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Women’s History at WVU

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
March 4th, 2014

In recognition of March as Women’s History Month, the WVRHC is pleased to highlight a recently inventoried collection focusing on the history of women at West Virginia University:  the Women’s Centenary Records collected by the WVU Women’s Studies Center, now the Center for Women’s & Gender Studies.

The collection includes material gathered during research for the Women’s Centenary Project, which marked the 100th anniversary of the admission of women to WVU in 1889.  A dedicated student worker recently created an inventory of the folders within the collection, available through the online finding aid.  Her work reveals the breadth of topics and materials within the collection; from exhibit material to photographs to research notes, the Women’s Centenary Records collection is a great resource for secondary sources as well as copies of primary source material.

The collection covers a broad sweep of women’s history at WVU, from the first women admitted to the first female Mountaineer mascot, WV Secretary of State Natalie Tennant.  Of the “ten brave girls” who enrolled when the school first became coeducational, only four graduated.  Articles and memoirs by these women describe both the support they received and the hurdles they faced.  One of the ten, Sarah (a.k.a. Sallie) Lowther Norris (m. Showalter), graduated in 1893—one of her grade reports is shown below.  The variety of classes was very different back then, offering subjects traditionally taught to male students.

Sallie Norris Grade Report

Facsimile of grade report of Sallie Norris, 1890

Another of the original ten, Harriet Eliza Lyon, a transfer student from Vassar College, became the first woman to graduate from WVU.  The only woman of fourteen students in the graduating class of 1891, she won the honor of being valedictorian.

The above image of Harriet Eliza Lyon in her graduation gown appeared in the April 1936 issue of WVU’s alumni magazine.

Harriet came from a very education-oriented family.  A grandniece of Mary Lyon, the founder of Mt. Holyoke College (a historically women’s college), Harriet was born in Fredonia, New York.  She moved to Morgantown with her family in 1867 when her father, Franklin Smith Lyon, accepted a position as one of WVU’s first professors.  After graduating from WVU, she returned to Fredonia and married Franklin Jewett, a professor of science at the Fredonia Normal School (now State University of New York at Fredonia).

The stories of these women give us just a taste of the early history of coeducation at WVU.  To learn more, you can look at the Women’s Centenary Records collection here at the WVRHC, view a sample of photographs from the collection online, and check out WVU Women, the First Century:  An Historical Digest (Morgantown, W. Va.: WVU Women’s Centenary Project, 1989 and 1991), available in the Downtown Library’s Appalachian Collection and at Evansdale Library.

Blog post by Jane Metters, Assistant Curator, WVRHC.

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