A recollection of women’s history at the Institute

Fulmer Hall was the first women’s dorm opened at the Institute. The dorm opened its doors in 1969, and previous to this, female students could not live on campus during their time at Tech. // Photo courtesy of Joseph Zollo Flickr

A timeline paints the walls of a hallway on the first floor of the Smithgall Student Services building, leading up to the Tech Women’s Resource Center. The events begin in 1917, displaying a long history of the women who have blazed a path in their respective fields for generations to come. 

Their names have been cemented, not only onto this display but across campus as well, celebrating their contributions. Tech students are familiar with names such as Crosland, Van Leer, Fulmer, Mewborn and many more that follow students around daily, but the depth behind the ingrained history is often lost. These names serve as reminders of those who have fought for women’s right to attend the Institute, important figures and landmarks of Tech history. This Women’s History Month, the Technique aims to bring to light the accomplishments of these women, and in honor of their legacy, paint a picture of women’s life at the Institute today.

1917 marked the opening of Tech’s Evening School of Commerce, which was the first opportunity for women to attend the Institute. Located in downtown Atlanta, the school ultimately led to the creation and opening of Georgia State University (GSU). Due to its off-campus location, women were able to bypass a 1920 law prohibiting enrollment of women on Tech’s main campus. 

In 1919, Anna Teitelbaum Wise became the first woman to graduate from the School of Commerce and eventually she became the first female faculty member at Tech and GSU as a part-time instructor in commerce. 

The legacy of Dorothy M. Crosland began in 1927 when she was promoted from assistant librarian to librarian. Her importance to Tech only grew, when in 1945, she was named Woman of the Year in Education and promoted to Director of Libraries in 1953. Her mark is embellished in the graduate section of the library, which was renamed to Crosland Tower in 1985 after her retirement in 1971.

Crosland was not only a dedicated librarian but also a pioneer for women in education. Along with Tech President Blake Van Leer, she advocated that Tech end its exclusion of women, asking the Board of Regents to welcome women to the Institute as students with unreserved privileges, a request that was not delivered for 20 more years to follow.  

It was not until after World War II in 1952 that women were first allowed to enroll at Tech, and Elizabeth Herndon and Diane Michel began classes on campus that fell under one stipulation: they were only allowed to enroll in programs that were not offered at other schools. The Board of Regents allowed women to enroll in all available courses in 1968. 

In 1956, Diane Michel and Shirley Clements Mewborn became the first women to graduate from the Institute.

In 1954, Ella Wall Van Leer, the wife of President Blake Van Leer, invited 5 women enrolled at Tech to her home, wanting to create a support system for the women. Through this, she helped establish Tau Sigma, which eventually became the Gamma Eta chapter of the national Alpha Xi Delta sorority, Tech’s first sorority chapter. Today the Alpha Xi Delta house still has a dedication for Mewborn, former President of Alpha Xi Delta and one of the first female graduates of Tech. The house also has a dedication for Gay Kimbrough Dull, treasurer of the Alpha Xi Delta Building Corporation for 40 years.

Across the United States, women were required to step up their involvement during World War II, and in 1942, Tech was the second school to host a government-sponsored training program to teach students how to serve as Chemical Service Officers for the U.S. Army. 30 women attended this program and were placed into permanent roles. 

In the next 40 years, the first women’s dorm, Fulmer Hall, opened its doors, the women’s basketball team played its first game and the first woman was selected to drive the Ramblin’ Wreck; these are just a few of the milestone achievements by women at the Institute. 

Diversity grew through initiatives pertaining to race, increased enrollment of women, graduation rates, faculty employment, masters programs and athletics. 

In 1966, Sally Lam Woo became the first Asian woman to graduate from Tech. Adesola Kujoure Nurudeen, Tawana Miller, Grace Hammonds and Clemmie Whatley became the first Black female students to enroll in 1970. Dorothy Cowser Yancy became the first Black female faculty member to be promoted and tenured as a full professor at the Institute in 1980.

Finally, the Women’s Resource Center, home to this timeline of notable events, opened its doors in 1998 aiming to “give women a voice on campus.” Today, the center aims to provide gender equity for women with opportunities for “community building, transformative learning, collaborative leadership and
identity development.”

Events and recognitions such as craft circles, book clubs, the celebration of Women’s History Month, the annual Women’s Leadership Conference, Sexual Assault Awareness Month and Domestic Violence Awareness Month aim to address marginalized voices at the Insititute. 

“I think that it’s really important to show on Georgia Tech campus that we value the population of women and marginalized genders who aren’t as represented in other spaces,” said Taylor Bischoff, the Assistant Director of the Women’s Resource Center. 

“It’s really important that we have spaces for them where they can come and make sure they feel safe and can be themselves, and it’s also the same with these events.” 

Bischoff plays a large role in organizing events and has emphasized including graduate students and the idea of
wellness in their initiatives. 

According to Bischoff, her programming aims to create an “understanding [that] there are people out there who have had similar experiences, who understand the way that, you know, you’re going through life.”

The Womens Resource Center, in part with several organizations such as the office of Sexual Violence Prevention & Victim-Survivor Support(VOICE), the LGBTQIA Resource Center, the Division of Arts, Belonging and Community and the Equity and Compliance Programs, to name a few, all work together to create a more equitable community at Tech. 

However, many believe that Tech’s progression in diversity still needs to be built upon. 

Women represent 39.2% of the undergraduate student population according to the Fall 2023 Student Demographics and 28.0% of the graduate student
population at Tech. 

However, many current women across campus report feeling “steamrolled” in their classes, being talked down to by their male counterparts or overall being ignored. 

“Seeing all different types of women who are empowered and invested into STEM or liberal arts or just really anything is really nice to see. But also recognizing that when you’re in an environment where it’s not perfect, you’re going to have these injustices sometimes and you’re going to have men who don’t think you’re as smart as them. But that’s something that makes you stronger,” said Alexa Bowman Olay, second-year PUBP. 

The diversity and tech influence on the Institute is what contributes to the culture; however, the voices of women on Tech’s campus have been consistent in declaring the need for more resources and assistance towards uplifting women in all aspects of their lives

“I have had several experiences at Tech where men have talked over me or mansplained things to me. So many boys at Tech just innately think women are less intelligent than they are, and it’s clear in the way they treat women in academics,” said Esha Panse, second-year NEUR. 

For years, the voices of the community of women on campus serve as a reminder of not only the progress made but the yet progress to be made.

These words, fixated on the walls of Smithgall, echo a generational sentiment: “I do not seek any special privilege, or ask any special favors because of sex. I hope to obey all rules just as all freshmen are required to do so,” said Elizabeth Herndon in the Technique on Nov. 25, 1952.