“Virginia” at Forty

“But if ever a girl looked as if she were cut out for happiness!” exclaimed an old school teacher when she caught sight of Virginia, the heroine of Ellen Glasgow’s novel of the same name, set in a southern town called Dinwiddie. In the story, Virginia wasn’t ready for happiness: the virtues she had been taught—to be self-effacing, to make no demands, to put others before herself, to be bound by duty and honor—would prove a hindrance to the happiness that she had seemed destined for, given her good family and good looks. “Virginia” is a tableau of a “southern lady,” an idée fixe that was already fading when Glasgow’s novel was published in 1913. She called the novel “a history of manners,” one that sought to give meaning to “the South,” as so many writers had done in the decades before.

In time, Virginia’s world would crumble: Dinwiddie, loosely modeled on Petersburg, surrenders to industrialism; her children grow up and leave home—including daughters who go off to college, each with her own sense of purpose and person. Her husband, whose success and contentment provided her own, would desert her for another woman. The novel ends with her returning home after her husband breaks her heart. Standing on the porch, “she stopped and looked back into the street as she might have looked back at the door of a prison.” For Virginia at forty, the past looked as bleak as the future.

Glasgow herself was an advocate of women’s rights, taking part in marches for the right to vote in the first decade of the twentieth century. She went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and in 1931 she chaired the Southern Writers Conference, held on Grounds, a distinct honor for a woman writer, at a College that had no women.

The first classes of women in the College, some 450 first years and second- and third-year transfers, did not step onto the Lawn until September 1970, forty years ago. Those were turbulent times; the year before, four women had sued the University, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, and one (“Virginia” Scott, no less) enrolled in the fall of 1969. At the end of that academic year, on May 4, 1970, National Guard troops opened fire on students demonstrating against the Vietnam War, leaving four dead in Ohio. Marches and strikes erupted on campuses across the nation, including the one in Charlottesville. The first classes of undergraduates that included women began their studies just four months later. And as those women graduated from the College beginning in 1972, they entered a working world they coveted but had not anticipated—one of economic stagnation, high inflation and unemployment. But they held their own and they prospered. Meanwhile, their alma mater kept taking and educating more women; today women constitute 61 percent of the College population, greater than the university-wide average of 56 percent. This is remarkable, considering that it was the College that had been the last bulwark against co-education in the university (graduate and professional schools went co-ed in 1920).

Glasgow’s character Virginia was what sociologists might call an “ideal type,” an ideational construct that gives expression to the realities of a time and place by embodying certain characteristics, and in this case, of a real person—probably her own mother. On Grounds today, there are no ideal types of “the south,” let alone “the southern lady,” as defined in Glasgow’s novel of manners. Women have come to Charlottesville from all over the world; to the extent that one senses “the south” in them, it is perhaps in their courteousness, part of the ineffable culture that still permeates the College. But even when they hail from below the Mason-Dixon Line, our undergraduate women are unlikely to define themselves as “southern,” any more than the College is defined by its region.

In February, Cheryl Mills (’87), the counselor and chief of staff to Hillary Clinton, gave a talk at a conference on women’s leadership. An unassuming woman with an easy laugh, and an extraordinary intellect, she proceeded to regale the audience with a story that was as funny as it was revealing of the distance we have traveled. Cheryl worked her way through college and in her last year was co-chair of the resident staff program. During move-in, a mother of an incoming student found out that her daughter would have an African-American roommate; distressed, she sought out a resident advisor to ask about a reassignment. As luck would have it, the resident advisor was African-American. The mother asked to speak to her supervisor, the senior resident advisor, only to find that she too was African-American. Dismayed, she moved yet higher up the chain of command, which brought her to Cheryl, the co-chair of the resident staff program—who is African-American. Undeterred, she asked to meet a dean in charge of residence life program; without protest, Cheryl escorted her to the dean, and wouldn’t you know it, she was also African-American.

By the time that Cheryl arrived on the Grounds from her native Baltimore in 1983, it was already a very different place from what even then was called “the Old South.” But with her unusual good humor and intelligence, she also helped to change it, making it both more interesting and more open. In her talk, she recounted the lessons learned from the College that have stayed with her. One was the important art of listening, and of building consensus; not being hierarchical but collegial; and above all, remaining always courteous. She also talked about the ethics of service, of being committed to a purpose larger than oneself. Listening to her speak, I thought to myself that it would be difficult to find a woman that embodies the spirit of the College more perfectly than Cheryl Mills.

Exactly what “our” Virginia has become after forty years of co-education is an interesting question. On a glorious spring day like today, our undergraduate women might be sitting on the Lawn, discussing Spanish literature in a seminar, their faces luminous like the star magnolias lurching toward them from across the pathway. It makes for a pretty picture, a pentimento of a “southern lady,” still courteous and still committed to a cause larger than herself, but with a fundamentally different claim to her place in the world than the one that Glasgow’s Virginia contemplated. Our Virginia is “cut out for happiness” indeed, but also cut out for ambition, accomplishment, and a new place in the sun.

11 Responses to ““Virginia” at Forty”

  1. C. Pfeiffer Trowbridge Law '53 says:

    Maybe graduate and professional school went co-ed in 1920, but in the Law School 1950-1953 there were usually only three women in the entering class and only one in the graduating class.

  2. Stacey Orr Gallant says:

    I entered the college in 1977, having grown up in a small town in Pennsylvania, way above the Mason-Dixon line. I had an experience very similar to the story you cite from Cheryl Mills, just 10 years earlier. At check in to Metcalf dorm, I was greeted by my RA, blond, southern and gracious, who asked me whether I had seen a picture of my roomate. I thought that this was an odd question. I later realized that was “code” for “your roomate is African-American. My RA wanted to know if I was “alright” with this. I was shocked at the question and could barely answer it. My roomate was from Chesapeake, VA and later told me, laughingly, that for the first 3 months she could barely understand a word I said. That made two of us. I was pre-med and she was chemical engineering so we both had to slug through Calculus and Chemistry together. We got along very well. In 1977, Grounds had a quite bit of a male superiority to it. THe mantra was UVA girls are smart-if you want to have fun, you have to go “Down the Road”. I am so pleased to see that women now account for way more than half of the College. With that, I am sure that many of the bastions of male traditions have fallen by the wayside.

  3. Beth Searcy says:

    And now, we welcome a woman to reside at Carr’s Hill and preside over our University! Your post gives such interesting context to these 40 years of progress. I’ll be on the Lawn in June for my 20th reunion and look forward to celebrating these, and other, milestones and accomplishments of the University and its alumni.

  4. Truin Huntley says:

    First off I want to say that I am from below the “Mason Dixon Line” and I most definitely DO define myself as SOUTHERN, as do many of my friends who graduated from the College!!!! I like football, barbecue, I always watch the Masters and I even go to church! However, none of those attributes are what makes a southern lady, despite prevalent stereotypes that still prevail at the College. I don’t agree with your charactertization of what makes a “southern lady” and feel that it more characterizes a feminist position of victimized women than it defines the inner strength and beauty that has charitierized most of the “Southern Belles” that I know. I would instead point to one of my favorite movies/plays Steel Magnolias. I have always found southern ladies to be women who are the core and strength of there families and communities and women who embrace and celebrate the differences of their friends and find strength in this comrodery. This sentiment is expressed in one of my favorite quotes about Southerns, “we don’t ask if you have crazy people in your family because it is assumed you do instead we put them on the front porch and celebrate them.” These women are certainly not demure, sometimes soft spoken and sometimes not. History has shown time and time again that southern ladies are resilient and adaptable. That is not to say they don’t struggle, just to say they pull from an inner strength that uniquely defines them. Yes, southern ladies believe in God, family, duty and honor, but I fail to see how this is a weakness. I strive everyday to instill the same attributes in my family including my son. Southern Belles typically don’t embark on any endevor for “a new place in the sun/recognition” they do so because the have a passion for what they do and a zest for life that compels them to never do anything halfway.

  5. Tucker Shelton says:

    My mother was born and raised in Glasgow and was in the second class of women at UVa. She actually started the women’s field hockey team. I’ll be sure to send her this link so she can enjoy this post.

  6. Glenn Showalter says:

    A 1969 graduate of RIT, i was UVA university photographer in 1970. It was a great time to be a photojournalist, doing several stories on the war demonstrations and several on the increase in women student enrollments. Like the racial issues of the day that were not a part of my life or the Shenandoah Valley that i knew, it did not occur to me that women did not attend UVA as a regular part of the entire student body. Perhaps it was because my college of Rochester Tech had a ratio of men to women of 9:1 at the time, but it did not occur to me that the women’s issue needed attention until i got the first news assignment. UVA was Mr. Jefferson’s University and Virginia had a long and proud tradition of great women’s colleges, and other specialty schools. I grew up with no racial or gender discrimination or issues. UVA had evolved as a coat and tie men’s university. As a young bachelor i was always delighted to see some “co-eds” around. The ACLU is one of the worst things i know of in America and its involvement certainly was not necessary back then but typically a part of the theme of anti establishment. The question – is UVA a better place because of the women? Certainly yes but i was hoping for more along the lines of the Seven Society, as in Superman and the Lone Ranger, a different take on the Messiah, Jesus Christ.

  7. Karen says:

    Interesting reflections on the university and Glasgow’s novel. In September 1969 I began my master’s in English at UVA, and remember watching the college students, all male, going to class or cafeteria in their coats and ties. It was disturbing to hear Cheryl Mill’s story about the incoming student’s mother. Coming from New England, it didn’t occur to me that one of my suitemates, who was African American, might have been a problem for the “Southern belles” in the dorm. If there was any prejudice I never noticed it. Looking back after 38 years here, the whole university scene has been quite transformed with the increase in women students as well as the wonderful diversity of ethnic backgrounds.

  8. Brennan Nardi says:

    Wonderful reflections! I volunteered for the lovely but poorly attended “Twenty Years: Women at UVA” celebration (still have the T-shirt!) as an undergrad in 1990. Three years later I was one of only a handful of Women’s Studies graduates, and proudly received my diploma in the beautiful Rotunda. I often wonder what Mr. Jefferson would’ve thought of it all. I like to picture him honored to have such well-rounded, accomplished graduates of the University of Virginia regardless of race and gender.

  9. Frances Van Deventer Slatery, CLAS '03 says:

    I’m somewhat disturbed by this blog posting. In treating Glasgow’s fiction “Virginia” as a pathetic figure who is contrasted with the so-called un-Southern, female students currently at UVA, Dean Woo has done a great disservce to the thousands of females who have graduated from our esteemed school. Since when did selfless-ness, duty, honor, and humility count as negative character traits? Perhaps they were treated as such in Glasgow’s book, but this post veers perilously close to treating them as detrimental for the modern female student. Not only are such characteristics to be prized (in both women and men) but they are a great asset to a UVa education. I only hope that today’s students are learning such character traits along with their academic studies!

    As for Dean Woo’s assertion that women at the University from states below the Mason-Dixon line are unlikely to call themselves “Southern”, that is ridiculously laughable. It is a desirable moniker, indicative of good manners, style, hospitality, and kindness. It wasn’t that long ago that I was a student, and I can assure you that even girls from above the M-D line tried to label themselves as Southern. Those of us lucky enough to be born “below the Line” are proud to be UVa students, strong females, AND Southern.

  10. J.D. Hunley says:

    I find this blog and the replies to be equally interesting. I arrived on the grounds in 1959 as a first year man and was shocked to find that there were no women undergraduates. I guess I did not read the catalog very carefully, but my mother (in nursing school) had met my father (in medical school) at the University. It never occurred to me that there would be no women undergraduates. Once I owned a car, I occasionally dated “down the road” and still more occasionally brought dates to the grounds. (I was not a fraternity member, so inviting dates to Charlottesville did not usually work out very well.)

    I went on to earn my Ph.D. at the University. By then I was married and my son was born at University Hospital. I am sure my undergraduate experience would have been greatly enriched by having women attending undergraduate classes, but I certainly don’t regret my undergraduate years. I am glad the University finally incorporated women undergraduates in 1970 and am sure it is a richer experience to attend the co-educational College than it was in 1959-1963.

  11. Julie Hamilton Shaw says:

    Dear Ms. Huntley,

    As Dr Woo astutely articulates, Glasgow’s ideas — not a novelty or an invention — were indeed on their way out of literature in 1913. You have single handedly revived them in your commentary. As a mutli generational steel magnolia, so to speak, I am grateful that this particular tree was transplanted from birth as an academia ‘brat’ to major Northern and International Universities in Cambridge, Seoul and Washington DC prior to returning to Charleston to retire among the so called gentile ladies of the south. I found the crazy people of whom you speak in the women as an institution; lauded as such among the highest and most respected of educated society.

    Where I found those principles of god honor and country, however, was only in the rhetoric of the south, and in the southern family unit, unchanged in 250 years while the actual intellectual advancement of women in the south is largely undeveloped with a high strain of resistance to innovation and change within the culture. This is wed irrevocably to the modal behavior of sweeping all ‘crazy’ among the women under the rug in favor of ‘the man’s position in society through whom all southern blessings flow”. It didn’t take long to realize that this duplicity was the very source and structure of the corporate front porch insanity among the women to begin with. In the south, the craziest thing any woman can do is demonstrate that she is smarter, more educated and stronger than a man in an fiscal earning sense. In doing so, she jeopardizes her chance at the Southern Holy Grail, socially appropriate marriage. The men consider her crazy because southern women don’t act like that and the women think she’s crazy for having given up the only thing worth having in the life span of a woman, a man.

    We have a saying in the south too, feminists are not real southern women and certainly the label of “belle” is out of the question south of the MDL. They are yankee infiltrator terrorists trying to rip apart the very fabric of proper honorable Christian society by making men look bad.

    It is not actual duty and honor that is a weakness nor is Dr Woo stating this by any stretch. Most cultures find these traits admirable. What you’ve introduced is the position that intellectual stagnation, and modal behaviors that are in fact inexplicable other than through reference to the DSM IV, rather than the benign female machinations of those in the film referenced are in fact what consitututes honor and authority above all. Further and most damaging generationally is the idea that women possessed of a higher intellectual standard have sacrificed something real and noble in pursuits of lesser or vacant ambitions not definined by the Southern ladies script, which tends to restrict white ‘educated’ women’s contributions to those areas they can physically manage, such as church barbeques, football parties and church activities rather than intellectual contributions to society at large.

    This is a script still holding multiple generations of so called educated women in the deep south hostage to a paper thin rhetoric based value structure at great tension with international standards of learning and progress for women. Rhetoric is still the foundation stone of the proper southern woman’s position in the southern establishment and until Southern women trade it in for dialectic in pursuit of higher truths, and then raise the next generation of women to that end, this is unlikely to change.

    Southern “belles” deserve a place in the sun of their own fully developed minds Ms Huntley. They are entitled to passion for issues other than their hair, football and church without societal penalty or having to field ill written apologetics for a lifestyle long bereft of advancement or genuine honor for that matter.

    The fact , if true, that “they” don’t embark on that journey typcially is not good news for this particular species.

    That’s a global warning signal for extinction, which is good news for the rest of us Southern women.