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A&M's 125th Anniversary

Questioning tradition
Despite rocky start, A&M's decision to admit women has a happy ending

By Colleen Kavanagh
Eagle Staff Writer

Photo courtesy of Texas A&M; Photographic Services and Texas A&M; University: A Pictorial History, 1876-1996 by Henry C. Dethloff.

Women take part in Texas A&M; University's oldest tradition: the Corps of Cadets. A federal court in 1988 instructed A&M; to encourage participation of female cadets in traditionally male activities.

Sallie Nelson Sheppard never questioned her qualifications for admission to Texas A&M University. She was too thrilled about the prospect of becoming an Aggie graduate.

Her enrollment at A&M followed a 1963 movement led by Maj. Gen. James Earl Rudder, then president of A&M, to change the school's all-male military requirements and allow restricted admission to women. She and some 150 other women who met admission criteria were among the first admitted under the new policy that had been approved by A&M's Board of Directors only months before.

When it came time for Sheppard to have her picture taken for the yearbook, she did so without thinking twice. She was proud to be an Aggie, and wanted to appear beside her classmates' photographs. But she was more than surprised when she saw her picture.

Sheppard's, along with those of 12 other women who had their portraits taken, appeared on the last page of pictures, and their photographs were arranged unlike any others in the annual. Their pictures appeared in the form of a question mark.

"If I had any idea my picture would not have been placed with my classmates', I would not have had my picture made," said Sheppard, who later became the first woman in A&M's upper administration. "Indeed, I did not have my picture done again while I was a student nor did I again purchase the yearbook."

Women always had a presence on campus, allowed to attend classes as "special students" but not to pursue degrees. When they sought degrees, the issue of coeducation became a decades-long battle that at times proved divisive.

In the 1950s and 1960s, however, A&M's enrollment numbers were stagnant and it was quickly losing its designation as a top college in Texas, when university officials altered the policy to allow women to receive diplomas. The 1963 change is credited with helping to turn A&M into the fourth-largest university in the nation.

"The record enrollments of the following decades saved A&M from its position as a small, floundering college and transformed it into a world-class university," wrote historian and Aggie Heidi Knipa in a master's thesis for the University of Texas. "The admission of women against which Texas A&M University had battled for so long, ultimately became its very salvation."

Less than two decades after A&M opened its doors, women were attending classes at the small college. Steven Smith, a professor and special collections librarian at Cushing Memorial Library, said more than 1,800 women had taken classes there by 1930.

Coeducation was a trend that had reached Texas by the 1890s and was something that A&M President Lawrence Sullivan Ross and other administration and faculty members supported. In 1893, Ethel Hudson, a professor's daughter, was the first woman to take classes and helped edit the yearbook. She was made an honorary member of the Class of 1895.

Six years later, Hudson's sisters, twins Sophie and Mary, took classes, completed courses of study and were made honorary members of A&M's Class of 1903.

"It's hard to prove, but looking at history, there really was no premeditated plan to make this an all-male institution, it just sort of happened," said Smith, who is preparing an exhibit on women at A&M for the Cushing Memorial Library. "From the beginning, only males were allowed to complete official courses of study. Over time, it gets more entrenched. But early on, daughters and relatives of faculty and staff took classes during regular session."

In 1911, A&M asked the Texas Legislature for permission to hold summer school sessions, which was authorized with one condition: women be allowed to participate.

Summer school at A&M looked like that at other coeducational state-supported universities, Smith said.

Cadets were not required to be in uniform, and many local women took classes and participated in intramural-type events and other school activities.

Then, fall would arrive, and the college would return to its all-male military status, Smith said, which was something the school's Board of Directors was stringent about maintaining. It turned down a donation from an Austin woman that provided for the establishment of a domestic sciences department in 1915 because board members feared it would formalize co-education at A&M, Smith said.

The final straw for the Board of Directors came in August 1925, when a woman, Mary Evelyn Crawford Locke, had enough credits to graduate with a degree in English. Crawford Locke never walked across the stage to receive her diploma. But, according to some reports, Smith said, Crawford Locke picked up her diploma from the registrar's secretary.

"The history of the school toward coeducation is schizophrenic," Smith said. "Until 1925, you get the sense that it's up for grabs. As more time passes, and by nature of the way that that's what always had been done, it becomes ingrained. And, after Mary Evelyn Crawford, the board reaffirmed that no more women would receive degrees."

The next month, the board decided that "no girls should ever be admitted to the college," according to historian Knipa, prohibiting women from attending during regular sessions - something they had been allowed to do for 32 years.

The following year, the board decided that women in summer school would maintain an unofficial status and could not pursue a degree. They added new curriculum for summer sessions, including home economics, Knipa wrote.

"The possibility of earning a bachelor's degree from a public college vanished, and in its place stood a curriculum, which would, at best, make one a better wife," Knipa wrote. "Yet women continued to embrace even limited opportunity at A&M, moving on to other institutions with their A&M credits or simply living life with newfound knowledge and skills."

Slowly, though, some women were granted admission.

When the Depression hit, A&M was not shielded from the impact, and faculty and staff members saw 25 percent salary cuts. It became more difficult for them to pay for their daughters to go away to school, so in 1933, they asked then-president Thomas Otto Walton about allowing women to enroll.

The board decided that no more than 20 daughters would be allowed to enroll temporarily, during the 1933-34 school year, and they had to live at home.

As the years passed, the question over whether to open admission to women seemed to become more and more controversial, particularly as more people began openly supporting women's efforts to attend. After World War II, a lot of men came back to school married and there were more women on campus than ever before, Smith said.

"The 1950s is when it really gets ugly because it was challenged as it never had been before," he said. "More opposition is inevitable because the pressure's on, and it's going to have to change sooner or later. In the 1950s, A&M was the fifth largest in the state. For A&M to survive, it had to change."

State Sen. William T. Moore, a Bryan native and A&M graduate, championed coeducation. During a day of routine legislative business, he submitted a resolution forcing A&M to admit women. It passed without debate, according to Knipa's research.

When others realized what had occurred, Moore's bill ignited heated debate about the issue, and two days later, it ultimately was defeated.

In 1958, the editorial staff of A&M's newspaper, The Battalion, openly supported co-education. The student senate called for the immediate resignation of the editor-in-chief, according to Knipa.

That same year, a campus referendum on the issue of opening A&M's doors to women was defeated by a 2-1 margin. Half of the student body at the time, or 3,716 students, voted in the election.

Then, in July 1959, Gen. Rudder began his tenure as president of the college. He took over at a time when A&M was experiencing slow growth compared to other public schools such as the University of Texas and Texas Tech University, and he advocated co-education, Smith said.

In April 1963, the Board of Directors, led by then-president Sterling C. Evans, decided to allow qualified women to participate in all graduate programs and in the school's veterinary medicine program. The wives and daughters of faculty, staff and students as well as women staff members were allowed to participate in undergraduate programs beginning in June.

That announcement reignited the flame of opposition.

A&M student body president Sheldon Best opposed the board's decision, and Rudder, who was revered on campus, was shouted down by the student body during a meeting in the student auditorium. He told them the board's decision was final.

Much of the opposition came from former students and members of the Aggie Moms Clubs, according to historian John Adams.

"The mothers clubs argued that there were nine other schools in Texas, so why did women need to go to A&M?" Adams said. "Rudder spoke to mothers clubs across the state, saying A&M is in a new era.

"A&M couldn't survive only as a Corps," he added.

Knipa wrote that racial integration, which occurred at the same time as the admission of women, was not viewed as something that would endanger A&M's reputation as a distinguished military school.

"The presence of women in the eyes of traditionalists, however, would destroy the masculine military spirit in Aggieland," she wrote.

By 1965, 321 women were enrolled at A&M, up from 183 in the fall of 1963. Sheppard said she did not experience anything negative once she was enrolled at A&M, with the exception of the 1964 yearbook. She said fellow students and faculty always were courteous and friendly.

"I think that most of the opposition to females came from the former students who wrote letters to the editors of both The Batt and The Eagle voicing their outrage," she said. "I know that President Rudder also received many, too. I believe that some members of the Corps also were quite upset but I remember a very nice Corps guy who was my lab partner in chemistry who shared access to quiz files with me. So, it was not true that all Corps members were opposed to women students."

Lowell Conder and Jack Fraim, both members of the Class of '61, said they remember opposing the name change to Texas A&M University and the admission of women.

But, 40 years later, both said their opinions have changed.

"We both now feel that those were mistakes," Conder said. "I think women have been good for the Corps and A&M."

A student poll in 1965 showed that the debate lingered, but slightly more students supported the admission of women.

The board in 1966 allowed admission to women who intended to pursue a course of study or use facilities not offered at any other state school or who were seeking an academic goal that for any reason could be best achieved at A&M. The same year, Rudder was authorized to review female applications on an individual basis, and reportedly ordered that women be admitted on an equal basis with men, according to Knipa's research.

Smith said the board's rules did everything but openly admit the school had become co-educational. It wasn't until 1970 that the term was used in a student catalog in reference to A&M and on-campus housing. Krueger Residence Hall was constructed to accommodate A&M's new influx of students.

But it wasn't necessarily easy for women at A&M, Smith said.

"There were other hard times for women after 1963," he said. "There were a list of questions that the school confronted after women got in, such as: Are they allowed in the Corps? How much can they participate? What about Bonfire or the Aggie Band?"

The issue made national headlines in 1979 when a female cadet, Melanie Zentgraf, led a class-action suit against the university. She said the exclusion of women from numerous student organizations, such as the band, was discriminatory.

"The case languished in the courts for five years, during which Zentgraf was ostracized by even the highest levels of administration," Knipa wrote. "A&M President Jarvis Miller refused to shake Zentgraf's hand as she received her diploma at her 1980 graduation ceremony."

In the end, it was Zentgraf who prevailed. A federal court in 1988 instructed A&M to actively encourage participation of female cadets in traditionally male activities.

That same year, the Ross Volunteer company of A&M's Corps of Cadets accepted its first two women members: Nancy Hedgecock and Mandy Schubert.

Mandy Schubert Scott said recently that joining the Corps made sense to her.

Raised an Aggie by her father, who was head drum major of the Aggie Band, Scott said she was impressed with the mission and goals of the organization.

"I found A&M welcoming to women, and I even found A&M welcoming to women in the Corps," the Georgia resident said. "That is not to say that there weren't those that would have preferred not having women in the Corps ... I won't lie and say that every male cadet treated us kindly and with respect, but those who did made up for those who didn't."

Applying for the Ross Volunteers, who serve as the governor's official honor guard, seemed a natural extension.

"I felt confident that the upperclassmen RVs would select qualified individuals - it just so happened that two were women in the fall of 1985," Scott said.

She remembers reading a magazine article about an Aggie family with two sons and a daughter. The mother commented that her daughter would probably attend the University of Texas but she was pleased her sons had chosen to go to A&M because she didn't want them to miss out on the excellent leadership training the Corps offered, Scott recalled.

"I thought to myself, 'Why would she want any less for her daughter?'" Scott said. "That question alone was enough to motivate me throughout my four years as a cadet."

The number of women enrolled at A&M has skyrocketed. Today, there are 21,123 women attending A&M alongside 23,578 men. This year was the sixth consecutive year that women in the freshman class outnumbered men, according to university officials.

And, the number of "firsts" continues. The first female student body president was elected in 1994, and since then, there have been two more women elected to lead at the university. In May, Josie Ruth Williams became the first woman named among A&M's Distinguished Alumnus.

Stormy Kimrey, Class of '58 and a die-hard Aggie, said he believes that the admission of women at A&M has strengthened the university. Many women today, he said, show more Aggie spirit than their male counterparts.

"I think they've been an asset to our A&M community," he said. "It's one of the best things we ever did."

• Colleen Kavanagh’s e-mail address is ckavanagh@theeagle.com

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