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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

One of my favorite furnishings in the Dasburg House — the president’s house on campus — is a collection of framed historic UF photos, including this photo of nine young women posing with a hand-lettered basketball, “U of F ’03.”

I love the women’s historic clothing and their expressions, especially the smile of the woman kneeling on the far right. But the photo has always mystified me. UF opened its doors in Gainesville in 1906, three years after the photo was taken. And, we did not become a coeducational university until 1947.

Since March is Women’s History Month, we checked with Carl Van Ness, university historian, for help unraveling the mystery. What he said renewed my appreciation for the early history of women at UF – their accomplishments and struggles.

Van Ness said the photo was taken in Lake City, where, in 1903, the Florida Agricultural College was briefly renamed the University of Florida. That same year, the university — which had been coeducational — was made an all-male institution by its Board of Trustees. Female students transferred to Florida State College, now Florida State University.

As for the photo, it was part of a collection being sold on eBay. Van Ness contacted the seller. She turned out to be the daughter of the smiling young woman on the right, whose name, he learned, was Ida Morgan. Van Ness learned that Morgan played basketball for UF in 1903, transferred to Florida State College, and then played basketball for our rival college in 1904! 

He sent a link to a very similar photo showing Morgan and her teammates with a hand-lettered basketball, “F.S.C ’04.”

Morgan left Florida State in 1905, raised a family and worked as a housemother at fraternities. She died at 84 in 1970. 

UF, for its part, moved to Gainesville in 1906 as an all-male institution. We would not have another women’s basketball team until 1973.

Morgan was one of many women whose experience helped to shape UF while it was still restricted to men, according to the 2003 book,  “Women at the University of Florida.”

The book notes that UF’s first female faculty member may have been Ida Mae Lee, an assistant professor of chemistry, in 1918. It says that, although women could not attend UF during the regular school year, they did attend summer school. Thus, Mary Alexander Daiger became UF’s first female graduate in 1920.

According to the book, when the first summer edition of the formerly named The Florida Alligator was published in 1915, half of the staff were women. Finally, a woman named S.J. Swanson was one of UF’s first employees. Her son, Robert Swanson, helped introduce “We are the Boys from Old Florida” to our school songs.

“We are the Boys from Old Florida” would be more accurate these days if the title were “We are the Women from New Florida.” Women comprise 57% of our undergraduate students, and the deans leading nine of our 16 colleges are women.

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However, there are other areas where women are still underrepresented among UF’s faculty, staff, students and university leaders.  Most obvious is that UF’s 12 presidents have all been men.

As we mark Women’s History Month, I particularly want to celebrate those women who worked at UF for many years and made a profound impact.  We recently learned of two such women who will be departing UF: Vice President for Enrollment Management Zina Evans and Head Soccer Coach Becky Burleigh.  

As we celebrate the enduring contributions of Dr. Evans and Coach Burleigh and others like them, this month we also celebrate UF’s very earliest women like Ida Morgan – even if she did play basketball for Florida State!

Kent Fuchs is the president of UF. You can find his monthly column in The Alligator.

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