Housing arrangements, rules, and curfews were not the only differences female students faced compared to their male peers.
From 1880, when white women began attending UK, through the early 1970s, female students were actively discouraged from taking classes in majors such as law, medicine, engineering, and the sciences. Instead, women were corralled into “female-appropriate” majors such as home economics and education. For example, in 1915, there were 181 women (19% of the student body) enrolled in the University of Kentucky. Of those, only two majored in engineering. Even with these obstacles, however, several UK women managed to defy social barriers and be successful in “male-appropriate” disciplines.
Margaret Ingels was one of those women. Born in 1892, she graduated from UK in 1916 with a Bachelor of Science in engineering, the first woman to do so. Ingels went on to become the first woman in the nation to receive a graduate degree in mechanical engineering and was one of the few women in the United States in the early 20th century to have a successful career in the field, developing several patents and innovations used by the entire nation.
In 1922, Katharine Cleveland became the first woman to receive the highest grades as an engineering student. Dean of the College of Engineering Paul F. Anderson remarked to the Lexington Herald on October 22, 1922 that “Miss Cleveland’s record is…not only the best scholastic record that has been made in the college during the past two years, but is probably the best record of any student ever passing through the first two years of the course offered by the college.” Traditionally, the student who received the highest grade was awarded early admission to the scholastic engineering honorary, Tau Beta Pi. Yet, because of her gender, the honorary refused to pledge her. In her yearbook, Cleveland’s fellow students wrote, “When a girl takes a man’s course and does it better than the men, there isn’t much left to write about her. She is a girl that the University of Kentucky will always be proud of, and we hope there will be more in future years like her.”
Katharine Cleveland and Margaret Ingels are examples of remarkable and pioneering women students at UK. But, the large number of women who attended UK while majoring in traditionally female fields should not be forgotten. Although majors like domestic science and home economics serve technically as avenues for keeping women in a separate (i.e. inherently inferior) sphere from men, they also made it possible for more women to obtain a college education and to find a career compatible with marriage and motherhood.
In addition to standout students, in the early- to mid-twentieth century UK also had a small but strong number of female faculty. By 1912, 15 women were connected with the faculty in instruction or student management, and 20 served as clerks or other support staff. In 1914, Marguerite McLaughlin joined UK’s faculty and remained in the College of Journalism until the 1950s. One of the few female faculty at UK, McLaughlin was a role model and leader for female students for decades.
By 1931, women students, staff, and faculty had made their presence known, enough so that the student newspaper, the Kentucky Kernel, commented on the changing roles of women as students within the university. The editors mused that “today we are forced to accept a new order of things. Women are, superficially at least, distinctly no longer clinging vines. Whether we like to admit it or not, women students at the university are distinctly capable of taking care of themselves. Rules as applicable merely because of sex distinctions, therefore, are certainly questionable.”
Imagining women as independent beings, separate and distinct from their husbands and with potential for successful careers on their own was a startling new vision brought on by women's success as college students in the early 20th century.