It is important to acknowledge the millions of women who have worked to create change and give women’s history meaning. We’ve come a long way, but there are still issues that need to be addressed, such as equal pay and violence against women.
The lack of rights and struggles women faced took place not that long ago. Women couldn’t vote until 1920, It wasn’t until 1974 that the Equal Credit Opportunity Act came along. Before then, women had to use their husband’s names to get a credit card. It seems that the 1970s was when women’s history began to be taken seriously and in 1987, Congress declared March as National Women’s History Month.
I was trying to find out when women started attending Mississippi A&M, now Mississippi State University so I could write this story. I remembered Chester McKee telling about a few women attending, mostly locals, back in the early 1900s and they got kicked out when one of the ladies was caught with a cadet in the library and it was not until 1932 that women could attend Mississippi State.
Mrs. Pearle Powell was one of those “persistent” women who managed to graduate and is in the yearbook of 1914. The yearbook with her photo tells it like this. “Mrs. Pearle Powell: “The glory of our life below, Comes not from what we do or know. But dwells forevermore in what we are.”
She graduated in 1914 in the School of Industrial Education
Mrs. Powell has been a faithful preserving pedagogical co-ed from our Freshman year up, and although deprived of attending classes in her Senior year by action of the board of trustees debarring ladies from attending the college, by special ruling of the faculty she has been permitted to take her examinations regularly and will finish with the illustrious class of 1914.
Our pedagogues are especially proud of having the only lady member of our class in their midst, realizing full well the refining influence that a lady’s presence exercises from association. Mrs. Powell has by persistence attained the goal, and her pathway has not been devoid of special glory; in her sophomore year she had the honor of winning the Magruder medal. The very best wishes of our noble hand go out to you, Mrs. Powell, for a graciously successful future.”
Cathryn T. Goree, director of the Center for Alcohol and Drug Education and assistant professor of counselor education and educational psychology, tells is like this. “The early 1900s was a contentious time for the student body of Mississippi A&M. As early as 1908 a general strike occurred over a discipline issue that soured the presidency of John C. Hardy and ultimately led to his departure from the college in 1912.
Matters did not improve under his successor, George R. Hightower. The senior class of 1912-13 was, from the first, even more presumptuous than previous senior classes, in the view of the faculty and the administration. This group expressed the perennial gripe about the uniforms, of course. In addition, they awarded to themselves, by unanimous vote, a set of senior privileges without consulting anyone on the college staff.
Early in the fall, the college expelled 35 students on charges of misconduct on an athletic trip to Birmingham. By late fall it was clear that the students were ready for a direct confrontation with the new Hightower administration.
That confrontation occurred in November 1912, and by chance the triggering event involved a woman student. Vice President W.H. Magruder discovered a cadet visiting one of the coeds in the ladies’ study room at the library during the noon hour. The official code of conduct did not prohibit visitation between cadets and coeds, but the administration’s response indicates that commonly understood rules of propriety had been broken. The military department issued the following order on Thursday, November 7, 1912: “cadets . . . will not be allowed to visit the young ladies of the college in their study rooms at the noon hour, or periods when they are not in recitation. Neither will they be allowed to meet these young ladies in the chapel or other rooms for the purpose of social conversation or study.”
Since women students did not live on campus, this proclamation amounted to a requirement of no contact between men and women students outside of class. According to a contemporary newspaper account, the cadets were incensed at this order, viewing it as an insult to the honor of the ladies of the college.
On Friday, Nov. 8, the seniors passed a resolution calling for the president and vice president of the college to apologize to the ladies immediately. The student body as a whole stayed away from classes that day, holding meetings in the chapel and the dormitories. That same day, Friday, the day the strike began, a memorandum circulated, signed by all the women, stating that they had no objection to the order which forbade contact between cadets and coeds, and that they believed it was intended “to secure for us better opportunity for study.”
The faculty responded on Saturday by expelling 61 of the seniors for inciting the rebellion, but the students refused to leave. That night students fired shots from a dormitory room and flooded the hallways with water, ruining some of the furniture in the men’s rooms.
On Sunday, Gov. Earl Brewer arrived to mediate the crisis. He spoke with the strikers in the chapel and in the dormitories all day Sunday and into the night. In this first meeting with the students the governor adopted a conciliatory tone, reasoning with the students and pointing out the untenable nature of their position.
On Monday several key events occurred. The governor met with strikers again. This time his tone was firmer. He announced that he had secured injunctions to clear the campus of the expelled students. He called on underclassmen to use their own judgments in the matter rather than relying on loyalty to the seniors.
That same day five of the women, including the three seniors, recanted their original statement. They circulated a second statement, saying that they had signed the first memorandum without knowing “its true nature,” and indicating that they did, indeed, support the action of the student body on their behalf.
Also on Monday, the governor met with the Board of Trustees, which convened on the campus. The board voted unanimously that “Co-education at Miss. A&M College is not desirable and that any girl student withdrawing now from the college be not permitted to re-enter and that in future the entrance of girls as students be discouraged.”
On Tuesday the governor departed the campus at noon, and he spoke with the strikers one last time before he left. This time he moved from mediation to confrontation. He told the strikers that if they had been men instead of boys, he would have met them with Gatling guns and bayonets instead of speeches. This was strong condemnation for the students, since Mississippi A&M was a military college, and all male students carried military rank and responsibility.
By Tuesday, the day of the governor’s departure, the student population of the college had dwindled to 325, down from the normal 1,100 students. Clearly the strike was having a serious effect on the function of the college. But some combination of factors took most of the energy out of the strike by midweek. These factors included Governor Brewer’s intervention, the offer of President Hightower to readmit any striker who would make appropriate apologies, and the inability of strikers to secure places at other colleges (since the college would not issue transfer certificates for them).
On Wednesday, the five women who signed the second, inflammatory statement withdrew from the college in support of the strike, saying that their fathers had forced them to sign the first disclaimer. Governor Brewer countered by announcing that the college simply would not admit women in the future.
In the end, the college allowed the women and most of the male strikers to return and finish the year. All of the senior men were demoted to the military rank of private as a condition of their return. The seniors wore this dishonor proudly. They commemorated the strike and its aftermath by renaming the Reveille for that year Private ’13. The three senior women who had signed the inflammatory statement supporting the strike all received bachelor’s degrees in the spring of 1913. But the trustees stood firm in their decision not to admit women the following year.
The college struggled a bit with this policy. In an exchange of letters with the governor, President Hightower urged that an exception be made in the case of Pearl Powell, who was a junior at the time of the strike and appeared not to have participated in it. She was the wife of an employee of the college, with a young daughter to care for, and was not in the position to complete her studies at another institution. With the support of the “fathers and patrons” of the other expelled women, Hightower urged the governor and the trustees to admit Powell only. The governor responded that one exception would surely lead to others and, difficult as the individual case might be, he believed that the rule had to be enforced.
In fact, the college managed to serve the needs of the student while observing the letter of the law. To please the trustees, the college forbade Powell to attend classes. In order that she might graduate, however, the faculty voted to permit her to take examinations with her class. The Catalogue for that year lists her among the graduates, but she is omitted from the list of students. The registrar’s grade rolls show that she earned the necessary credit during 1913-1914, and her picture was carried in the 1914 Reveille. Powell is the last female student to appear in the yearbook until the Board of Trustees lifted the formal ban on coeducation in 1930