Spotlight: Thurston Hall breaks the gender barrier

In 1869, almost 50 years after the founding of GW, then known as Columbian College, Belva Ann Bennett Lockwood became the first woman to officially express a desire to study at GW. University officials turned down her application to the law school, saying that there was no public want for female lawyers, and therefore no need for women law students, according to University archives. Fifteen years later four women applied for the right to attend lectures at the medical school. They were granted permission to enroll as students, and in 1887 Clara Bliss Hinds became the first woman to receive a graduate degree from GW.

The success of Hinds and her peers helped pave the way for Mabel Nelson Thurston, who was permitted to enroll in the University as an undergraduate in 1888. She was GW’s first female undergraduate student.

Thurston’s college experience was vastly different than that of her male counterparts. Because GW did not allow her to attend classes, Thurston had to see professors individually for her assignments. But this did not discourage her . Thurston’s success precipitated GW’s decision to admit 11 other women as undergraduates in 1889, opening the door for more to follow.

Thurston’s father was a civil engineering professor at Cornell University and her mother wrote children’s books. According to GW archives, Thurston was brought up in a scholarly family and viewed the opportunity of attending GW as an chance to further her education.

After graduating Thurston wrote for magazines and eventually became the first woman to serve as an associate editor for the national magazine Youth’s Companion. She returned to GW in 1891 for a master’s degree in Greek literature. Thurston died in 1965 at the age of 95.

Just a few years after Thurston’s death, the University named a residence hall after her that would forever keep her name alive in the GW community.

Thurston Hall – a coed freshman residence hall at 19th and F streets – originally housed only female students when it opened as the New Residence Hall for Women in 1964, changing the university experience for many women on campus.

GW borrowed about $5 million from the Housing and Home Finance Agency’s college housing loan program to pay for the purchase price and renovation costs of the property, which was previously called Park Central Apartments. The building, built in 1930, was the largest dormitory in the city.

Prior to the purchase, female students resided in Madison and Crawford halls, and female transfer students were required to live at McLean Gardens, an apartment complex at Wisconsin Avenue and 39th Street. The distance between McLean Gardens and GW’s campus annoyed many women who had to rely on a shuttle to take them to and from Foggy Bottom. Dr. John Anthony Brown, then Vice President of Plans and Resources, said the University purchased Park Central because it hoped to have everyone on campus, according to University archives.

“Opening the New Residence Hall for Women changed the life of those transfers who had had to live in McLean Gardens,” said Ann E. Webster, who served as GW’s director of Housing and Residential Life from 1972 to 1991.

When the residence hall opened in the fall of 1964, 400 freshmen, 250 transfer students and 350 returning students lived there, and the remaining 100 women entered Strong Hall. Room rates for the NRHW that year cost $450, while male rooms in other halls ranged from $320-$400. According to University archives, former GW Vice President Henry W. Herzog said the price discrepancy was based strictly on the University’s experience in operating the residence halls, and that the higher rates for the new residence hall were set to cover the costs of operating the residence hall and to pay off the debt service bonds.

The purchase and opening of the building introduced a new problem to the University. GW was unable to fill all of the residence hall’s 1,029 beds without establishing new housing rules for women that would force them into the building.

“All of them had to live on campus or at home with relatives, unless they were over 21,” Webster said. “There was no such rule for male undergraduates.”

Webster said GW’s reason for implementing this rule was simple.

“GW was a commuter school for years with very few students living in residence halls,” she said. “When we acquired Thurston we had the age rule because we needed the building to pay for itself. Of course there were social and cultural reasons, but mainly we needed to fill the building.”

In 1966 GW began to ease its housing regulations for women, allowing seniors to live off campus and juniors to move off with parental consent.

“The female rule was ameliorated and eventually abandoned completely,” Webster said. “But not until middle `70s, when we knew we could fill the halls and didn’t need residency rules to keep the halls filled.”

There was not a great awareness of Mabel Thurston and her legacy at GW before the residence hall was named after her. However, a group of students living in the NRHW were aware of Thurston’s accomplishments and decided she would be the perfect namesake for the building. A committee was designated by the University in 1967 to supply names for buildings which were either unnamed or had undesirable names.

“At the time there were several buildings named after numbers or letters, such as Building C for example,” Webster said. “The hall council at the New Residence Hall for Women came up with the idea of naming the dormitory after Mabel Nelson Thurston. The committee accepted their recommendation and sent it along to the board of trustees. Other names were suggested but this name was just perfect for it since it was an all women’s hall.”

Thurston became coed in the fall of 1972, along with Mitchell, Madison and Crawford halls. The decision was made after the University sent out questionnaires to parents and students to find out how they felt about coed living.

“We got back about 50 percent saying that it sounded great and about 50 percent saying that they didn’t care for the idea, but there was not emotion on either side,” Webster said.

In general, students were slightly more receptive to the idea than parents were. By early `70’s the sexual revolution was well underway and the majority of GW’s students thought it was only natural to become coed, Webster said.

Women who objected to coed living – including a number of international women whose families or religious practices did not allow them to live with men received a room in Strong.

Thurston Hall has seen many changes in its 36 years as a residence hall. When the building first opened, men were not allowed anywhere in the building other than the hall lobby. Now the residence hall not only allows males beyond the lobby, it houses them, too. But some things never change.

“When it came to signing people in and out, they cheated then, too,” Webster said.

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