The first women on the campus of William & Mary were enslaved women, who cooked and cleaned for the faculty and students during the late 18th and early 19th Century. Women have always been a part of campus life.
On February 6, 1896, the Faculty of the university approved a resolution "that ladies of town and College be permitted, at Dr. Hall's discretion, to attend his lectures on Shakespeare."
However, on October 2, 1896, when Minnie G. Braithwaite petitioned the faculty to allow her to attend chemistry lectures, the faculty voted 4-3 to deny her request. It was not yet time to admit women students, who had other options – elite women's colleges, "normal schools" for teacher education, and public and private co-educational colleges elsewhere in the United States.
Still, competent women kept knocking on the door. The first woman administrator at the university was the Librarian, Blanche Trevilian Moncure, who served as Librarian from 1899-1902.
In February, 1918, the Virginia General Assembly authorized William & Mary to admit women students, effective in the fall of 1918. This initiative was driven by two powerful advocates: President of the university Lyon G. Tyler and Richmond resident Mary-Cooke Branch Munford.
President Tyler saw the university's resources dwindling. Men students had gone off to war – or to work in nearby munitions plants. Total enrollment in the fall of 1917 was fewer than 150 students. William & Mary was deeply in debt and the General Assembly was not inclined to offer a financial bailout.
Mrs. Munford had tried for years to create a "coordinate" college for women at the University of Virginia. UVA's alumni vigorously resisted that proposal and Mrs. Munford saw an opportunity to create a co-educational public university in Williamsburg, instead.
In the fall of 1918, the first women students enrolled at William & Mary. These 24 women were assigned to live in the newly-constructed Tyler Hall (now the Reves Center), located as far as possible from the mens' dorms. Excluded from men's activities, they created leadership organizations and sports teams for women. They excelled academically. Soon, women represented a majority of the students at William & Mary, a trend that continues today.
Given the times and the place, the 24 women students admitted to William & Mary in 1918 all were white. The first Asian American woman was not admitted until 1937. The first African American women were not admitted as undergraduate students until 1967, an event commemorated in 2017-18, the 50th Anniversary of African American Students in Residence.