This may seem like a simple question, but it actually has two answers: 1863 and 1871. The former year is when the UW first began teaching women, but it did so only in a special department, which was called, counterintuitively, the Normal Department.
The Normal Department didn’t teach normal students — not in the sense of ordinary or regular. Rather, it taught students who would norm other students — that is, help form their behavior and intellect. In other words, it taught teachers. It was the forerunner of the School of Education.
In 1863, the UW opened its Normal Department, and 76 women enrolled. Two years later, the first six graduated:
- Mary Allen Curtis
- Clara Chamberlain Porter
- Annie Chamberlain
- Hettie Rusk Nichols
- Lydia Sharp Winterbotham
- Annie Taylor Noyes
But segregation by gender proved difficult to maintain, and in 1871, the UW opened its normal — I mean, its regular — departments to women as well.
The decision wasn’t universally popular. Paul Chadbourne, the UW’s president from 1867 to 1870, was adamantly opposed to enrolling women. To reward him for his intransigence, the university gave his name to Chadbourne Hall, campus’s first women’s dormitory.
With the exception of the academic years encompassing 1943 to 1946 — the World War II period — men outnumbered women on campus until 1995. That fall, 20,073 women enrolled compared to only 19,932 men. Each year since, women have been in the majority.