100 years of women at Virginia Tech
In 1921, there were five. now, there are 12,711.
In a span of 100 years, the number of undergraduate female students at Virginia Tech has grown remarkably.
Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute, an all-male institution commonly called VPI, enrolled the first full-time female students a century ago. This set the stage for future throngs of women who would not only receive a Virginia Tech education, but shape the university and the world through their skills, talents, and sheer might.
Read more about several Hokies whose experiences as students and faculty marked significant milestones in women’s progress at Virginia Tech.
Their voices span decades — each story a microcosm of what life was like for women at the university then and now — and offer personal accounts that reflect how individual experiences collectively lay a path for the generations who follow.
Lucy Lee Lancaster was among the first five women to enroll at Virginia Tech.
Lancaster, who grew up in Blacksburg, decided to major in biology because it was a general topic, and she initially planned to become a teacher, according to a Blacksburg oral history project record available through Special Collections and University Archives in the University Libraries.
In “Generations of Women Leaders at Virginia Tech,” Lancaster recounts the feelings of male students toward their first female classmates.
“The students individually were not impolite to the women students, but as a whole they did not like the idea of co-education.”
The trouble came from the upperclassmen, she surmised, because they “were used to all-male classes and thought that having women around spoiled the sacred traditions of Tech.”
As a junior, Lancaster took a job in the Virginia Tech library as a student assistant and decided that she wanted to become a librarian.
After graduating in 1925, Lancaster enrolled in New York State Library School.
Soon after completing her training, Lancaster returned to Virginia Tech, working in the campus library until she retired in 1975.
When Lancaster died in 1989, she donated her house on Washington Street to the YMCA at Virginia Tech. The Lancaster House still serves as the offices for the organization.
Everyone was buzzing.
The high school students all talked about Linda Edmonds, now Linda Turner, valedictorian at Mary McLeod Bethune High School in Halifax County, Virginia.
“Linda’s going to Virginia Tech,” they said.
Most of her classmates were headed to predominantly Black colleges. For years before that, Turner thought she was, too. Her sights were set on Hampton University.
But after visiting Virginia Tech’s campus the previous summer for a scholarship competition, Turner made a decision that would change Hokie history.
“I was so young, and it seemed like such an opportunity,” she said. “I didn’t consider myself to be Rosa Parks or anything. I just wanted to do it.”
Turner received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and participated in the federal work-study program to finance her education at Virginia Tech.
For the first few years, she described her experience on the Blacksburg campus as “being on a stage 24 hours a day.”
“Walking across campus, there were a few people who would be nice to you, but they were rare, and the professors, the same way,” she said. “I didn’t hear a whole lot of negative talk, but the stares. I remember that there was always somebody watching you.”
Students and professors rarely spoke to Turner in classes, but she did befriend several female students, both Black and white. Still, some of the white students who would greet her in the all-female residence hall, Hillcrest Hall, would ignore her if their parents visited for the weekend.
“It was what they had learned,” Turner said. “It’s all they knew.”
When she was feeling down, Turner would go to the university bookstore and find Mrs. Perdue, a store employee who was always nice to her.
“I would go in there feeling down, but when I came out, I felt like the sun had come out,” Turner said.
Those bookstore visits helped compensate for the support Turner missed so much from her Black teachers and community back in Halifax County.
She recalled attending gatherings off campus as part of a Black social fellowship, Groove Phi Groove. Congregating with other Black male and female students, she felt comfortable, and she said “you could just be you.”
Nationally, it was a time of change and uncertainty. The Vietnam War was unfolding, and Turner’s brother, a student at Howard University, was drafted, as were the family members and friends of many of her classmates. Entertainment also was evolving. Black music was moving into the mainstream, and entertainers, such as Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell, and the Impressions, performed on campus.
Hair styles, including variations of Afros, gained popularity.
“I always say, ‘When I entered Virginia Tech, I came in colored, and I left Black,’” Turner said of the way the culture shifted while she was an undergraduate student.
By Elise Puckett, communications and development coordinator for University Libraries
History can be hard to find. Kira Dietz and Anna LoMascolo are on a mission to share the history and untold stories of the women of Virginia Tech. After thumbing through thousands of historic campus photos, yellow-aged handwritten letters, class notes, and other rarities, the duo has organized an interactive virtual timeline.
The History of Women at Virginia Tech, vtwomenshistory.lib.vt.edu, is a digital effort to share the history of the roles that women, including students, staff, faculty, and administrators, have played on campus even before women were first admitted as full-time students in 1921. The site includes scanned documents and images, oral histories, and university publications.
Dietz, University Libraries’ assistant director of Special Collections and University Archives, and LoMascolo, co-director of programming for Virginia Tech’s Women’s Center, are leading the project. However, they said the impetus and energy behind the launch of the project was Patricia Hyer, associate provost emerita, who was inspired by the Virginia Tech LGBTQ+ Digital History and Timeline.
“Women are central to Virginia Tech’s story and at the core of our success, growth, and impact as an institution of higher education,” said LoMascolo. “Unfortunately, women have historically been excluded from the telling of that story.”
The timeline also includes some full stories told by the women themselves, such as in the collection of Black Women at VT Oral Histories.
Women’s history at Virginia Tech is continually evolving as the team has opportunities to explore more historical materials.
“There are many more places to look on campus that might reveal more of this story,” said Dietz.
And although change did happen, it was gradual. The evidence of what Turner describes as discrimation was subtle.
Turner was the only female student in a chemistry lab During class, someone knocked a bottle of solution off a table. The contents spilled onto Turner’s legs and ate away her panty hose.
The professor, who never spoke to her directly, advised the students to be more careful, never asking about her legs. A male student poured water onto her legs to help remove the chemical. Turner left the lab and ran into her chemistry lecture professor, who expressed concern and encouraged her to shower to eliminate any remaining solution.
She received a B for the labwork that day. The lab instructor deducted points, denying her an A because she left class before the end of the instruction period.
“I was so young, and it seemed like such an opportunity, I didn’t consider myself to be Rosa Parks or anything. I just wanted to do it.”
-Linda Turner ’70, MBA ’76, Ph.D ‘79
A highlight of Turner’s time at Virginia Tech involved the close relationship she developed with Laura Jane Harper, the dean of the School of Home Economics and namesake for Harper Hall. Turner held a work-study position under Harper, who ultimately became her mentor.
Turner credits Harper with encouraging her to return to Virginia Tech to earn her Ph.D., after Turner received a master’s in general ecology at Michigan State University.
In 1973, Turner entered a business program in the Pamplin College of Business, where she earned an MBA and ultimately, a Ph.D. in marketing and business administration.
She recalls being one of very few women in her classes. She received fewer stares during those years, but Turner said it seemed that people did not believe she belonged in the program.
“They were surprised when you did well,” she said. “You don’t forget those things. You don’t forget how people make you feel.”
Turner has taken these lessons with her. Throughout her career, she has held top marketing positions for corporations and numerous leadership roles in higher education, including serving as president of Urban College of Boston and interim president of Roxbury Community College in Massachusetts.
In higher education, her passion was working with students who were trying to determine their career direction and forging a way for themselves.
“One thing I took from Virginia Tech — I always spoke to everybody,” she said.
Turner retired in 2019 as director of the Massachusetts Department of Industrial Accidents. She plans to move back to Halifax County, Virginia, this year.
She often speaks to Virginia Tech groups about her experiences as a Hokie.
“Virginia Tech taught me how to stand in the storm,” she said.
A clipboard with four pages of questions. This was what Emily Pillsbury Davis carried with her in 1973 during her first meeting with Brig. Gen. Earl Acuff, then the commandant of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets. Davis visited Virginia Tech’s campus with her parents to inquire about the university’s plans to welcome the women into the Corps of Cadets that fall.
Davis’ father was a U.S. Army colonel, and her siblings all were in the military. Davis planned to follow in her family’s footsteps.
By then, women were serving in the military but there were few, if any, in academic military corps. Davis, who lived in Springfield, Virginia, wanted to be one of them.
“I thought, ‘I’d love to be a part of the beginnings of this, because it’s so fresh and new,’” she said.
She arrived for the meeting with Acuff armed with questions about daily life, uniforms, and integration into the corps. Acuff admitted that some of Davis’ questions hadn’t yet been fully addressed.
Suddenly, Davis was swept up into a new chapter at Virginia Tech, and her questions were leading the way that decisions were made.
It was 1973, just after the Vietnam War. Interest in the corps had dwindled, and there were fewer than 300 cadets. Admitting women could help to increase its numbers.
That year, 18 freshmen and seven upperclassmen women entered the corps, forming L Squadron.
Davis recalls having to make copies of the cadet manual for the women, because initially there were only two copies available for them all to read and memorize.
There also was a limited plan for uniforms for women in the beginning. As the first winter approached, representatives of L Squadron found an overcoat at Leggett’s, a former department store chain on South Main Street, and each woman ordered her own. They took them to the tailor shop, where the tailor stitched each woman’s rank and other information onto them.
The male cadets weren’t so sure about the females, Davis said. She became a commander her junior year and when she attended commanders’ meetings, the men were not very receptive.
“We may not have had the easiest time those years, but the learning was incredible. If you could adapt and roll with the punches and become a unified group, that was really good. I feel like I gave the corps 150 percent. I did it because I loved it, I believed in it.”
-Emily Davis ‘77
“They thought they could drive us out, but the girls were very resilient,” said Davis, who remembers going to local high schools in her hometown over school breaks to recruit members to the corps. “We just kept doing our thing and we followed every rule.”
Eventually, the men began to accept the females, and some ended up dating one another.
Davis recalls spearheading the effort to stop female cadets from having to wear heels to class. She reached out to her sister, Nora, an officer in the U.S. Army, who recommended orthopedic or “granny” shoes as she called them. This helped eliminate the issue of sore feet for the women. They would bandage their feet after marching in heels across campus.
“We can’t have our feet bandaged when we are trying to march,” Davis said. “Heels are ridiculous.”
Davis also pushed for women to have warmer uniforms. They had blue pants or a blue skirt, all polyester, and they often were freezing outside, while the male cadets had wool clothing. Davis received demerits for telling the women to wear their overcoats on a cold day when they had to wake to raise the flag at 6 a.m.
The challenges helped to bring the women together. Davis recalled that in 1975, she and other members of L Squadron, along with other members of the corps, even shared their experiences with representatives from some U.S. military academies who were bringing in their first classes of women following the corps' lead.
“We may not have had the easiest time those years, but the learning was incredible,” said Davis, who majored in human nutrition and foods. “If you could adapt and roll with the punches and become a unified group that was really good. I feel like I gave the corps 150 percent. I did it because I loved it and I believed in it.”
Davis, who married a corps member and has two sons and two granddaughters, lives in Reno, Nevada, and is looking forward to returning to the New River Valley in the future.
It was like stepping back in time. That’s how Pat Hyer felt when she and her husband, Mike, arrived at Virginia Tech in 1978.
Mike Hyer had accepted a faculty position in the College of Engineering.
After finishing graduate degrees at the University of Michigan, the couple had spent several years at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, where Pat Hyer helped to start a women’s center and served as president of the faculty women’s caucus.
The women’s movement had little impact on Virginia Tech in the 1970s, according to Pat Hyer. The institutional culture remained strongly male-centered, with an all-male leadership at the time. Sandra Sullivan, vice president of student affairs, was the anomaly.
“The legacy of segregation by race and gender, along with its military history, still permeated the culture,” Pat Hyer said. “The most vivid memory I had was feeling like an endangered species. There were so few women faculty members on campus, period.”
Although she was a doctoral student, she joined a newly formed Women’s Network that aimed to address specific concerns, such as increasing the number of female faculty, equal pay, and support for women’s studies. Pat Hyer’s dissertation topic, affirmative action for women faculty, also reflected this activism.
At Virginia Tech, in that era, some women faculty found themselves in hostile territory; they were denied tenure, or they left the university for more supportive environments.
After finishing her doctorate in 1983, Pat Hyer left Blacksburg for a policy and planning position at the University of Maryland for several years, and Mike Hyer eventually joined her.
They returned to Virginia Tech in 1987, when Mike Hyer was recruited to manage a large grant program.
Pat Hyer did not want to come back.
“I had no reason to believe that it was going to be a good place to pursue my own career,” she said.
But 1987 was a time of great change in institutional leadership at Virginia Tech, and this opened up the possibility of cultural change. Pat Hyer went to work in the provost’s office.
Soon, James McComas was named president of Virginia Tech, and he was an advocate of diversity. He hired Fred Carlisle as provost, who also was deeply committed to race and gender equity. Change began, though it came in baby steps, Pat Hyer said.
“Although the institution admitted women long ago, little had been done to make it a place that nurtured their presence and development,” she said.
“Although the institution admitted women long ago, little had been done to make it a place that nurtured their presence and development.”
-Pat Hyer Ph.D. ‘83
That changed over the next decade with institutional support for women’s studies, a women’s research institute, funded positions to work with victims of sexual assault, and the creation of the Women’s Center in 1994. Virginia Tech also made investments for and changes related to issues of race and eventually sexual orientation.
In 2002, Pat Hyer and several faculty women in the sciences and engineering prepared an application for a National Science Foundation Advance grant. Virginia Tech received the $3.5 million grant in 2003, and with it created AdvanceVT, an initiative to advance the careers of female faculty in the fields of science and engineering through institutional change. The project initiated many policies to assist faculty in balancing the responsibilities of professional and personal life, such as extending the tenure clock for a new parent and offering job assistance for dual career hires.
“The STEM fields are still very high pressure, but at least we have a set of policies to work from,” Pat Hyer said.
Virginia Tech took the grant commitment for institutional change seriously and applied the new strategies to all of the colleges, not just science and engineering.
Pat Hyer retired from Virginia Tech in 2010 as associate provost for academic administration.
“All of the provosts I worked for allowed me to be at the table, helping to make change for the institution,” she said.
Pat Hyer’s strengths were running committees, writing policies, collaborating with colleagues, and ushering in change from within.
“There are many different ways to create change. Some of them are in your face and aggressive. That’s not what I was trying to do,” Pat Hyer said. “I was trying to do it from the inside, which means you are making choices every day about what things you let go and what things you speak out about. I needed to figure out ways to make a difference without falling out of the boat that I was rocking.”
“It didn’t happen overnight. It happened over decades, and it’s not done yet,” she said.
In her retirement, she helped to found and now has a leadership role in the Lifelong Learning Institute at Virginia Tech, a volunteer organization that provides intellectual, cultural, and social experiences for adults 50 and older.
Anna LoMascolo has a unique perspective on Virginia Tech history. Her family is part of the fabric of the university, literally.
Her great-grandfather, Angelo LoMascolo, was the university’s first tailor and from his small shop on campus, he outfitted the Corps of Cadets.
It was no surprise that his great-granddaughter would attend Virginia Tech one day. But the university where Anna LoMascolo earned both a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate and now is a full-time employee differs from the one that her great-grandfather knew.
In 1992, LoMascolo graduated from Virginia Tech with a bachelor’s degree in communication studies. She went on to earn a master’s degree in sociology at Humboldt State University in California. In 2000, she returned to Virginia Tech to pursue a Ph.D. in sociology, and in 2004, she landed an education and outreach role at the Women’s Center, which promotes a safe and equitable community for women at Virginia Tech.
LoMascolo’s interest in women’s studies was sparked by her experiences living in New York City after graduating from Virginia Tech in 1992. As a young woman, she was a target of street harassment and aggression, something that she wasn’t accustomed to growing up in Blacksburg.
“It sparked a fierce curiosity in me, about the way those kinds of hostilities manifest themselves and being able to clearly understand at the time that it’s because I’m a young woman that I am confronted with these things,” she said. “These persistent experiences permeated my young life in NYC, and it made me angry.”
“We want to be a women’s center for people of all identities at Virginia Tech.”
-Anna LoMascolo ’92, Ph.D. ‘08
Now LoMascolo is co-director of the Virginia Tech center. And throughout the years she has worked there, she said the center’s focus has remained steadfast. Many of the same issues and concerns surrounding women persist, she said, and they include everything from power and gender-based violence to implicit bias in the classroom and workplace.
The Women’s Center provides counseling and support services and offers programs to address and advocate for many of these issues. It also sponsors several student groups that rienforce its mission, including the peer education team, Sexual Assault and Violence Education by Students (SAVES), and the award-wining AWARE team, which is a mentoring program that pairs Virginia Tech women with middle school girls.
Other actions by the university have helped to bolster these topics, such as the formation of the Sexual Violence Culture and Climate Work Group last fall. The goal of the group, established by President Tim Sands, is to advance Virginia Tech’s commitment to end sexual violence and enhance the university’s preventative programming.
One of the center’s primary missions is to ensure that all people feel welcome, even if a person doesn’t identify with a particular gender. It is even considering a name change that would be more inclusive, LoMascolo said.
“We want to be a women’s center for people of all identities at Virginia Tech,” she said. “We can't just be a center where white women feel comfortable.”
Virginia Tech’s work in creating a supportive environment for everyone, in particular women, is ongoing.
“We are not perfect, but we are committed,” LoMascolo said. “We all want to leave Virginia Tech better for future generations.”
Read more stories and learn more about the events and activities celebrating 100 Years of Women at Virginia Tech and the university’s sesquicentennial.