Documenting women’s footprint in Virginia Tech history
History can be hard to find. Kira Dietz and Anna LoMascolo are on a mission to share the history and untold stories of women of Virginia Tech’s past. After thumbing through thousands of old campus photos, yellow-aged handwritten letters, class notes, and other rarities, the duo presents an interactive virtual timeline on the History of Women at Virginia Tech.
This timeline includes extraordinary women who were firsts in their era, held compelling roles, and made significant impacts on campus. Visitors will tour through the fascinating records left behind by historical women and learn about their major milestones. This year’s Women’s Month theme in March is 100 Years of Women at Virginia Tech, elevating the 100th anniversary of the admission of women as students to the university and aligning with the university’s sesquicentennial.
Leading the project are Dietz, University Libraries’ assistant director of special collections and university archives, and LoMascolo, co-director of programming for Women’s Center at Virginia Tech. However, the team said the impetus and energy behind the launch of the project was Patricia Hyer, associate provost emerita at Virginia Tech who was originally inspired by the Virginia Tech LGBTQ+ Digital History and Timeline.
“Pat is a walking encyclopedia of Virginia Tech women’s history and is herself such a significant figure in that history,” said LoMascolo. “She gave us a lot of direction and inspiration in the early months of the project.”
In the beginning stages of the project, Clara Cox, Linda Plaut, Faith Skiles, and Jessie Meltsner came together to share stories, brainstorm ideas, and start putting pen to paper.
The History of Women at Virginia Tech website is a digital effort to share the history of the roles that women, including students, staff, faculty, and administrators, have played on campus even before women were first admitted as full-time students in 1921. The site includes scanned documents and images, oral histories, and university publications.
“Women are central to Virginia Tech’s story and at the core of our success, growth, and impact as an institution of higher education,” said LoMascolo. “Unfortunately, women have historically been excluded from the telling of that story.”
Much of history glosses over the roles of women outside the home. For example, women did not appear as members of their class in The Bugle yearbook until 1947, 26 years after women were first admitted as full-time Virginia Tech students. “Our earliest women students created their own handmade yearbook, leaving their mark so that history would know they were here, who they were, and what they had faced, overcome, and accomplished,” said LoMascolo. “In a wonderful play on words, they titled their yearbook, The Tin Horn.”
While white women were the first to be admitted as full-time students in 1921, it is important to note that women were students on campus in part-time and special student circumstances as early as 1916. International women students were on campus as early as the mid-1930s and it would take until 1966, with the admission of the first Black women students, for women of all races to be part of the student body.
Virginia Tech is rich with history and many more stories of historically influential women in its history can be found in the timeline including Carmen Venegas, believed to be the first Latina student to graduate from the now-called College of Engineering and the first woman overall to receive a degree in electrical engineering.
“There are scores of these examples and all moments of transformation in Virginia Tech’s history,” said LoMascolo. “I find these historical moments fascinating, motivating, and important, and I’m proud to be a very small part of the same history as these trailblazing women.”
The timeline also includes some full stories told by the women themselves, like in the collection of Black Women at VT Oral Histories, inspired decades ago by then doctoral student Elaine Carter and launched by Carter and Tamara Kennelly, associate professor emerita of University Libraries. Recorded are the oral histories of many of Virginia Tech’s first and early Black women students who shared their stories and reflected on their challenges and triumphs in the 1960s and 1970s.
LoMascolo feels a special connection to this project as she and her family are tied to Virginia Tech’s history. “I am the great-granddaughter of Angelo LoMascolo, a Sicilian immigrant who was Virginia Tech’s original tailor,” explained LoMascolo. “My familial roots with Virginia Tech run deep.”
Some may remember three small white houses that dotted Stanger Street: Smith House, Price House, and LoMascolo House, named for LoMascolo’s grandfather. “I spent a good bit of time in LoMascolo House as a child and watched it be torn down when I was in middle school. Fast forward to 2004 when I was hired to work at the Women’s Center, located in Price House, I felt like I’d come full circle in ways.”
Later that year, LoMascolo watched Price House be torn down and then all of those small houses were gone. “Mine and my family’s past at Virginia Tech inspires my interest in the history of this university,” said LoMascolo. “I am captivated with women’s history at Virginia Tech and feel a deep sense of pride to share the history of trailblazers like Ruth Terrett, Linda Adams, Cheryl Butler, Lucy Lee Lancaster, Pat Hyer, and so many others.”
“Beginning to share this history has shown us how much we still have to learn, explore, and hopefully, fill in,” said Dietz. “This project will always be a work in progress and we will continue to grow, develop, and add new items to the digital collection and timeline as we locate more materials.”
Women’s history at Virginia Tech is continually evolving as the team has opportunities to explore more historical materials. “There are many more places to look on campus that might reveal more of this story,” said Dietz. “There are parts of this history we haven’t uncovered or been able to share yet, as well as information we may not have access to.”
There are ongoing active efforts to document more about women’s history from faculty, staff, and alumni on and off campus. The team welcomes any information about women’s history at Virginia Tech and invites anyone who is interested in making a historical donation to this collection by contacting Kira Dietz at firstname.lastname@example.org. These uncovered stories can help improve the process of documenting history.
“I cannot imagine this project will ever be finished or complete,” said LoMascolo. “It is a passion project and we will continue to build upon it as long as we are here. Our hearts are in it.”