enough credits during summer studies to earn a graduate degree. Mary Lyndon became the first woman to complete a Master of Art degree at UGA in 1914. Five years later, she made history once again when Lyndon became the University’s first-ever dean of women.
Mary Creswell graduated from the State Normal School and eventually earned enough credits to complete a baccalaureate degree at UGA in June 1919 – becoming the University’s first woman to do so. Creswell later became the first dean of home economics (now Family and Consumer Sciences).
In 1956, Bernice Cooper became the first woman awarded a doctorate degree at UGA – 16 years after the first UGA doctorates were awarded in 1940 to two men, Joseph Simeon Jacob and Horace Montgomery. In the same year, Robert Brooks wrote in a history of the University of Georgia: “Nothing in the charter of the University specifically prohibits women from entering the University.” He added, “No more revolutionary and far-reaching event has occurred in the recent history of the University than the admission of women.”
However, racial segregation remained for both men and women. Administrators continued to uphold ideas of “separate but equal” educational standards at UGA and throughout the South. In the summer of 1961, Mary Frances Early became the first African-America to be accepted into graduate school. She had graduated magna cum laude in 1957 from Atlanta’s Clark College, and was already an accepted graduate student at the University of Michigan when she entered UGA. In 1962, Early received a graduate degree in music education, becoming the first African-American to earn a UGA degree.
The tenacity of women graduate students like Mary Creswell, Mary Lyndon, Bernice Cooper, and Mary Frances Early scored important firsts for women in graduate education.