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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Gladys Avery Tillett, March 20, 1974. Interview G-0061. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The Women's College and its support of the women's movement and suffrage

Tillett describes her experiences attending the Women's College of the University of North Carolina in Greensboro during the 1910s. Tillett emphasizes the importance of strong role models and adept teachers, in particular describing her mentor Dr. Harriet Elliott. Tillett recalls that many of the teachers were involved in the women's movement and that both the faculty and students were generally supportive of the suffrage movement. In describing this, she offers an anecdote that reveals the exacerbation the female students felt with patronizing state legislators who would come to campus in order to discuss the "proper place of women."

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Gladys Avery Tillett, March 20, 1974. Interview G-0061. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JACQUELYN HALL:
What did you plan to do? What were you studying?
GLADYS AVERY TILLETT:
History was my major. I was always interested in history and political science. I was interested as well in Sociology and Philosophy. My Philosophy teacher at Chapel Hill was Professor Horace Williams. It was said of him that he taught his students to think for themselves. I had a marvelous teacher in political science at Women's College.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Who was that?
GLADYS AVERY TILLETT:
Harriet Elliott. Dr. Harriet Elliott. She was a close friend and an outstanding teacher who made an impact on all her students. She had a dynamic personality—got her Master's Degree from Columbia University in New York. There she met national suffrage leaders. She was deeply interested in political rights for women and, just as importantly, political participation. I was always very close to her through life. She was always so interested in everything I did in public life and in political life; she kept in touch, encouraging me to give leadership.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Was she actively involved in the suffrage movement?
GLADYS AVERY TILLETT:
Oh, yes. She was a friend of the leaders of it. And she brought that spirit of interest in suffrage to her classes. It was as progressive as any college in the country on suffrage. Dr. Jackson, my history teacher, was another progressive thinker. I think he and Dr. Elliott were two of the very able teachers at Women's College and in North Carolina. As I look back, there were others, in many departments. Several of the faculty were Quakers—my Chemistry and Math teachers, and the College Librarian, Miss Annie Petty, who was also the first trained librarian in North Carolina. Dr. W.C. Jackson later became President of Women's College, and Dr. Elliott will be in the Biographical Dictionary coming out this year by Dr. Powell in the UNC Library. Both Jackson and Elliot gave their students a broad outlook. For example, in one of her courses, I was given the task of writing a paper. The two professors discussed it and the topic which I was to develop myself—a report based on visits to the schools for the blacks in Greensboro and Guilford Counties. You see, this catapulted a student into the future and what the problems, politically speaking, would be. And I saw, of course, in the black schools the need for improvement. I hope sometime I'll run across some of my mother's things and that paper I submitted. I would like to see what I said at that time. [Laughter]
JACQUELYN HALL:
Was it in college that you were exposed to the ideas of the women's rights movement for the first time?
GLADYS AVERY TILLETT:
The ideas weren't new. Both my parents were great book and newspaper readers; many people in public life were friends; I was accustomed to discussion of public issues. So there was certainly nothing very shocking about it; it had been a part of my life and understanding. I had not been reared to think anything other than what I was learning in college in courses from Elliott and Jackson.
JACQUELYN HALL:
So when you went home and talked about the things you were learning in your classes your parents were very sympathetic …
GLADYS AVERY TILLETT:
Nobody was shocked. They were interested in my own interest in public issues and history. Since Women's College was a state college and the only state college for women at that time, legislators and governors, etc. often visited. I'm sure they were encouraged by the President of the college to come because they decided on the appropriations of course. So frequently we had them. And some of them who came seemed very old-fashioned from our youthful viewpoint. And I think that made us much more interested and rebellious when they would come and, as they said, "look into your beautiful faces."
JACQUELYN HALL:
And make speeches about the proper place of women.
GLADYS AVERY TILLETT:
Yes, and always with the full understanding you could see in their words and expression that we were not interested. You can imagine that that aroused in the group some resentment. I remember one came and he was so vigorous in his protest against women voting that when he left we just had a parade on campus. I don't think he's still living. We just burned him in effigy. [Laughter] . We had a little thing up on the …
JACQUELYN HALL:
When was this?
GLADYS AVERY TILLETT:
I don't know exactly the year right now. But it was before 1917, of course. There was quite an interest in voting among the students.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Among your schoolmates, most of your friends were sympathetic towards the suffrage movement …
GLADYS AVERY TILLETT:
Oh, yes. You see, we'd had exceptional teaching. I don't know whether there were very many other colleges in the South that had a faculty with as broad an outlook. We had a political science teacher, young and from Columbia University and fresh from acquaintance with people who were members of the women's movement. We also had a woman college physician, Dr. Anna Gove. When she came south to Greensboro there were only three or more women physicians in the country at girls' colleges. We were told that the wife of the President of Women's College, Mrs. McIver, had been eager to study medicine. Dr. Cora Strong, Mathematics teacher, gives credit to Mrs. McIver for the fact that the then State Normal was one of several women's colleges that had a woman physician at that time. (Vassar also had one, and a few others in the whole country).