The first women to graduate from Virginia Tech -- in 1925. From left to right: Mary Ella Carr Brumfield, Ruth Terrett, Lucy Lee Lancaster, Lousie Jacobs, Carrie Taylor Sibold. Courtesy of Virginia Tech.
The first women to graduate from Virginia Tech -- in 1925. From left to right: Mary Ella Carr Brumfield, Ruth Terrett, Lucy Lee Lancaster, Lousie Jacobs, Carrie Taylor Sibold. Courtesy of Virginia Tech.

More on Virginia Tech’s Final Four appearance: The legal stage for Title IX was set by a congressman from Virginia, in a most unlikely way.

The men at Virginia Tech were not happy.

In the fall of 1921, they were confronted with something they’d never seen before: female students enrolled full-time on campus. There were 12 of them — five full-time, seven part-time — but that was 12 more than many male students in Blacksburg wanted. Five years before, Virginia Tech had started allowing women to attend classes for no credit, or enroll in summer school, but that was different. Now women were being enrolled on the same basis as men and that was too much for many of the male students. One of them penned a poem in the yearbook: “The Co-Ed is here /  She belongs all alone in a class of her own / At VPI she has caused a wretched condition / We only have ten, but curses, what a collection I’m peeved and I’m mad, I favor Co-ed extradition, The sooner the better, / Or we shall let her murder our very tradition.” (I can’t account for the difference between 12 and 10.)

Petty doggerel was the least of the indignities those first women at Virginia Tech faced. The women weren’t allowed in Tech’s clubs. They weren’t allowed on the quad, either. Or in the bookstore — the women’s fathers had to buy their books because women weren’t allowed inside.

When the women walked past the male dorms, it “seemed like the boys always needed fresh air as we came by,” one of Tech’s first female students later wrote, because they would open their windows — and pour water on the passing women.

One of those women was Ruth Louise Terrett and she was not amused. “Terry,” as she was apparently known, was not the sort to back down. “When Ruth ‘Terry’ Terrett comes out on the floor prepared for action — oh Zowie!” reads her entry in an unofficial yearbook from that era. So when the men in the dorm rooms dumped one water bucket too many, she saw only one response: She donned a cadet uniform and scaled the water tower, the school’s traditional test of manhood.

The school had opened enrollment to women expecting them to study home economics. Or maybe horticulture. You know, proper ladylike things. None of those first women on campus enrolled in those subjects, though. Instead, they majored in applied biology. And applied chemistry. And one — the aforementioned Ruth Louise Terrett — studied civil engineering, which apparently no administrator had foreseen. Simply by showing up for class, those first five full-time students — Mary Ella Carr Brumfield, Billie Kent Kabrich, Lucy Lee Lancaster, Carrie Taylor Sibold and Terrett — had already defied expectations.

Terrett wasn’t done, either. In 1923, she “stirred up enthusiasm for basketball.”

Or maybe the men had inadvertently done so with all their water dumping. “We became exceedingly alert and quick movers,” one female student at the time later said, according to a Virginia Tech history. “In fact, we became so efficient in dodging water that we decided to extend our athletic ability even further, and as a consequence of this we had a basketball team.”

It wasn’t even an official club sport but those first women at Virginia Tech had learned that if they wanted to do something, they needed to do it themselves. When the yearbook staff refused to admit women, they started their own, the first two editions hand-typed and glued together, the second two professionally printed. The official yearbook was The Bugle. The women called theirs The Tin Horn.

This first women’s basketball team at Tech called itself the Sextettes. Terrett was their captain. They played five games, two against Blacksburg High School and one game apiece against squads from then-Radford College, Concord Teacher’s College and the YWCA in Roanoke. They finished 3-2. At some point, it became popular for the male students at Virginia Tech to show up — and root for the other team. The women’s response: They raised the admission price.

In 1925, Terrett graduated — Virginia Tech’s first female graduate in civil engineering. “Most of us had trouble with physics,” one of her classmates later remarked. “But it seemed to come easy for Ruth.” Terrett went on to work for an architectural firm in Washington, D.C. Life moves on. She married, becoming Ruth Terrett Earle, left the workforce to raise a family, then returned to work for the Chesapeake Bay Institute in Annapolis, Maryland. In 1950, there were enough women in engineering that the Society of Women Engineers was formed. Ruth Terrett Earle became one of its members.

She also took up a hobby: breeding and showing dachshunds up and down the East Coast. When she died in 1995 at age 91, her passing merited a story in the Baltimore Sun, which referred to her as “a civil engineer, breeder of champion dogs, and one of Virginia Tech’s first women students.”

My favorite passage:

Unlike other owners who hired expert handlers for her dogs, Mrs. Earle insisted on leading canines, such as her champion “Earle’s Cruiser,” around show-rings that included the famed Westminster Dog Show in New York herself. Competitors remember her as an imposing presence — into her 80s — in suits and fancy hats.

“She always had on a spiffy outfit, and a ‘go-to-hell’ hat,” recalled Dorothy E. Ritter, a Baltimore dog breeder who had known Mrs. Earle since the early ’60s.

Tonight, a full century after Ruth Terrett organized a pickup team of Virginia Tech’s first female students, an official women’s team representing Virginia Tech will take the court in Dallas in something that would have been impossible to imagine back then: the Final Four of a national championship tournament, one where people have paid hundreds, even thousands, of dollars, for a seat. And this time the men at Virginia Tech, and lots of other places, will be rooting for them.

I like to think that somewhere Ruth Terrett is looking down from some celestial water tower, cheering on the Virginia Tech women who have followed in her footsteps — and, of course, wearing that go-to-hell hat.

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.