Campus News

New Book Shines Light on Women’s History at UK

black and white photo of Professor James White's calculus class in 1906-07
“Our Rightful Place: A History of Women at the University of Kentucky, 1880—1945” cover art
black and white photo of 1919 chemistry class students
black and white photo of scrapbook page with 3 presidents (Washington, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt) pictures and Frances Jewell
black and white photo of students in a circa 1940 classroom holding item representing area of study

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Aug. 27, 2020) — In 1880, 43 women walked into the president's office at the University of Kentucky and signed the student register, becoming the first female students at a public college in the Commonwealth. For them, gaining admittance was only the beginning. 

For the next 65 years  spanning two world wars, an economic depression and the ratification of the 19th Amendment  generations of women at UK claimed and reclaimed their right to an equitable university experience. In the face of shifting resistance, these pioneering women constructed opportunities for themselves and for those who followed.

Drawing on yearbooks, newspapers, photographs, oral histories and other archival collections at UK Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center, authors Terry L. Birdwhistell and Deirdre A. Scaggs examine the struggle for gender equity in higher education through the lens of one major institution in “Our Rightful Place: A History of Women at the University of Kentucky, 1880—1945. 

To help chronicle these trailblazers’ stories, the University Press of Kentucky book features 79 black and white photos from the period. “I conducted extensive photographic research on the history of women at UK. It was important to both Terry and I to include this critical visual component to further contextualize and provide a holistic picture of these early UK women,” Scaggs said.

“Our Rightful Place” highlights three women  Sarah Blanding, Frances Jewell McVey and Sarah Bennett Holmes  who fought for equal access to all areas of the university that were denied to UK women for decades. By examining the trials and triumphs of UK's first female students, faculty and staff, this book uncovers the lasting impact women had on higher learning during the first seven decades of coeducation in Kentucky.

“The story of women and their roles in the history and development of UK needed to be told,” Birdwhistell said. “Their courage and persistence laid the foundation for later generations of students, staff and faculty who continued to push for equality.”

Terry L. Birdwhistell is senior oral historian and founding director of the UK Libraries Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History. He previously served as the dean of UK Libraries. He is the editor of “Engineering Corporate Success: A Memoir” by James F. Hardymon and co-general editor of “Kentucky Remembered, An Oral History Series” for University Press of Kentucky. 

Deirdre A. Scaggs is associate dean of the UK Libraries Special Collections Research Center. She also serves as director of the Wendell H. Ford Public Policy Research Center. She is author of “Women in Lexington” and co-author of “The Historic Kentucky Kitchen: Traditional Recipes for Today's Cook.”

The Special Collections Research Center at UK Libraries sustains the Commonwealth's memory and serves as the essential bridge between past, present and future. By preserving materials documenting the social, cultural, economic and political history of Kentucky, the center provides rich opportunities for students to expand their worldview and enhance their critical thinking skills. Special Collections Research Center materials are used by scholars worldwide to advance original research and pioneer creative approaches to scholarship. UK Libraries Special Collections Research Center comprises the Archives, the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, the King Library Press, the Wendell H. Ford Public Policy Research Center, the Bert T. Combs Appalachian Collection, the John G. Heyburn Initiative and ExploreUK.

The University Press of Kentucky is the scholarly publisher for the Commonwealth of Kentucky, representing a consortium that includes all of the state universities, five private colleges and two historical societies. The press’ editorial program focuses on the humanities and the social sciences. Offices for the administrative, editorial, production and marketing departments of the press are found at the University of Kentucky, which provides financial support toward operating and publishing expenses. ​

The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion three years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for" three years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers."  We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for four straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.