The Longwood Revolution of ’76
Dr. Jim Jordan
Longwood Ready for Males” was the assuring headline on page one of the Farmville Herald newspaper in August 1976. Two hundred years after the American Revolution, Longwood College was facing her own revolution.
The newspaper article continued:
“Longwood College is prepared to receive male dormitory students August 28 for the first time in the 137 year history of the formerly all-female state institution. About 2,300 students are expected and 75 to 100 to be males. They will be housed on floors in Tabb and Cunningham dorms but will be on separate floors from the women.”
It had finally happened. The debate had been a long one involving many parties – Longwood students, alumnae, faculty, staff, administration, the Virginia General Assembly and the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. The earliest signal event had been the introduction of a bill to the 1950 Virginia General Assembly “to formally authorize the admission of male students to Longwood College.” That bill was defeated but the drama had just begun. Now, a quarter of a century later the decision was made to end the debate – Longwood College was officially coeducational.
In a deeper sense, however, the real drama had only begun since now 3,000 members of the Longwood community of scholars and 9,000 people in the town of Farmville faced a change in their world with profound consequences. Many felt things would be different from now on, and while some welcomed the new possibilities, others were not at all pleased. A whimsical joke making the rounds on campus at that time was that the rumbling sound sometimes heard in town came from Westview Cemetery where all the Longwood professors from the olden days were turning over in their graves!
Thirty years have passed and the very earliest events in the cultural changes brought by the male students are beginning to take their places as part of the “history” of our institution. In 2001 I served as the moderator for an evening of discussion and reflection of the spirit of that time titled “A State of Mind – 25 Years of Coeducation at Longwood” sponsored by the Longwood University Alumni Association. Dr. Henry I. Willett Jr., Longwood president from 1967 to 1981, and one of the participants that evening observed, “it’s so hard to appreciate how important it was – you just had to be there.”
Some of the actors involved are still here and of course the official record is preserved. It is good that we should pay attention to the events of 1976 and those that led up to that crucial point. Truly the arrival of males on campus was a crisis as profound and unsettling as earlier turning points in Longwood history, such as the closing of the school at the end of the Civil War, the financial panic of 1873 when the institution nearly went bankrupt, the purchase of the school by the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1884, and the terrible fires of 1923, 1949, and 2001. All of these have molded Longwood into the Alma Mater we know today.
No matter how diligently we try, however, to relive those days we probably can never really “feel” what it must have been like at the time. Winston Churchill in a speech to the House of Commons in 1940 alerts us:
“History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and to rekindle with pale gleams the passion of former days.”
But, let’s give it a try.
In the Beginning ...
The bare bones of our trail as an institution of higher education are well known. We were incorporated on March 4, 1839 by the Virginia General Assembly as the Farmville Female Academy. The Academy course of study expanded rapidly and in 1860 the charter of the school was amended and the name changed to the Farmville Female College. The size of the student body grew from six to 80 in the first 21 years. Following the upheaval of the Civil War with resulting financial crises and logistical problems with the physical plant, the College barely weathered two very difficult decades. In 1884 the property was purchased by the State of Virginia and enjoyed a rapid transformation to become the premier “normal school” to prepare teachers for the state’s public school system. During the presidency of Dr. Joseph L. Jarman, 1902-1946, the then-named State Teachers College for Women at Farmville earned full accreditation and was authorized to award the B.A. and B.S. degrees in liberal arts as well as in education. In 1949 when the college changed its name again from State Teachers College to Longwood College it had won national acclaim for excellence in teacher education for women.
During the first century of our school’s life the relations between “Longwood Ladies,” or “the girls on the hill,” as they were known from the school’s location on High Street, and visiting men were ambivalent. Dr. Rosemary Spraque, in her Longwood College: A History, gives us the feeling:
“The sign-in, sign-out rule was strictly enforced. Bed check was mandatory. The House Council periodically black-listed male visitors for stated periods of time, or with the ultimate “you are never to return to our campus.” Penalties were rigorous: an untidy room would receive a “call-down”' three “call-downs” resulted in “campusing.” Records of penalties were kept in the Dean’s office. The Dean had the unhappy task of notifying parents by letter of violations. One letter reads:
“It is with deep regret that I feel it is my duty to advise you that your daughter left the dormitory last night by way of the fire escape. She was apprehended by the campus policemen and returned to her room. While we have no specific written regulation in our handbook forbidding leaving the dormitory via the fire escape after the doors and gates of the college are locked, it is an unwritten law arising from custom and convention that such things are not done!”
Miss Sarah Spencer of the class of 1894 kept a diary of her “dates” with Farmville boys while she was at “the Normal.” On some occasions things went well:
“We knew what was expected of us as young ladies to be entrusted with the management and molding of young lives, so we were trusted to conduct our own – a kind of honor system, due to Dr. Cunningham’s idea of self-discipline.
Life was simple and free. From 4:30 until 6 in the afternoon we did as we wished. We walked in the school gardens and talked to other girls. Several times a year the dining room was cleared and we had a Colonial Ball. In 1892 I took the part of Martha Washington. No boys were allowed inside the ballroom but we could see them at the windows peeping in. We never had a chance to chat with them with Dr. Cunningham around!” On other times things did not go so well for Miss Spencer:
“I remember one rainy Saturday in 1893 when two of us were permitted to leave campus to spend the afternoon with one of the town girls. Of course, right away the boys came around! When we suggested leaving, they all said, “Why go so early? Aren’t you having a good time?” Each time we started to go there would be similar remarks. Finally our hostess whispered in my ear, “It’s 6 o’clock!” Our anxiety at being late was lessened somewhat by the boys saying they would help put us in through the window. We soon discovered that only the high parlour window was unfastened. I had a vision of those boys lifting me up through that tall window and seeing my legs! So I rushed around to the door and rang the bell. Mrs. Morrison, the Head of the Home, appeared at the door and let us in with a very stern look on her face. The next morning the maid said to me, “Mrs. Morrison wants to see you after Chapel.”
Relations between Longwood Ladies and male admirers underwent a dramatic change after World War II when, for the first time, males were admitted, unchaperoned, onto school grounds. This geological, earth-shaking change was the result of war veterans being allowed to attend college under the “G.I. Bill.” During the period 1946-1950 there were between 20 and 50 male veterans attending classes and using the Library. One Longwood girl of the time said “we looked on them as sort of an endangered species and the sooner they became extinct the better.”
But they didn’t go away. By 1958, The Rotunda, the college newspaper, in some perplexity as indicated by its use of the terms “males,” “men,” and “boys” all in the same article, is focusing a front-page story on the “Lucky 17:”
“Males Found in Feminine Maze”
“Longwood Ladies” is a term which could cause confusion in certain situations on this campus.
There are 17 reasons for such confusion. The reasons are boys, as this year Longwood is host to 17 male students. John Lynn, a Farmville resident, will serve as president of the Men’s Student Government Association, which has 17 members.
When they are not in class the men students can be found taking a break in the “rec.” The boys gave several reasons for attending Longwood College. Roy Hill, a science major, is studying at Longwood “because a good friend advised me to go here.” Robert Taylor, who is taking a business course, thinks Longwood is a fine college, but a little hard.” He is a Hampden-Sydney student but is studying at Longwood because Hampden-Sydney does not offer a business course.”
By 1959, one year later the “lucky” 17 had become the “left out” eight according to The Rotunda.
The Government Steps In ...
By the early 1970s Longwood’s internal debate about male students began to be eclipsed by powerful forces outside the college. In 1972 the United States Senate voted to deny federal funds to certain colleges and universities that discriminated against an applicant on the basis of sex. The rule, however, was written so that it did not apply to military academies, private undergraduate colleges, or church institutions. In addition, public colleges that had admitted only one sex since their founding would not be forced to now accept the other sex. Longwood hoped to fall into this last protected category.
It was not to happen. In May 1973, the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare required 151 all-male and all-female colleges to “eliminate sex discrimination in admissions.” The schools were given until 1980 to comply with the order. The Longwood Board of Visitors voted to face this new future as soon as possible and recruiting of male applicants for the fall semester 1976 was begun.
It was a tense time in the history of our Alma Mater. The Board of Visitors’ minutes of August 3 of that year note: “The Board members were informed that there is some apprehension among members of the faculty regarding coeducation and that there is not total support of it. It was indicated that everything possible should be done to make the College attractive to males and to make the transition as smooth as possible. Also, in making the transition to coeducation, the quality of the students should be taken into consideration.”
Now that the government had spoken and Longwood had reacted changes began to occur. Those who were there at the time recall some of these. Sandra Bollinger was an assistant professor of mathematics in 1976. She reflected that suddenly she noticed “couples” appeared on campus. Before then students tended to travel in groups or singly from place to place but now the twosome became common.
A male assistant professor of biology recalled 30 years later, “the huge difference in my classes was make-up – the female students really started using it!” One female student remembered another aspect of grooming and personal hygiene that was striking: “some of the boys, actually a lot of them, really smelled bad sometimes. I guess they didn’t shower or do their laundry as often as they should.”
Dr. Henry I. Willett Jr., Longwood president in 1976, stated, “The meal prices in the dining hall had to go up because the men ate a lot more than the women.”
I personally recall how pleased President Willett was when I founded the Longwood College Archaeology Field School in 1979: “that should give the male students something to do!” It was a bit surprising when the first Field School crew turned out to be two-thirds female and I think I am not remembering incorrectly that the male students in those early years often seemed to try hard – maybe too hard! – to be “rugged” in front of the women. Examine the photograph here of an early Archaeology Field School crew and compare the rather “macho” poses of the males compared to the females!
Sometimes the same characteristic is recalled completely differently by different people. Wayne Meshejian, an assistant professor of physics, had been on the faculty since 1968, and therefore had quite a good feel for how much discussion to expect from students in a Physics 101 class. In 1976 he had one male student in a class of 46 that fall and he noted a nearly complete reluctance on the part of females to talk in class. On the other hand, several female graduates of the class of 1978 do not remember that males in class had an effect on students’ classroom behavior.
Hunting & Streaking ...
One place on campus that did note some differences in the new male students was the Office of Campus Police. There was some considerable excitement one evening that first fall when a call was made to campus police about “a body in front of Cox Dormitory.” A panicked and quick investigation revealed it was the carcass of a Virginia white-tailed deer, killed legally on the first day of deer season by a male dorm student. The student’s choice of a gutting station – the middle door of Cox – was regrettable and distressing!
In addition to deer hunting, the new male students introduced another behavioral pattern to campus culture – streaking. Although the reported incidents are few, they were memorable – on at least one occasion a female student was induced to join the fun. Several faculty members recall a late night female streaker who nearly flattened herself against a locked (apparently unknown to her until that moment) dormitory outer door across from Stevens Hall.
Perhaps one of the most poignant and touching memories of these first males on campus is that of Eva Philbeck, who in 1976 was the secretary to then Longwood Vice President for Administration John Carr. She remembers seeing a lonely male student standing in the Rotunda staring at “Joanie on the Stonie.” Now 30 years later she says she still wonders what he was thinking at that moment.
What Have We Learned?
Since I am a school teacher it is fitting, and probably inevitable, that I come to the end of this tale with the question, “what have we learned from the tumult of the Longwood Revolution of 1976?” It is most unlikely there is a single or simple answer. Persons involved at the time certainly had varied views of matters and those of us who today reflect on what it must have been like to be there can be peering through quite different lenses.
One lesson, however, should give us comfort. Though the changes, troubles and dislocations were sometimes truly wrenching, the fact that Longwood as a community of scholars passed safely through and maintained her historical continuity is a testament to those people and those times. Peering into our Alma Mater’s past gives us, who are here today for our brief time onstage in this so far 168-year-long drama, a measure of great hope for Longwood’s future. Different generations since 1839 have had different troubles come to them in their times on High Street – no generation has ever failed to do its duty.
Longwood continues to reflect today the deep rhythms of her rich past – her commitment to serve public, and not solely private, interests; her focus on the deep value of education, as a vocation, an arena, and a way of life; her focus on training those whose goal is to enable others to achieve satisfying lives. These were the goals of the Farmville Female Academy in 1839. In a fundamental way we have never strayed far from our beginnings. Records indicate that from 1839 to 2007 there have been 26,716 graduates of our Alma Mater. Of that number 21,287 are women – thus roughly 80 percent of our alumni are female.
The last word by right really belongs to those who lived our most recent revolution and they shall have it. This is the dedicatory inscription of the Longwood yearbook, The Virginian, of 1976:
“... Some things change, and rather abruptly, others are more stubborn and resist the modern trend toward improvement. We have been witness to both these types of changes. We have ushered in a new life – coeducation – and yet our traditional Joan of Arc guards her domain ... The year was like many other years – people didn’t seem to change so much, they just flowed along with time – however this year was unique to us because we were the ones who had to capture it ...”