During Women’s History Month, The College Today will take a look back at the women who led the College of Charleston to become the place it is in 2017. Today, we take a look back at Pierrine St. Claire Smith Byrd ’22, the College’s first female graduate.
Although the idea of admitting women students at the College of Charleston had been brought up as early as 1894, it wasn’t until 1918 that the first women were admitted to the College. Pierrine St. Claire Smith Byrd ’22 was one of those women.
Born and raised in Charleston, where she attended Memminger High School, Byrd had always planned to go to college but was still deciding where she wanted to go when the College of Charleston announced their decision to allow women the following semester.
“I knew the reputation of the College and the standards it kept, and I didn’t know whether I’d be able to meet them,” she said in an account later compiled in the 2006 book College of Charleston Voices. “But I decided I’d try.”
And she succeeded – and, four years later, she became the first woman to graduate from the College of Charleston.
Still, it was a little intimidating when she first arrived on campus, a young girl in what had always been a man’s world.
“What impressed me the most was the brilliance of the men who did the teaching,” she said. “They were all very distinguished looking people and people you would naturally respect. We just sat quietly in class and listened.”
Outside of class, however, it seems that Byrd and the other women were the ones doing the intimidating.
“The boys just looked like they were scared of us. It was uncomfortable,” she said, adding that, by her senior year, “it was very pleasant.”
By then, Byrd was the only woman in her class, but there were enough women among the entire student body to have a Co-Ed Club and a women’s basketball team, both of which Byrd headed up – as president and captain, respectively – her junior and senior years.
The women’s basketball uniforms were blouses, bloomers and hose – and, said Byrd, “Of course we didn’t have any legs showing. That would have been outrageous.”
During her time at the College, Byrd also served as the secretary of the Athletic Association, co-ed representative of the Honor Committee and editor-in-chief of the College’s yearbook, The Comet. She also worked on the College’s magazine staff for three years and on the student class government for four years: as president in 1919, secretary in 1920–21 and class vice-president in 1922. It’s no wonder she won the Alumni Medal in 1921.
“The woman student,” said J.H. Easterby in his 1935 A History of the College of Charleston, “now enjoys as much freedom as the man on campus and in the classrooms and corridors. … In virtually all the organizations which have appeared on the campus since her coming she has full privileges of membership. Her debating, swimming, and basketball teams represent the College in intercollegiate contests. … In competition for scholastic and literary honors she has thrown herself to be the equal, if not the superior, of the man.”
The significance of women’s presence at the College wasn’t lost on Byrd, who went on to teach at her alma mater, Memminger High School, after she became the first woman to earn a College of Charleston A.B. degree in 1922.
She also became the first woman to get a College of Charleston class ring when her then-fiance, George Byrd ’21, had a miniature replica of his ring made for her since the College didn’t have women’s rings at the time. Years later, when those rings returned to the College as part of the couple’s estate gift, the Alumni Association entrenched Byrd’s legacy at the College even further, using her ring to design the new official College of Charleston ring.
The College isn’t the only place where Byrd left a legacy when she passed away in 1994. An accredited judge and a consulting Rosarian for the American Rose Society, president of the Tulip Garden Club of Greenwood and a life member of the Garden Club of South Carolina, Byrd blossomed as an expert gardener in Greenwood, S.C. She won several awards for her camellias and roses and was named the Greenwood Federation of Garden Club’s first Woman of the Year (1968) as well as the Carolina District of the American Rose Society’s Silver Honor Medal winner (1969).
On Founders Day 1977, the College of Charleston recognized Byrd with a Doctor of Letters Honorary Degree. But it will always be that first degree she earned as the first College of Charleston alumna, for which Byrd will be remembered.