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For immediate use
May 7, 1998 -- No. 425

 First woman graduate from UNC-CH finally honored for achievements - 100 years later

UNC-CH News Services

CHAPEL HILL -- In late spring of 1898, as her University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill classmates received their diplomas, Sallie Walker Stockard could only sit and wonder what commencement was like.

One hundred years ago, Stockard etched her place in Carolina history, becoming the first woman to earn a degree from the nation's first public university. At the graduation ceremony, Gov. Daniel L. Russell said the class of 1898 was the most polite class ever to graduate from UNC because a woman was a classmate.

Yet, neither pomp nor circumstance surrounded the private ceremony in which Stockard received her bachelor's degree. She was not allowed to march with her class, nor was she included in official class photographs.

As the pioneer woman graduate at the university, Stockard endured these indignities, as well as other subtle attempts to inform the "ladies of the hill" -- as women at UNC were then called -- that they were not welcome as students.

In the 101st year since women were first admitted to the university, and as the class of 1998 prepares to graduate, members of the UNC-CH community will reflect on the achievements gained and the uphill battles fought by the original "ladies of the hill."

To commemorate Stockard's achievements, the Office of the Provost has arranged to award a replica of Stockard's diploma to her great-niece Margaret Fray Bell ('79).

Stockard was not able to enjoy the ambient atmosphere that surrounds commencement; however, Bell will experience it for her. Bell, who lives in Herndon, Va., said that she will prominently display the diploma in her home.

"We will probably have it framed so that the entire family can view it," she said.

Provost Richard Richardson said the university will be honored to host Bell and reflect on Stockard's achievements. "We want to emphasize the presence of women on our campus and honor their achievements," Richardson said.

As UNC-CH celebrates a long tradition of excellence in public education -- spring commencement marks the 100th anniversary of the first female graduate, and the 200th anniversary of the first graduating class -- it's important to note that in the era of Title IX and gender equity discussions, educational equality for women was not always a priority at southern universities.

According to "By Her Own Bootstraps" by Albert Coates, from the time of the university's founding to Stockard's graduation, women were welcomed to commencement, dances and other University events -- but never as students.

Despite a late-19th-century push by educated women to teach in expanded school systems, most southern schools, including Carolina, were single-sex. UNC-CH was a men's college when founded in 1795; there was simply no other kind of college at the time.

Yet, as noted by Gladys Hall Coates in "A History of North Carolina as a Co-educational Institution," women have been staunch supporters of UNC-CH during its history.

In 1897, after 102 years of exclusion from UNC as students, Stockard, Mary MacRae, Lulie Watkins, Cecye Roanne Dodd and Dixie Lee Bryant filled the void and became the university's first female students.

Stockard, who received a bachelor's degree from Guilford College in 1897 before becoming a Tar Heel, was a pioneer for modern North Carolina women in more ways than one. She single-handedly raised two children, taught school, earned a second master's at Columbia University, wrote four books and published a small newspaper in New York before her death on August 6, 1963, in Long Island.

Though Stockard is most well-known for her role as a trail-blazing academic, Bell knows a more personal, less serious side of her famous relative from stories her mother told her.

"During the time that she was teaching in Texas, she once hitch-hiked all the way from Florida to North Carolina," Bell said. "She was a character."

Bell said that in talking to other people about Stockard, "they didn't know whether to applaud her or feel scandalized by her."

Stockard represented the independence of her generation of college women by marrying, having two children and eventually separating from her husband and taking back her maiden name, "a subject of no little controversy," according to Gladys Hall Coates' book.

As Stockard stated, "I have supported myself and brought up two children from birth without help. I am under no obligations to any man for the use of his name. . . . Shall I have to be cremated to keep that man's name off my tombstone? Wooden headed tradition!"

The wooden-headed tradition of which Stockard spoke often reared its ugly head on campus. Bell said that her mother told her about Stockard's inability to gain access to a campus library, part of an unwritten tenet toward the ladies of the hill.

"I remember my mother telling me that (Stockard) couldn't enter the library," Bell said. "She had to get a male student to enter the library and get her books for her."

An anonymous poem of the period entitled "The Varsity Girl" appeared in the campus newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel, and probably summed up the attitudes of many male students. The final two stanzas read:

She knew all the mental giants
And the master minds of science
All the learning that was turning
In the burning mind of man;
But she couldn't prepare a dinner
For a gaunt and hungry sinner
Or get up a decent supper
For her poor voracious papa
For she never was instructed
On the old domestic plan.

When such poems about women appeared in campus publications, and when diplomas were presented to male graduates at commencement ceremonies while theirs were given privately, they did not protest.

There were 34 members of the Class of '98. Each of the students had numerous activities and achievements listed beside their name in the Hellenian, the yearbook of the time. None of these were included for Stockard.

Instead of protesting, Stockard and others fought back with a more potent weapon -- success.

Realizing that they were a vanguard, Stockard and the other original women students approached their studies with great diligence and became successful assets to society. A number of these pioneers became lawyers, doctors and leaders in education and social work.

In 1798, Sallie Walker Stockard set a standard of experience that continues today at UNC-CH. Nearly 61 percent of UNC-CH's undergraduates are women and the circumstances in which they live and learn at the university continue to improve.

And in May, as Chancellor Michael Hooker confers thousands of degrees to women who studied in every field at UNC-CH, Stockard's legacy continues.

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Contact: Karen Stinneford, 962-8415