Half a century ago, Princeton admitted its first female degree candidate: graduate student Sabra Follett Meservey *64 *66, in the Department of Oriental Studies; not until 1969 would women enroll as undergraduates. This month — April 28–May 1 — the campus hosts its first celebration of its undergraduate and graduate alumnae, with a conference headlined: She Roars.
The history of women at Princeton predates Meservey: Back in 1887, Evelyn College was founded as a “sister” school to Princeton. Its students — who called themselves “The Orange and White” — lived next to the Princeton College campus, maintained a demanding academic schedule, and had full access to Princeton’s libraries. The college was short-lived, however, and closed in 1897 because of debt and falling enrollment.
Princeton remained all-male for the next 60-plus years — but then, change came swiftly. Five undergraduate women enrolled as critical-language students — not matriculated Princeton students, but crucial for their role in beginning to transform campus culture — in 1963. The next year, biochemist Tsai-ying Cheng became the first woman to earn a Princeton Ph.D. And in September 1969, after a 24–8 vote by the trustees on coeducation, Princeton enrolled 101 freshman women, 49 female transfer students, and 21 women formerly enrolled in the critical-language program.To mark She Roars, New York Times economics reporter Catherine Rampell ’07 spoke with three mother-daughter Tiger couples — and her own mother, Ellen Kahn Rampell ’75 — about their different Princeton experiences.
Ellen Kahn Rampell ’75 and Catherine Rampell ’07
My mom was a babe. I mean, she still is a babe, but back when she was at Princeton in the mid-1970s, when women in general were members of a rare breed, she was a babe.
I know of her years of überbabedom primarily from photos and from her classmates, who still giggle when they recount the tales of the many men who pursued her. My mother generally blushes and changes the subject when I ask about her college social life. But when PAW asked me to write an article about mother-daughter Princeton legacies, I knew this was my best chance to finally do some long-delayed, dating-related dishing.
My mother finally would comply, because she’d do just about anything in the name of Princeton. Especially if that anything involves remembering her own days on campus, which were pretty much uniformly, deliriously blissful.
“Apparently the first 40 days of my freshman year, it rained every day,” she says. “I didn’t notice it until someone pointed it out to me. I was just so happy to be there.”
Foul weather wasn’t the only thing she was a little bit oblivious about.
In talking with my mother about the differences between her experience and mine, the starkest discrepancies have to do with our classmates’ attitudes toward class. Not coursework — caste.
In my time at Princeton, I remember a student body that seemed hyperaware of socioeconomic distinctions — and in many cases the need to show off, and pursue, wealth. Some of it had to do with the clubs, but a lot of it had to do with clothes and shopping and career choices. Signifiers like popped shirt collars, a brand logo, or a pair of men’s pastel pants were cues of some form of superior breeding (until many such signals, like the popped collar, were adopted by “the riff raff,” of course).
And while the prep look supposedly was worn “ironically” — often while playing an “ironic” game of croquet supposedly to make fun of Princeton’s WASP-y reputation — such trappings truly felt like they were meant to indicate who was in the know about what WASPs were supposed to look like.
My mother remembers her time at Princeton much differently. There were plenty of rich kids and children from famous families with Roman numerals appended to their surnames, sure. She even dated some of them. But she really didn’t know who was rich and who wasn’t.
Some of that may have to do with her upbringing. She was from a middle-class family in Teaneck, N.J., and her father was a restaurant-supply salesman. If people wore alligator insignias, she wouldn’t necessarily have recognized them as a sign of the manor-born. On the other hand, my own childhood was much more privileged. I went to fancier schools with wealthier classmates than my mother had. I had been exposed to — and, as a somewhat self-loathing prep was probably more sensitive to — such signs of conspicuous consumption.
But my liberal-guilt baggage aside, there were very different attitudes on campus toward wealth and class in my time there than in my mother’s. Almost 60 percent of my 2007 classmates who left campus with full-time jobs went into finance and consulting. In the 1970s, many components of these services didn’t exist, and likely wouldn’t have had much recruiting success on campus if they did.
When my mother traipsed around Old Nassau, the Vietnam War was raging, students were protesting the draft, and the world was in social upheaval. Going to business school or working in finance was uncool; students wanted to change the world.
“People were very anti-establishment when I was there,” my mother said. “And so if anything, people downplayed that they came from wealth, because the wealthy were part of the establishment.”
And it showed in the way people dressed, too. People wore ratty jeans — or as my mother calls them, “dungarees.” Girls didn’t get manicures or wear makeup or go shopping at expensive Nassau Street boutiques on the weekends, as seemed to be common when I was on campus.
Surely there were other things people did to impress their friends, but identifying with WASP culture wasn’t one of them.
My mother, a retired accountant who lives in Palm Beach, Fla., says she probably was one of the few girls at the time who wore skirts and dresses regularly. That’s not because she was trying to make any political statement, she says, but because that’s what her parents had bought her in high school.
But whatever her reasons, I’m pretty sure it didn’t hurt her babeness to be showing those gams.
She went on a lot of dates, with a lot of men (something my father, Richard Rampell ’74, was not too thrilled about at the time. But things of course turned out OK for him later on). She was especially popular with the Jewish guys, since with her blond hair and blue eyes she says she was “a Jew who looked like a shiksa, the best of both worlds.”
Not all of the male attention she received was desirable, flattering though it must have been. Despite her many polite refusals, for example, she had a preceptor who kept asking her out — sometimes in front of the other students — making for some awkward class discussions.
I was more of a serial monogamist in college, something my mother used to chide me for. Play the field, she would urge me.
“I don’t see why you restrict yourself to just one boy,” she told me once. “When I was in college, I dated hundreds of boys. And so by the time I got married, I knew what I wanted.”
Again, I’d like to think this is a generational thing.
Elizabeth Hay Haas ’76 and Laura Haas Davidson ’06
Speaking of campus romance: Among the many common reasons why Betsy Hay Haas ’76 and her daughter, Laura Haas Davidson ’06, are devoted to Princeton is that Princeton played matchmaker for both.
Betsy applied to Princeton because she was “a nonconformist,” and the idea of being one of the first women to attend what had been an all-male school appealed to her. When her friends and family warned her that attending a school dominated by men could be a “hassle,” she shrugged them off, saying she wanted the challenge.
But to some extent they were right. Even though she arrived on campus three years into coeducation, it didn’t always feel that the local male species was accustomed to the estrogen injection.
“You couldn’t walk from here to there without people watching you,” she says. “Not in a super-creepy stalking way. Just that you could see people thinking, ‘Oh, what is that? A student? Oh, and it’s female? Isn’t that interesting.’”
It was a phenomenon that she would experience again when she went to law school a few years later — also at an overwhelmingly male campus — and that she says gave her “excellent training” for her years as an attorney. (She now works as a photographer in Houston.)
Aside from being scrutinized on the path to class and occasionally asked for the “female perspective” in precept, early female Princetonians also had to deal with another source of awkwardness: rules regarding communal bathrooms.
In her freshman year, Betsy was in what is now known as Forbes, then known as Princeton Inn, in the annex. She was in a double, the only female freshman representation on the floor. On the hallway were also three all-male doubles, one of which housed Betsy’s future husband, Stanley Haas ’76, known as Buddy.
Also on that hallway were one women’s bathroom and one men’s bathroom.
About a month into the school year, the boys sent a delegation to the girls’ double: Could the two genders consider sharing each other’s commodes?
Betsy and her roommate thought it over, and said they would allow just two of the men to utilize the officially female facilities — but the women got to choose which two men had access. Buddy was not among the chosen two. “He was the one I was least interested in,” says Betsy.
Until the evening of the first snowfall, that is. That night, the residents of Princeton Inn rushed out to the golf course behind their dorm to frolic in the fresh snow.
“We went out there while it was snowing, while there was snow on the grass, and it was just a magic moment that happened: Laura’s dad and I shared our first kiss,” Betsy says. “And we’ve been together since then, to this day.”
Laura’s was also a winter romance.
Jamie Davidson ’06 lived in sixth entryway of Holder, and Laura, now a high school English teacher in California, lived in the fifth. They had “parallel friend groups,” she says, and the first time she noticed Jamie was in the dining hall. In her English-major’s words: “Light streamed in from the tall windows in Rocky, and suddenly there were these bright blue eyes that just lit up. I insist I set my sights on him first.”
Thus began the first of many -ships: a friendship that became a long courtship that finally culminated in a romantic relationship, in the winter of their sophomore year.
Betsy happened to be on campus for an alumni meeting the very weekend her daughter’s romance began. Laura’s roommate, Amy Widdowson ’06, pulled Betsy aside and told her, “Betsy, we’ve all seen this coming for a long time. This is really happening now, and we’re all so excited, and I just had to let you know.”
The mother had a premonition that only a few years later, Laura and Jamie would be back on campus saying their I-do’s.
After all, Betsy says, “It snowed that weekend."