Lucy's Legacy: A Review of Firsts for Women Students

February 5 - July 31, 1999
Dale Valena, Museum Curator
Mylinda Woodward, Archive Assistant

Lucy Swallow
Lucy Swallow, c. 1892

This exhibit was organized to recognize the female college experience at UNH. It reviewed some of the "firsts" and times of historical significance for women students on campus.

First Women Students

In 1890, Lucy Swallow of Hollis, NH wrote to the all-male New Hampshire College saying she would like to take a course in chemistry and see if she would "be permitted to go to recitation with the young gentlemen and obtain full benefit as well as they." Her request for admission was novel enough to call for a special petition to the legislature. Dean Charles H. Pettee read her letter to the convening men who voted unanimously to admit women to the College.

Lucy entered New Hampshire College in 1891 and was joined almost immediately by Delia E. Brown of Hanover. The following year the college moved from Hanover to Benjamin Thompson's farm in Durham. Neither woman chose to move with the college, but they had opened the door for the many women students who have followed since.

Lucy's handwritten letter to UNHClass photo taken c. 1891


In 1892, the college added the "General Course" to its curriculum. This course of study was especially designed for women, permitting them to take a series of elective courses in place of shop work and surveying. Over the years, other programs such as home economics (1913), education (1915), occupational therapy (1942), nursing (1965) and women's studies (1977), were added to attract more women students to the University.

In 1923, students were elated when the college changed its name from the New Hampshire College of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts to the University of New Hampshire. This acknowledged that the scope of the institution was no longer served by its old name, which had been a particular concern for women graduates.

Female student in the Thompson Hall biology labExhibit of women's programs

Organizations & Social Life

The first sorority on campus, called the W. H. A. society, was formed in 1903. In 1911 they changed the name to the Greek letters Alpha Alpha Alpha. The first local sorority to receive a national charter was Phi Delta, which was installed as Tau chapter of Alpha Xi Delta in the fall of 1914. Alpha Alpha Alpha became the Mu chapter of Chi Omega the next spring. Both sororities are still active on campus.

The Women's League was organized in 1913 by women faculty and alumnae "to promote better fellowship and closer feeling between the women undergraduates." By 1919, the number of female students had increased and they started forming their own clubs such as the Glee Club (1912), YWCA (1913) and the Mandolin club (1918). The league was later renamed the University Folk Club and still functions today.

Vic parties, informals, hops, proms and formal balls, whether the music was supplied by the dorm victrola or a big band from Boston, meant dancing was a large part of the social scene on campus until the late 1960s.

Sorority memorabiliaWomen's Mandolin ClubFormal clothing for social events

Women Students in World Wars

The traditional college program changed dramatically during the World Wars as state colleges and universities were called upon by the US War Department to train for military service or war work. During World War I (1914-18) women students spent the mornings attending lectures emphasizing Red Cross work. In the afternoon they had demonstrations on the making of dressings and bandages and the canning of food. They also pitched in to do "men's" work like apple picking on the Horticultural Farm. At four o'clock each day, they went on an extended hike to make them physically fit for the national emergency.

The effort to win the Second World War (1939-45) required an even greater involvement from women. The school year was accelerated and women students were required to take a war-connected subject such as welding, drafting, engineering and aeronautics. Female gender roles were suspended as women filled in everywhere for the shortage of men. As in WWI, the Women's Physical Education Department instituted a physical fitness program. Several newsreel companies filmed it and Life magazine ran a feature story on it, bringing national attention to the University's coeds.

For photographs, personal accounts of the experience, and other information about the program and the UNH women who participated in it, please see the article in UNH Magazine Online.

Physical Education & Athletics

The Department of Physical Education for Women was established in 1916. The top floor of Thompson Hall was designated a women's gymnasium. Competitive athletics for women were limited to interclass basketball. No male spectators were allowed except for faculty.

In 1921 the Women's Athletic Association was recognized and varsity letters were awarded to women for the first time.

Fifty years later, physical education was dropped as a requirement for graduation. At the same time, the University began to address inequities between women's and men's athletics in compliance with the Title IX of the Education Amendments.

Today's women's teams are making headlines and bringing national attention to the University of New Hampshire Wildcats.

Girls Basketball Team 1920P.E. class, two women dancing in clown costumeAthletic memorabilia display