The picture just about sums it up. It was hard to find pictures for this article because, well, there just weren’t a lot of girls at Tech back in the day. The picture, dating from 1955, features two of the only girls on campus, and one, Shirley Clements Mewborn, is surely recognizable to anyone who’s passed by the softball field or the Alpha Xi Delta house, both of which prominently feature her name on the front signs, as they are named in her honor.
“The April 9 announcement was greeted by a considerable amount of grumbling among the students,” (Wallace, 357).
Surprisingly, the reaction of the students to “one of the country’s most masculine strongholds” to the introduction of women was not all that positive. Bill Dean, the editor of the Technique, was quoted as saying that “the students are determined that no tradition be changed for members of the fair sex. When they show they have the ability, then they’ll be accepted as one of us.” Ronald Holt, the senior class president, added that, “if they come here to study engineers instead of engineering, they won’t stay long.”
Not a great look. So how did we get to that?
To be honest, this wasn’t even the first time women had been permitted to attend classes. Tech’s continuing education programs, most notably the Evening School of Commerce, which, as we’ve seen, was cruelly yanked from Atlanta and sent to Athens before being returned to Atlanta in the form of Georgia State, had enrolled women decades prior. But this was the first time they could earn four year degrees, taking classes in engineering and architecture.
It really all started with Blake Van Leer. He was a practical man, but he was also a smart man. His wife had studied architecture, and, thus, his daughters followed their parents into the realm of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. It stood to reason, to the Institute president, that the only state engineering school actually be able to admit anyone from the state.
The process was a simple one, really, once the president had backed the decision. His wife had spurred the Women’s Chamber of Commerce to bring the matter before the Board of Regents. The board’s vote was a close one, yet the measure still passed by a 7-5 margin. In the fall of 1952, just as Bobby Dodd’s boys were starting their quest for a third national football championship, the first two women were admitted to the Georgia Institute of Technology. The ladies, a widow named Elizabeth Herndon with a young son, and a fresh-out-of-high school girl named Diane Michel. The young misses Michel and Clements, later Clements Mewborn, would become the first ladies to graduate in 1956, with the former coming from the school of Electrical Engineering.
Although both women had to constantly insist they did not come to Tech to find husbands, it is fun to note that Mewborn did eventually marry a fellow EE and both went on to be proud engineers in the field, as they noted in an interview later on. Mewborn, notably, helped found Tech’s first sorority chapter in 1954, Alpha Xi Delta, at the corner of Techwood and Sixth.
It was rough going for all Tech students back then, with the men only graduating at a 60 percent clip, but for women, it was especially hellacious. The graduation rate into the 1960s was just 16 percent for women, and just 49 were registered a full decade later.
Paula Stevenson would be the first woman elected to the student council, as well as the Ramblin’ Reck Club. She, much like other women, would note that everyone was basically on there own, as far as changing campus climate and finding acceptance among the predominantly male structure of campus. It’s hard to change things, she would say, as one was so busy in class and work around campus that it was hard to create large-scale change.
Part of the problem lay in the fact that the only girls dorm on campus was a small, inadequate house for eleven residents up on Fifth Street. And the price was higher for women, for some reason.
It’s been a winding road for women at Tech from the early days of the 1950s. Attitudes change, and so do things like enrollment and graduation rates. Tech admits more women than ever, and they go on to do great things in their fields, from engineering and architecture, to the new degrees Tech has added over the years. Their successes are just as comprehensive as those of the Tech men.
Tech men didn’t change overnight. There were pretty substantial prejudices from professors and peers alike that women had to fight for many years. But pioneers like Mewborn, Michel, and Stevenson had powerful things to say about their treatment, their experiences, and their time at Tech. these women paved the way with their strong successes. No one was really out to rattle the Institute to its core, it seems. Rather, women just wanted to be accepted into what was already there - a thriving, challenging, and unique Institute. The men who were already there, meanwhile, may have taken some time, but like the interviews say, the boys of Tech were good, smart men.
And it’s for all of our betterment that these women helped expand the doors to let in the thriving group of female students that comes closer and closer to making up half the student body every year.
If you have any events or ideas you would like to see investigated, leave a comment below and I will be sure to look into adding it to the schedule. What is old is new again, or at least liable to be featured in the future. Thank you for reading this latest edition of From the Rumble Seat’s Rearview Mirror.