Leading Ladies

Published March 22, 2024

“Coeds” excel at OU

From the first female graduate to the first female president, Ohio University has a rich history rooted in the passion and hard work of women.

By Alyssa Cruz | Culture Editor

According to Ohio University’s Diversity Dashboard, 62.2% of its students are women. Out of the 27,308 students on the Athens campus, around 17,000 of them are women. These 17,000 people walk to class every day, sit on College Green and grab a bite surrounded by the names of women who came before them. Voigt Hall, Templeton-Blackburn Alumni Memorial Auditorium and Boyd Dining Hall are just a few of the buildings that were named in honor of exemplary women that have passed through the university.

However, when do building names simply not suffice? Does history get buried underneath the erected stone? Although the population of OU now has a female majority, this was not always the case. In fact, OU had remained strictly all-men for 64 years until the arrival of Margaret Boyd in 1868.

Among her peers, she remained the only woman at OU until 1870. When she graduated in 1873 with a Bachelor of Arts, there were eight other women enrolled.

Although her name is familiar among Bobcats, her story may not be. Known as Maggie, Boyd was the youngest of nine children, born and educated in Athens County. She grew up working and living on a farm in Coolville, the daughter of Northern Ireland and Scottish immigrants.

When she first came to the university in 1868, Boyd appeared in the student catalog merely as “M. Boyd” to avoid controversy. It was not until two years later that faculty members suggested to the Board of Trustees that women should be admitted to the university.

Thanks to the Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, a look into Boyd’s everyday life is provided through the pocketbook diary she kept during 1873. A gift from her sister Kate, the diary enabled Boyd to record all sorts of details about her life. Many entries are a mere transcription of what she did that day while others showcase the social climate present during her time.

One entry provides insight into microaggressions as a woman when she wrote “what a sad thing it is to be a girl” in reference to the Latin on her diploma having masculine endings.

After Boyd, female enrollment at OU continued to grow. According to the OU Historical Fact Book Archives and Special Collections, 1909 was the first year the number of women surpassed the number of men with 334 women and 317 men. After that, 1943 witnessed the lowest male enrollment with only 236 men and 1070 women. This was due to the more than 16 million American men who served in World War II.

History was made again in 1913 when OU hired its first Dean of Women, Irma Voigt. Voigt served in the position until 1949, and she became a fixture on campus, mentoring thousands of young women. According to the archives, Voigt would use her home at 35 Park Place to host fireside chats. She also organized weekly 5-to-10-mile hikes on Saturdays that she led around Athens.

Her relationship with her mentees was close, with her referring to female students as “my girls.” In return, letters addressed to her from students often opened with greetings such as “My Dear Dean.” She was also usually accompanied by her shepherd-collie mix, Lady.

Voigt continued to remain a fixture at OU even after her retirement. The year after she died in 1953, Voigt Hall was opened in her honor.

Although she became a beloved figure at the university, her arrival was not exactly met with open arms. In a personal essay, she wrote titled “At First,” Voigt detailed her first impression of the institution as well as the then president, Alston Ellis.

“After my first rather timid suggestion, ‘I'm here for work. I'm ready to receive instructions from you,’ he cleared his throat in his characteristic way and deliberately looked me over, as it were,” she wrote. “‘Well, I'm sure I don't know what a Dean of Women's for, or why Ohio University has to have one, and I suspect you don't know what a Dean of Women's duties are any more than I do, so the sooner you find out, the better.’”

Voigt said she felt frazzled and tried her best to start on the right foot. She inquired about her office but was met with a chilly response from Ellis when he said he had not made any arrangements and was not aware she needed one. She further inquired where she was supposed to live and was informed no such arrangements had been made either. Ellis proposed she find a room at the home economics cottage where three of the teachers lived.

“This was my first day on the campus at Ohio University,” Voigt wrote. “No other person who was to occupy the cottage appeared before the next day. Unfortunately for me, it was my birthday. I had never been away from home before on my birthday. I didn’t know a soul in Athens, and I wasn’t too sure what the future held. Needless to say, I was blue and homesick.”

Voigt would continue to make the most of her time and discuss the fluctuation of enrollment numbers. She witnessed both World Wars and saw the effects the draft had on the presence of women on campus.

“In fact, during these two periods, the women were the real sustaining factor of university life and activity,” she wrote.

A little more than four decades after Boyd graduated, and during Voigt’s tenure, Martha Jane Hunley Blackburn became the first Black woman to graduate from OU in 1916. She received a Bachelor of Science in education with majors in English and literature and a minor in home economics.

After graduation, she worked as the head of the Home Economics Department at Wilberforce University where she taught for three years. After marrying her husband, Charles Blackburn, she gave birth to their daughter and resigned from her position.

Three years later, she returned to the workforce and taught home economics at Booker T. Washington High School in West Virginia. Blackburn taught there for 25 years and was recorded as being beloved by her students.

In 1979, she was honored at a reception and received the Ohio University Medal of Merit. MemAud was built in 1928 thanks to small gifts from more than 3,100 alum. In 1999, it was rededicated as Templeton-Blackburn Alumni Memorial Auditorium in honor of John Templeton, the first Black graduate, and Blackburn.

As more women enrolled, OU began to adapt to the presence of women, but the college experience was still not equitable between genders. The first residence hall to house women was known as Women’s Hall which was rented first then bought by OU in 1908 and renamed Howard Hall. Boyd Hall was built to house women enrolling during the 1900s; however, the original hall was demolished in 1966 to make room for Alden Library.

In 1917, Lindley Hall was built to house 120 female students. At this point, the number of students housed at the university reached 380. In 1949, Bryan Hall became the first residence hall to have an elevator and was dedicated as an all-female hall. In 1966, Bromley Hall became OU’s first coed residence hall. It was managed by a third-party company called The Bromley Group and OU would not purchase it until 2001.

For many students, their experience living in residence halls was vital to their college careers. The Student Resident Counselors program began in the Office of the Dean of Women in 1950 to facilitate spirits of community and belonging.

In Voigt Hall’s handbook from 1957-1958, a brief description was provided for incoming students on what to expect to gain from living in the hall.

“If a motion picture could be included you could view our library of pleasure reading books, and the latest magazine, the laundry rooms with the coed wash woman busy in her leisure time, a Voigt gal entertaining her date listening to our Magnavox recorder, or the frequent gatherings around the piano in our music room,” it said.

There was also royalty among the resident halls and sororities, with each one voting for the Athena Queen. The winner of the 1956 Athena Queen competition was Janet Shaw from Bryan Hall. The judge was Hugh Hefner, editor-publisher of Playboy Magazine.

Although there were many opportunities to become involved and enjoy college life, disparities still existed between men and women. For example, women were required to wear skirts and were forced to abide by a curfew.

In 1964, Beverly Jones arrived on campus to pursue a degree in journalism. Although excited to be on her own, she was surprised by the rules she was required to follow. On weeknights, she had to be back in her dorm by 10 p.m. To attend dinner on Sunday, nylon stockings and high heels were a must. Smoking was allowed for women, but only if the lady was sitting.

“There were many, many ways that women didn’t have full empowerment, whether they were working or they were students,” Jones said.

Four years later, Jones was wrapping up her bachelor's degree when she was assigned an honors project in literature. She elected to write a thesis on how women in literature are existential beings in the sense female characters have always had greater self-awareness than male characters in works such as Jane Austen’s early novels.

Jones’ English professor did not approve of her topic and claimed women are not existential.

“Philosophers believe that woman is other, meaning woman is put on earth to support men so that men can become fully developed human beings,” she said. “I said, ‘I'm not going to change this project,’ and then he said, ‘Then I’ll flunk you,’ and then I said, ‘I don’t care.’”

Jones said she did not need the hours the class provided, so she was indifferent. However, because it was an honors course, it was not an option to receive an “F” but rather only an “incomplete.”

When she applied to graduate, she was denied because of the “incomplete” on her transcript.

“The professor said ‘I’m not going to get rid of the incomplete unless you agree not to do that, and you’re going to have to do something else,’” she said. “I said, ‘I don’t want to graduate from a university that doesn’t believe I can be a fully developed human being.’”

Jones stood her ground and did not receive her diploma. Instead, she got a job at Cutler Hall.

“They didn’t realize I hadn’t graduated,” she said, laughing.

While working as a secretary in the office of the Executive Vice President, the dean of the College of Business approached her about enrolling in the MBA program.

“I said, ‘There are no women in the MBA program,’ and he said, ‘You’re right, and most people associated with the program don’t want women, but it’s time to change that, and somebody has to be the first one,’” she said. “You can demonstrate it’s possible.”

Jones said she did inform the dean she had not graduated, but he simply took care of it and she promptly received her diploma in the mail soon after.

Jones said there was a mutual understanding that bad grades were simply not an option. If she wanted to be the first woman in the program, she had to exceed.

“I think that was the loneliest experience I’ve ever had,” she said. “The business goal was very conservative and had a lot of local people who were coming back because they were in business and they wanted their MBA and they basically shunned me. So that was no fun.”

Jones said she can now recognize their behavior for what it was.

“I think in retrospect, they were afraid of me,” she said. “I was speaking, and they just thought I was some kind of freak.”

She knew she still wanted to make a change and do something meaningful. Jones said that was when she made a promise to herself to continue to fight for equal rights.

“I thought, ‘Every day I’m in Athens, Ohio, I’m going to do something in support of the proposition that women should have equal rights and equal opportunities,’” she said. “And I did that.”

Jones was aware of her position and made a point to make a statement with her appearance. She said she was often invited by a variety of men’s groups to come speak.

“I think they generally invited me to make fun of me,” she said.

That did not dissuade her one bit, and she decided to attend but make sure people knew who she was.

“The first time, I had this little blue dress with a white Peter Pan collar and bow, and I put pink barrettes in my hair, and I just tried to look as girly as I could,” Jones said. “I showed up, and they were expecting, I don’t know, this terrifying hulk of a person.”

She said her tactic worked, and she began to develop a relatively high profile on campus.

“I learned that it doesn’t matter if 1,000 people really hate you,” Jones said. “If you’ve got 10 people who are supportive and active and care about you personally, the 1000 people who hate you you don’t know, so what difference does it make?”

In 1971, OU President Sowle approached Jones to “put her money where her mouth is.” Jones was working at WOUB at the time while earning her MBA part-time. His proposition was for her to write a report that proved what she was saying and backed up the claims she was making regarding there being gender inequality on campus.

Jones took this opportunity very seriously and sought to interview as many women as she could from all over the campus to get their perspectives. Hence, the “Report on the Status of Women at Ohio University” was created. The report was a 47-page proposal – not counting the lengthy appendices that made it 97 pages – that detailed 21 proposals that should be implemented at OU.

Jones said she was sure President Sowle was surprised by the thoroughness and detail she had dedicated to creating the proposal.

Among the recommendations was for women to be allowed to join the Marching 110 as well as for more money given to female athletics. According to the Schedule of Income and Expenditure-Intercollegiate Athletics during the 1969-1970 school year, only $913 was spent on women’s athletics out of the $1,011,306 spent on total expenditures.

Sowle accepted 18 of Jones’ suggestions, including more funding for female athletics. She said this led OU to become ahead of the curve, given it was right before Title IX was passed in 1972.

As Women’s History Month wraps up, it is important to remember the thousands of women who have paved the way, making OU what it is today. Bobcats today are bearing witness to history being made once again with the first female university president, Dr. Lori Gonzalez.

Gonzalez said she is honored to stand among historic women at OU, all of whom she considers trailblazers.

“This month serves as a poignant reminder of the resilience, courage and contributions of women in shaping our world,” Gonzalez said. “It is a time to amplify women's voices, acknowledge their invaluable roles in every facet of society, and reaffirm our commitment to creating a future where every woman can thrive.”

AUTHOR: Alyssa Cruz

EDITOR: Hannah Campbell

COPY EDITOR: Addie Hedges