When Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, he saw it as an institution for elite, talented men. Decades later, people opposed coeducation there because they believed it ran counter to his vision. The traditions of the "Virginia gentleman" and the southern way of life, in which women were in the home, left no room for women to attend male universities. Opponents also feared that coeducation would reduce the university's prestige. Many Virginia alumni, who held great influence over the operation of the university, were virulently opposed to coeducation.
Despite the strong opposition to altering the all male status of the University of Virginia during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, women began to agitate for coeducation. One such woman was Mary Munford, who from 1910 to 1918 campaigned for open admission of women to Virginia and sought to establish a coordinate women's college. The idea of a coordinate college gradually gained support. The 1911 requirement that high school teachers have a college degree increased the pressure for a coordinate college. Seventy-five percent of such teachers were women. The issue was tabled in 1918 in the General Assembly due to alumni opposition. Munford then lobbied for opening the graduate schools to women. This campaign succeeded; in 1920 the graduate and professional schools at the University of Virginia opened their doors to women.
As the need for trained teachers grew, the pressure to provide Virginia women with higher education increased. Because of continued opposition, however, a coordinate college, Mary Washington College, was not established until 1944. Located over 65 miles from Charlottesville, Mary Washington could not benefit from the faculty, resources or prestige of Virginia's flagship campus, and Mary Washington administrators resented the control exercised by officials at the main campus. The relationship between the two schools deteriorated until the General Assembly voted to end the affiliation in 1972.
In 1967 the Special University Committee on the Admission of Women to the College of Arts and Sciences was formed. The committee found that there was a need for women at the University of Virginia. By this time the nationwide trend was in favor of coeducation, and the legality of excluding women was questionable. The Board of Visitors approved the admission of women to the university in 1969, with limited numbers of women admitted until 1972 and open admission after that. Despite the legislative concessions, the state could not avoid a legal challenge-on May 5, 1969 Jo Anne Kirstein filed a lawsuit seeking a court order to gain admission.
The federal district court granted admission to Kirstein and her co-plaintiffs in 1970, holding that excluding them from admission violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The court approved of the university's plan to gradually admit women, believing that the administration was sincerely reforming its admissions policy. The court was reluctant to interfere with the University's internal policy more than necessary. As a result, its holding was limited to its facts. No opinions were ventured on whether Virginia could practice gender-based admissions at state schools other than the University of Virginia.
By the time the University of Virginia opened its doors to women, the women's rights movement and the increasing number of women in the work force had undermined arguments supporting traditional gender roles. As more universities across the nation admitted women, the faculty came to support coeducation. Furthermore, it was thought that allowing women into the university would calm the rowdy behavior of the "Virginia gentlemen." These factors combined to sway university officials to open its doors to women. After the roadblocks to coeducation at Virginia were removed, the transition went smoothly. Women were there to stay.||en-US