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Class of 1912: Women at Vanderbilt: Stella Scott Vaughn

Case Study: Stella Scott Vaughn: A Vanderbilt Pioneer

Stella Scott Vaughn

Image Courtesy of Vanderbilt University Special Collections & University Archives

Stella Scott Vaughn was a trail blazer for equal educational opportunities for women. Born 4 November 1871, Miss Stella (as she was affectionately known) came to live on the Vanderbilt campus with her family at the age of ten and remained unfailingly loyal to, although sometimes critical of, the institution for the rest of her life. She received her early schooling with the other faculty children in a one-room school on the edge of campus.

Entering Vanderbilt as a freshman in 1892, Stella Vaughn was one of ten women students in the Academic Department. Beginning with the 1892/93 year, women were "admitted by courtesy" to the classes offered by the Academic Department. Although the women who were enrolled during this period were not allowed to matriculate, they could complete any of the degree programs offered, and were subject to the same rules as their male counterparts.

During Miss Stella's days as a student at Vanderbilt, important changes regarding the status of women were underway. In 1894, the faculty voted 7 to 6 to allow women to compete for University prizes and awards. In 1895, a new record was set when three women graduated in one year. The year following Miss Stella's graduation, the faculty voted to allow women the opportunity for formal matriculation. The women did not, however, have access to dormitories and lived in University-approved boarding houses near the campus.

After her graduation in 1896, Miss Stella remained on the campus as the women's physical education instructor, becoming Vanderbilt's first female instructor.

In the fall of 1896, Stella Vaughn organized Vanderbilt's first women's basketball team and served as team captain. Samuel Anderson Weakley wrote an account of the women's first game 13 March 1897 against the Ward's Seminary women's team. "The Vanderbilt team won by a score of 5 to 0. The game had gone 0 to 0 until just before the end, when Stella Vaughn threw a long pass to Elizabeth Buttorff near her goal and she in turn made a desperation throw at the goal." Weakley goes on to state that Stella Vaughn should be "queen to reign hence forth" as Vanderbilt's "Miss Basketball."

Although male students were not allowed in the gym to watch the game (doors and windows were blocked), a Hustler reporter admitted to having hidden in the gym before the game. "The agility of some of them was really surprising," wrote the Hustler spy, "as they got around after the ball in a manner that would put some of our gym graduates to shame."

Stella Vaughn served as the women's physical education instructor and basketball coach without pay for nine years. In 1905, Chancellor Kirkland proposed that Miss Stella receive an annual salary of $100. Eight years later , the Board of Trust voted to increase her salary to $200 per year. At the meeting, Chancellor Kirkland stated:


I recommend that Miss Stella Vaughn be given $200 instead of $100 for her work with the young ladies. It is of great value to the young women studying at the University, and she has not measured her services by the time demanded of her according to her contract. She has not only taught them in the gymnasium, but has supervised their sports and in a general way has acted as advisor and friend.

Miss Stella's accomplishments and those of her "girls" came not without struggle. As women garnered more academic honors during the early 1900s, questions about women's proper role on the campus arose.

In 1914, the women outpaced the men with an academic average of 81.72 % compared to the men's 71.47 %. Women won the Founder's Medal in the Academic Department each year from 1908 through 1912. Chancellor Kirkland continued to believe that coeducation was harmful to the institution, and hoped for a separate educational facility for women. "The girls at Vanderbilt have worked against the odds," wrote Miss Stella at about this time, "but they are a 'plucky bunch' and not easily discouraged. They have slowly but surely won a place for themselves by their perseverance."

In May 1915, a faculty committee led by English professor Edwin Mims examined a host of issues affecting the women students. The committee recommended appointing a Dean of Women and establishing a social center for the female students. However, at the urging of Mims, the committee also recommended the abolishment of all women's intercollegiate athletics. Intramural sports and physical education were laudable, the committee wrote, but women's competitive athletic contests were not in keeping with the "best tradition and practice of the entire country." The faculty tabled this recommendation and Miss Stella's teams continued to compete against other colleges.

At the Board of Trust meeting in 1915, the Trustees considered the Mims committee's recommendation to hire an official Dean of Women (Miss Stella was long considered the "unofficial Dean of Women"), but they took no action. However, the Board did appoint an advisory committee for the women. The job of the committee, whose membership included Stella Vaughn, was to "assume a general attitude of advisors toward the young women, particularly the Freshmen, and also maintain a certain general oversight over the social life of all the women students."

In addition to her role as physical education instructor, Stella Vaughn's home was one of the approved boarding houses for the female students for more than thirty years.

When the University hired a Dean of Women in 1925, it was due to the work of the Alumnae Council. Formed in 1923, the Council sought certification from the American Association of University Women (AAUW). In order to certify a chapter, the AAUW required that a campus meet three standards: a Dean of Women, a women's dormitory, and physical education facilities for women.

Chancellor Kirkland refused to spend any of the University's endowment earnings for these objectives, but told the Alumnae Council that if they could raise the money, he would work with them. The women set about fundraising through various sales, gala presentations, and individual donations.

In 1925, they were able to pay $3,000 a year for a Dean of Women. In the same year, in his address marking the semi-centennial of the University, Kirkland reiterated his position that Vanderbilt was founded as an institution for men and that "its general tone and atmosphere is that of a college for men and will probably so remain."

In1926, in an address to the Vanderbilt Women's Club, Stella Vaughn praised the University for its recent hiring of a Dean of Women, but went on to talk about a campus tour of the future:

In closing I want in imagination to take one more trip with you around the campus. In place of the old gymnasium there will be a commodious building with all conveniences and with swimming pools for both the girls and boys; and we observe a girls' dormitory, the removal of the professors' houses, additional science buildings, the second unit of the Hospital, and in place of the old Science Hall and residence in the rear, a magnificent library to which all roads will lead.

Miss Stella was a founding member of the Kappa Alpha Theta Sorority. Originally established on campus as the Phi Kappa Upsilon, the local independent sorority became a branch of Kappa Alpha Theta in 1904, the first in the South.

Stella Vaughn became the first initiated member of a national women's fraternity at Vanderbilt. She gave the group a small lodge next to her home to use for meetings and other social functions. Miss Stella served as adviser to the chapter for more than fifty years; until the year of her death (1960), she gave the annual orientation talk to the sorority's new members.

Adapted from The Vaughn Home, Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities

Additional Resources

1896-1897 Co-ed Basketball Team

1896-1897 Co-Ed Basketball Team

Image Courtesy of Vanderbilt University Special Collections & University Archives

The Co-Ed - Ward Game

The Co-Ed - Ward Game.  Vanderbilt's first women's basketball team defeats the Ward Seminary women's team, 5-0.

The Hustler, March 17, 1897

Vanderbilt Coed Before & After

Vanderbilt Coed Before & After, 1910

Image Courtesy of Vanderbilt University Special Collections & University Archives

Vanderbilt Coeds, 1909

Vanderbilt Coeds, 1909

Image Courtesy of Vanderbilt University Special Collections & University Archives

The Literary Suffragette, 1910

The Literary Suffragette, 1910

Image Courtesy of Vanderbilt University Special Collections & University Archives

Sorority Rush Poem, 1910

Sorority Rush Poem, 1910

Image Courtesy of Vanderbilt University Special Collections & University Archives

The Ideal Coed, A Poem

The Ideal Coed, A Poem, 1911

Courtesy of Vanderbilt University Special Collections & University Archives

 A Tribute to the Hobble Skirt, 1911

A Tribute to the Hobble Skirt, 1911

Image Courtesy of Vanderbilt University Special Collections & University Archives

 Smoker's Heart Cartoon, 1911

Smoker's Heart Cartoon, 1911

Image Courtesy of Vanderbilt University Special Collections & University Archives

A Coed and Her Commodore

A Coed and Her Commodore, 1911

Image Courtesy of Vanderbilt University Special Collections & University Archives

Found in the "Girl's Study", A Poem, 1911

Found in the "Girl's Study", A Poem, 1911

Image Courtesy of Vanderbilt University Special Collections & University Archives

A Toast, 1911

A Toast, 1911

Courtesy of Vanderbilt University Special Collections & University Archives