Founded in 1908 as the State Normal and Industrial School for Women, the college was renamed Mary Washington College in 1938 after Mary Washington, mother of the first president of the United States of America, George Washington. Most of the architecture on the Mary Washington College campus can be described as neo-classical, Georgian, or Jeffersonian (because of its similarity to Thomas Jefferson's design of the University of Virginia). In 1944 the college became associated with the University of Virginia as that institution's undergraduate liberal arts college for women. Following the University's transition to coeducational status in 1970, the Virginia General Assembly reorganized Mary Washington College in 1972 as a separate, coeducational institution.
Academic departments at MWC include Art and Art history; Economics; Historic Preservation; Political Science and International Affairs; Biological Sciences; Education; History and American Studies; Psychology; Business Administration; English, Linguistics, and Speech; Mathematics; Sociology and Anthropology; Chemistry; Environmental science and Geology; Modern Foreign Languages; Theatre and Dance; Classics, Philosophy, and Religion; Geography; Music; Computer science; Health and Physical education; and Physics.
In 2003, the college was in the process of moving to university status to simplify and streamline administration of the undergraduate campus in Fredericksburg and its graduate/professional school, the James Monroe Center for Graduate and Professional Studies, located in southern Stafford County. Nominees for naming the new university included "Mary Washington University," "University of Mary Washington," and "Washington and Monroe University."
The proposals to adopt a new name for the institution have been a source of controversy among students, faculty, and alumni for many years. Such efforts have often been linked to a desire among administrators to dissociate the college from a lingering reputation as a women's college. In recent years the student body has rallied against removing "Mary Washington" from the name, but has supported renaming the school as a "university."
On Saturday , November 22, 2003 the Board of Visitors voted to change the name to "University of Mary Washington". A formal recognition of this change by the Virginia General Assembly is expected in the spring of 2004, with the name change taking effect by the Fall 2004 semester.