Shaping Davidson: The College Celebrates 50+ Years of Women Students

Celebrating 50+ Years of Women at Davidson Photo of women in 1972-72

They shattered the glass ceiling and paved the way for others. 

In 1973, following the unanimous Board of Trustees vote to admit women as full-time students, the first official co-ed class arrived on campus. Their experiences during the early years of coeducation, full of challenges and rewards, hardships and growth, transformed the following decades at Davidson.

Over the past 50 years, women have served as leaders across campus, pioneers into the unknown, champions of change and advocates for a better future. Their stories reflect the ever-evolving Davidson community and forge a path for generations to come.

Tracy Charles Shenkman ’74

Tracy Charles Shenkman ’74 attended all-girls schools—four years of high school on the East Coast and two years at Wheaton College—before transferring to Davidson when the college expanded admission to women. The move brought not only a richer social life, but unexpected opportunities.

One day, a group of young men knocked on the door of the Main Street house where she and a handful of female students lived and asked if they were interested in joining the sailing team. Shenkman agreed to give it a try.

“My family had always been beach and water-oriented, so I was interested,” she says. “I remember setting down my needlepoint and joining the team.”

She quickly discovered a new passion. She was good. Very good. And she loved it. She sailed for two years as a Wildcat, becoming the first woman at Davidson College to letter in a varsity sport.

Shenkman went on to work for IBM in various roles, helping companies develop office systems.

“Davidson taught me how to be a student and how to learn,” she says. “I never would have imagined as a younger person that I would wind up working in the tech community. If I hadn’t gone to Davidson, I never would have taken myself seriously enough to jump into something like that and say ‘you know what, I can do this.’”

Read More

Return to Top

Sue McAvoy ’77

Sue McAvoy ’77 was part of the first class of women to attend Davidson all four years—the Pioneers. Today, she views Davidson as the beginning of her real life, the place where she blossomed and connected with like-minded and like-hearted people.

McAvoy was one of about 80 women on campus at the time. There were 1,000 men.

“I was all-in for Davidson from the start,” she says, “and it wasn’t until many years later that I learned it wasn’t all roses, sweetness and light for every female student at that time. We each had a different experience, and I am happy to say mine was a good one.”

A highlight for McAvoy, outside of academics, was the start of the women’s tennis program. With the full support of President Sam Spencer ’40 and their two student coaches, the team wrote to nearby schools asking to play them. Their second year, the college hired a coach for the team.

“We didn’t think about it as being on the forefront of anything,” she says. “We liked playing tennis and we liked each other, so we pursued it.”

McAvoy and many of her fellow Class of 1977 Pioneers have reconnected during a reunion at the beach every year since 2005. Her latest gift, the Pioneer Internship Fund, honors their experience while supporting students as they find their own “real life” beginnings.

Read More

Return to Top

Ginny Newell ’78

Ginny Newell ’78 has enjoyed a career as one of the few conservators in the Southeast specializing in restoring fine art on paper, a skill that requires years of intensive scientific training. She was among the first few classes of women to attend Davidson, where her love of chemistry and art started her on a unique professional journey.

She arrived on campus in 1974, and while Davidson had officially admitted women students the year prior, only about 70 women lived on campus. Most lived together in the women’s dorm, but Newell and her roommate were instead placed in President Sam Spencer’s garage apartment, isolated from the rest of the group.

In hindsight, Newell says her loneliness drove her to invest more time in art. She’d originally planned to become a doctor but fell in love with art history after hearing a humanities lecture by Professor Larry Ligo.

“He taught me that paintings can be read,” she says, “and then he taught me how to read them.”

To her surprise and delight, some of her strongest connections to Davidson developed after graduation, when a group of women in her class invited her on a girls’ trip to the mountains. They’ve remained friends ever since.

Newell plans to move back to Davidson after stepping down from a 40-plus-year career of conservation work.

Read More

Return to Top

Olivia Ware ’78

Olivia Ware ’78 arrived on Davidson’s campus as a first-generation college student in 1974 and made Davidson her home, enrolling in the two-year humanities program, joining an eating house, becoming a hall counselor and serving as vice president of the college union.

“I wanted to have that classical education I felt people who went to college got, not having family or friends who really had gone that path before,” she says. “I grew up in a small town in the mountains of North Georgia that was predominantly white. I went to a segregated school until fifth grade and then to an integrated school after that, so being in the minority was not new to me. As you get older, though, you want to be surrounded by more people like yourself, so of course that was harder to find on campus at the time.”

Following Davidson, Ware started her career, earned an MBA and moved around a bit, and her ties to Davidson loosened with each passing year. It wasn’t until President Carol Quillen arrived that Ware started paying close attention to what was happening on campus. That interest has led to deep involvement, including positions on the Alumni Association Board and the Board of Visitors.

“I think as alums, we hold onto an image of Davidson that is set in the time we were there, so it quickly becomes dated,” she says. “By getting involved and volunteering, you really see all the ways it is growing, advancing, evolving. College campuses are the future of our world, and I find students today to be smart, passionate and driven, and they have a global focus. This generation is incredibly inspiring.”

Read More

Return to Top

Janet Ward Black ’82

Janet Ward Black ’82, a Kannapolis, North Carolina, native, was the first woman from Cabarrus County admitted to Davidson College.

Today, Black lives in Greensboro and runs one of the largest woman-owned law firms in the state. Ward Black Law represents people across North Carolina who are injured at work, in accidents and by dangerous products and environmental hazards.

In her junior year, Black decided to enter the Miss Charlotte-Mecklenburg beauty pageant. She won. That win took her to the Miss North Carolina stage the following summer. She won again. And that win took her to Miss America, where she won a grand talent award.

Serving as Miss North Carolina 1980 meant Black left Davidson to fulfill the duties of the title, returning a year later to complete her senior year and graduate with the Class of 1982. She attended Duke University for law school and landed her first job with the Cabarrus/Rowan District Attorney’s Office. She was the first woman to become an assistant DA in the office—“the girl lawyer,” as she was often called.

Being one of few women on the scene wasn’t new for Black. She heard comments about some faculty members feeling less than enthusiastic about coeducation. Regardless, she said she was treated with the same respect and care as her male classmates. The courtroom, however, didn’t feel like a level playing field.

“There were judges who weren’t used to women trial lawyers and definitely not ones representing the government in criminal cases,” she recalls. “I had to outwork the men and be supremely prepared to make sure they did not treat me, the beauty queen, any differently.”

Read More

Return to Top

Beadsie Woo ’86

When Beadsie Woo ’86 arrived at Davidson College, women made up roughly one third of the student body, and she could count the number of Asian students on her fingers. Despite their minority status, women were stepping into leadership roles across campus, determined to effect change.

Woo decided to run for freshman class representative and, a few years later, became Davidson’s first woman and first Asian-American SGA president.

During her college years, women also held leadership roles on the Honor Council, the Patterson Court Leadership Council, The Davidsonian and Quips and Cranks. Although they made up a fraction of the student body, Davidson women racked up accomplishments.

“Coeducation had been around for more than a decade at that point, and there was a lot of momentum,” says Woo. “As women, we were able to assert ourselves as leaders and really influence what was happening on campus.”

An economics major with a passion for justice and leadership, Woo went on to earn a doctorate in economics at UNC-Chapel Hill. Today, she works as the director of family and youth financial stability at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which builds brighter futures for the nation’s children and youth.

Read More

Return to Top

Anissa Patton ’91

"There were fewer than 15 Black women on campus when I was a student,” says Anissa Patton ’91, an attorney specializing in child welfare in the Atlanta area. “I had no idea there were Black women engineers. I had never seen a Black woman judge. In a lot of ways, I was like a rudderless boat as a student, and I think about what could have been different with the right network.”

After graduation, Patton joined Teach for America, later deciding to pursue a career in law. She now represents those who need her most—vulnerable children in the foster care system who have been through some of the most difficult situations imaginable.

Patton was the first Black woman alum to receive the John W. Kuykendall Award for Community Service. She accepted the award at her 30th Davidson reunion in 2021.

Through Davidson’s Msaada Mentorship Program, designed to pair Black women alums with students who identify as the same, Patton has connected with Bernice Saladin ’24, who shares her passion for justice and interest in law.

“There are great resources on campus, and Anissa is another connection I can lean on,” Saladin says. “She’s someone who looks like me and has been in my same position. Representation is important, and I’m grateful alums give back to Davidson in a way that supports students so directly.”

Read More

Return to Top

Hon. J. Machelle Sweeting ’93

J. Machelle Sweeting ’93 finished college a semester ahead of schedule and considered forgoing her spring commencement. Friends from the college’s Black Student Coalition (BSC) were among the many urging her to attend.

They reminded her that her degree was as important to her as it was to those watching her cross the stage. The milestone would inspire the sea of fellow students, community members and relatives who were watching.

Sweeting, now a New York State Supreme Court Justice, cherishes her college memories.

“Davidson was a diamond-cutting experience for me,” Sweeting says. “When I visited campus, it was an instant love affair—the trees, the academic standards, the culture. But it was a challenge. There was one beauty salon in town, and it didn’t carry products for African American hair, for example. I became the courier of culture, in a way, bringing things back to campus from Harlem, where I grew up.”

Sweeting became the BSC president her junior year. She appreciated how the organization, like the scales of justice, worked toward balance—a balance of academic excellence and activism.

“Your ability to engage, persuade and articulate—that’s your greatest weapon,” she says. “It was great to be a part of something bigger than myself.”

Read More

Return to Top

The 1969 Coeducation Commission

In the late 1960s, President Sam Spencer ’40 selected three students, three faculty members and three Trustees to form the Commission on Coeducation, a group charged with taking coeducation “out of the realm of vague speculation” and into the realm of concrete possibility.

The three student members of the commission, Mac Davis ’70, Pat Bray ’70 and Student Body President Joe Murphy ’69, reflected on the years leading up to the Board of Trustees’ unanimous vote to admit women as full degree-seeking candidates in 1972.

“By not admitting women, we knew we were keeping talent out of our school,” Murphy says. “Some people feared that it would change the culture, that men would have to act differently or that they would be distracted from their studies. To us, it was obvious that we stood to gain a lot by going co-ed.”

The commission concluded that Davidson was missing out on some of the brightest and most talented potential students: Women. While its three student members graduated before they could watch coeducation take effect, they knew they had helped change Davidson for the better.

“All of my classmates will say they chose Davidson because they were attracted to the academic rigor, because they wanted to get a 
good education,” Bray says. “There was no way to keep attracting incredible students without attracting women.”

This article was published in the Fall/Winter 2023 print issue of the Davidson Journal Magazine; for more, please see the Davidson Journal section of our website.