White and Golden Anniversary

 White and Golden Anniversary
Tech marks 50 years of female students

By Kim Link-Wills and Maria M. Lameiras

There were no police escorts or protest marches when two female students — Diane Michel and Elizabeth Herndon — strode onto the Georgia Tech campus in straight skirts and high heel pumps and forever changed the makeup of the Institute in the fall of 1952.

But Georgia Tech had been churning out helluva engineers who drank their whiskey clear for 70 years. While Tech men may have groused about the difficulty in finding a date for the fraternity dance, many of them weren't eager to have women in their ranks.

"With the advent of a whooping ... irresponsible bunch of females go the traditions, glory and leadership of Georgia Tech," a Technique editorial lamented.

At least one professor refused to allow females in his drawing lab, according to Shirley Clements Mewborn, one of the first two women to graduate from Tech in 1956.

"I found another drawing class. People are aghast now, but that was just another thing to deal with," Mewborn said.

Some suspected that the women had enrolled at Tech to study the men and nab a husband. Ronald Holt, president of the 1952 senior class, said at the time, "If they come here to study engineers instead of engineering, they won't stay long."

Mewborn recalled, "We didn't go there to change Georgia Tech. We went there for an education. There are a lot easier ways to get an MRS."

The women — two in the fall of 1952, four in the winter quarter and five in the fall of 1953 — worked hard, just like the men. Mewborn came in the fall of '53. There were 5,000 male students on campus. Mewborn was the only woman studying electrical engineering.

"My first year was really rather overwhelming. I had calculus, chemistry, physics, drawing lab, English and welding lab," said Mewborn, who still can't figure out why she had to take welding.

The female students did have help from two influential and powerful women on campus. Dorothy Murray Crosland and Ella Wall Van Leer fought to make Tech coeducational and then shepherded the young women through to graduation.

In early 1952, Crosland, Tech's longtime librarian, wrote to Rutherford Ellis, education committee chairman of the Board of Regents, "Should women be barred from contributing to the advancement of science and industry in the state? Cannot Georgia do as other states and make provisions for women who want to study architecture or engineering? The state is attempting to equalize education for negroes; should it not provide equal opportunities in education for women?"

The world was changing after World War II. In fact, much of it had already changed. Georgia was the only state in the nation that did not offer an engineering degree to women.

Ella Van Leer had a powerful figure on her side — her husband, Tech president Blake Van Leer. The Van Leers began campaigning for a coeducational Institute as early as 1945. It was a move ridiculed by many.

In April 1952 the Board of Regents agreed in a 7-5 vote to admit females to Tech.

Regent Edgar Dunlop of Gainesville, Ga., probably was one of those who voted against the measure. He is quoted as saying, "Here is where the women get their noses under the tent. We'll have home economics and dressmaking at Tech yet."

An article in the May-June 1952 issue of the Georgia Tech ALumnus said, "W.C. Carmichael, registrar, warned the girls recently in the Atlanta Constitution that if they were 'just seeking a Georgia Tech husband, they'd be far better to enroll at Agnes Scott and meet him under more favorable conditions.' He warned that a woman won't be her most glamorous self after an hour in the machine shop and its grease, the foundry and its dirt, and the woodshop with its sawdust."

The female students stuck together and made their own dress code and rules.

"We were very cautious about our image and appearance," Mewborn said. "Women didn't just saunter into The Varsity and hang out. Our intent was to have a well-respected image on campus."

The rules included no smoking or gum chewing on campus. Blue jeans and casual blouses could only be worn on lab days.

Mewborn said the women "adored" President Van Leer and, like the rest of campus, were shocked and heartbroken by his sudden death from a heart attack in January 1956. During his reign, Tech had grown to be the largest engineering institution in the South and the third largest in the country.

Ella Van Leer stayed at Tech. She bought a house at Sixth and Techwood and provided a place to live for female students who had nowhere else to go. Mewborn said emphatically that Ella Van Leer did not operate a boarding house or take in roommates to support herself. "She had some extra space so she let the girls live there. She did it, as always, in support of women at Tech."

Librarian Crosland and Dean George Griffin also helped Mewborn, who had transferred from Western Carolina Teachers College after her freshman year, stay at Tech.

Mewborn left Carolina because her scholarship ran out. In order for her to stay at Tech, she would have to work. She went to see Dean Griffin.

"I was intimidated by his mere presence because he was such a giant of a man and I had to go in and tell him I needed to work. He told me that he didn't allow transfer students to work because they needed to get established at Georgia Tech. I said, 'If I don't work, I can't be here.'"

Griffin sent her to Crosland, who gave her a job typing in the library for $1 an hour. "She was my mentor. She was the one who watched out for me.

"She gave me some insights I wouldn't have otherwise seen," said Mewborn, who will never forget Crosland calling her into her office and telling her, "Don't forget to have fun along the way."

Mewborn and Michel were the first two women to walk across the stage at the Fox Theatre and receive degrees from Georgia Tech. Michel, who received a degree in industrial engineering, was the first woman to make it through Tech from start to finish.

Mewborn would later make history again. In 1990-91, she served as the Georgia Tech Alumni Association's first — and to date only — female president.

"The biggest challenge was driving the dad-gum Wreck," Mewborn said, laughing as she remembered being in the Model A on a Florida interstate after the Citrus Bowl Parade.

Mewborn said she didn't think about making history while she was a student at Tech.

"I think there's been much more emphasis on it recently than there was then. There was really none then. We were like any other Tech students. We were just there to get an education and get out. We had no super vision of being trailblazers or trendsetters. It was an opportunity for an education. That's exactly the way we saw it," Mewborn said.

Female students currently make up about 29 percent of the Tech population. This fall, 42 percent of President's Scholars are female, and the overall GPA for women in 1997 was .06 higher than for men.

©2002 Georgia Tech Alumni Association

Publication of Ga Tech Alumni Assoc.
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