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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Guion Griffis Johnson, May 28, 1974. Interview G-0029-3. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Challenges of being a woman in academia in the 1920s

Johnson segues from her discussion of views on race at the University of North Carolina to a discussion of the role of women. In drawing comparisons to conditions for women at a place like Mary Hardin-Baylor College or the Woman's College (UNC-Greensboro) to conditions at UNC, Johnson reveals the difficulties women faced in academia during the 1920s. As one of the fewer than one hundred women graduate students at UNC during those years, Johnson emphasizes the not-so-latent discrimination she sometimes faced.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Guion Griffis Johnson, May 28, 1974. Interview G-0029-3. 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

MARY FREDERICKSON:
Well, when you got up here, was it very different from what you had experienced . . .
GUION JOHNSON:
Yes.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
You were kind of deposited in the middle of . . .
GUION JOHNSON:
I wrote a number of letters about the tremendous differences that I found here, and I was very unhappy here, because I found that I had been in a very free situation at Baylor College for women, where the entire faculty stressed the importance of education of women, and the importance of women training themselves not only in the home (We had an excellent home economics course, which my parents required me to take, and I loathed it, I felt that I already knew all I needed to know about cooking and sewing and taking care of the house and budgeting the family money) but not only home economics, but in every phase of work open to women.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Well, certainly your work in journalism was very new when you were going into it and . . .
GUION JOHNSON:
Yes. So that I had an excellent—I felt that I was completely free and I was getting one of the top salaries, even though I was only 21 or 22. I was getting one of the top salaries on campus. And I felt that the sky was the limit.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Well, how old was the Baylor College for Women?
GUION JOHNSON:
1845. Founded in 1845.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Why was it so different? Or was the attitude at Greensboro much the same? That it was a women's college . . .
GUION JOHNSON:
I think that because it was a woman's college, and then the president of the woman's college, a native of Mississippi, Dr. John Hardy, had two daughters of his own, and he was very much in favor of the education of women and the development of the capacities of women and the citizenship roles that women should play. He had daily chapel, and we were required to attend and we were given assigned seats and there was monitoring. I resented going to chapel, but I have since realized the importance of his extemporaneous speeches on the abilities of women to achieve.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
He spoke on this?
GUION JOHNSON:
Everyday, practically everyday. (laughter)
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Well, comparing what Mrs. Parker said this past weekend about Greensboro College for Women, she said that the prevailing attitude when she was there was that "we are getting a good education and it is our duty to use it." The goal was not to marry and settle down. It was to use your education.
GUION JOHNSON:
That's right. You know the old slogan that Dr. McIver, the president of Women's College adopted . . . "Educate a man and you educate a citizen; educate woman and you educate a family. And the world." That's not the exact quotation, but it's close. So, this was his concept and I think that he, too, arose in chapel every morning and . . . I know that they had required chapel at WC as well as at Baylor College. And I'm sure that he indoctrinated the women.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Well, it's interesting that these particular men felt the way that they did, and then that at the same time, you ran up against some pretty hardy characters that felt the other way, when you came to UNC.
GUION JOHNSON:
Yes, this is true.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
It would be interesting to know, or to see, what their backgrounds were that made them so different.
GUION JOHNSON:
I think that perhaps one of the reasons was that the presidents of women's colleges felt that they did not have as prestigious positions as the president of a co-educational school, or a school for men and that they were somehow trying to justify their holding their positions, and that their concept of the education of women, and the importance of women, was more or less thrust upon them as an ego device.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
They had vested interests in their graduates holding good positions.
GUION JOHNSON:
That's right. This is the way I have decided that these men obtained their great interest in the education of women. It was, as you say, an ego investment. They must show to the president of the University at Chapel Hill that the Woman's College was just as important as the University of North Carolina and that their jobs were just as prestigious as Edward Kitter Graham is or Aldeman's job or Veneble's job.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
And then too, I guess that they were fighting for funds.
GUION JOHNSON:
Oh yes. The competition was intense and Dr. McIver wanted to develop a clientele that would go to the legislature and help him fight for funds. And Gertrude Weil was one that was constantly fighting for funds for WC.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Which is now co-educational.
GUION JOHNSON:
Yes.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
When you came to Chapel Hill and you started writing these letters home about being unhappy, what was the situation that . . .
GUION JOHNSON:
That I objected to? The resentment of the student body objected to the presence of women on campus, and the faculty did so too. There were less than a hundred women.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Were they mainly in nursing?
GUION JOHNSON:
No, there were no nursing courses at that time, here. Most of them were graduate students in English, which was a very proper subject for women to study. You know, rather than sociology, or history. Although there were more women in history than in sociology. Although I overheard, I think it was Doctor Hamilton who was talking in the hall when I was passing by, who said "No woman is competent to teach a class in history. No matter how qualified, no woman is competent to teach courses except on the public school level——elementary or high school. But in the university, no."