Before Auburn’s first female students walked the Plains, there was one woman who paved the way. In the mid 1870s, Julia Tutwiler, co-principal of the Alabama Normal College for Girls at Livingston, fought for equal educational opportunities for women. She petitioned to the Alabama Education Association and the University’s Board, originally wanting women’s enrollment at the University of Alabama. It would be Auburn University, then known as the Alabama Polytechnic Institute, though, to make the first step towards gender equality in Alabama.
In 1882, William L. Broun became the president of Auburn and would later oversee the induction of women in college academia. His daughter, Katherine Broun, along with two other women, Margaret Teague and Willie Little, took university entrance exams in English, History, Latin, and Mathematics.
Signaling the start of a momentous wave, the three were admitted in 1892. Ensuing Auburn, two women enrolled at Tuscaloosa’s campus the next year.
Teague moved from Arkansas to Auburn after her mother’s passing to live with her aunt, Mary Teague Holliefield. Little’s father was a businessman and mayor of Auburn. The common trend was their close proximity to the university, and this would stay true for Auburn students throughout the decade. Coeds were often “daughters of townspeople and faculty,” taking the train from Opelika or walking to school.
While women were now allowed to attend the university, there were gender-specific restrictions decreed. Leah Rawls Atkins, historian and author of A Century of Women at Auburn: Blossoms Amid the Deep Verdure, wrote that they were required to “walk directly to class and to leave the campus immediately after call dismissed.” Specifically, to prevent them from loitering or flirting with the cadets.
Although fraternization during school hours was forbidden, “girls had dates whenever they pleased,” usually attending church with a beaux or going on ‘study dates’.
Bringing their two years full circle, graduation day came. “Commencement week at Auburn in 1894 was the largest graduation week ever held to that time, and it represented a ‘new departure’ as three women were awarded ‘degrees and all honors,” Atkins said. Broun, Little, and Teague were awarded their diplomas “amid thunderous applause.”
Broun would continue her education as Alabama’s first female graduate student, also winning a competitive scholarship. She later opened the coeducational Conway Broun Preparatory School.
Like Broun, many women pursued degrees in education. “Since most college educated women planned to work for only a few years, it was not practical to pursue a career which required more training, and many feared pursuing such careers might involve the hostility of peers, family members, or professors,” said Katrina Blair Van Tassel, author of “Co-eds,” Basketball Players, and Beauty Queens: Women at the Alabama Polytechnic Institute, 1892-1941.
Women were also largely excluded during the beginning years of the Glomerata and the Orange and Blue newspaper. Certain professors believed that men held a distinct superiority and wouldn’t call on coeds in class. This, perhaps, only encouraged them to make better classes and be competitive against their male fellows.
It would remain an ongoing battle against the times to be treated fairly, but progress was being made. “Even the most misogynist students had seconds thoughts abound offending the daughter of a confederate general who taught physics, or the sister of a fraternity president,” Tassel wrote.
The Agriculture Club, Press Club and Founder’s Club welcomed women without hesitation. They also became progressively involved in athletics. In 1897 four women joined the Cycle Club and in 1899 a woman served as the president of the Tennis Club.
With small advancements and a shift towards open-mindedness in society, “men of the 1890s and 1900s applauded the ‘beauty of full womanhood’ and believed the presence of women would raise ‘the general culture of the entire college.’”