When coeducation arrived, Halcy Bohen was tasked with women’s safety, success

Halcyone “Halcy” Bohen was described as “a godsend” to the women of Princeton.
Jeffrey MacMillan p’14
Like many things in higher education, the decision to enroll undergraduate women at Princeton happened slowly, then abruptly. The final vote took place on a Friday afternoon in April 1969, less than five months before fall classes were to start. That evening, Halcyone “Halcy” Bohen, who was to become the first female dean of students at Princeton, attended an event on campus with her husband, a graduate of the Woodrow Wilson School. Provost Bill Bowen *58, arriving from the trustees meeting, rushed up to her, gesturing as though to tear out his hair, she later recalled. 

“Oh, Halcy, I’ve got a problem. The board just decided to take women,” she remembers Bowen saying — meaning, by “problem,” the sudden administrative challenges. “What am I going to do? I need a dean of women!”

Bohen, who had served the University as an informal consultant and ambassador to the wives of professors who were being recruited, found herself with the position — not dean of women, officially, but rather assistant dean of students with special responsibilities for women. After much deliberation, the University chose to admit a small group of women — 101 freshmen, 171 in total — to matriculate in the fall. Bohen was charged with their safety and success.

When she interviewed for the job, she says, the male administrators who hired her suggested three ways to help integrate women into life on campus: “One, we should have kitchens; two, we need to have locks on the entryways; and three, we’d better have a dance program.” It would be her job to figure out what else would be needed, she says. 

The staff dutifully put a kitchen in Pyne Hall, the building that served as a dormitory for the entering women. They also arranged to have electric locks installed on the doors to Pyne Hall. Princeton hired a dancer and choreographer from New York City, Ze’eva Cohen, to teach dance in a studio in Dillon Gymnasium. To the administration’s surprise, of the 60 students who signed up for the first round of dance classes, 50 were men. This was the first hint of what became a pattern, Bohen says: “The bottom line — the things they thought women needed were in fact things that men needed, too.” 

In her office in West College, Bohen, then 31, greeted visitors in front of a hanging tapestry that displayed a picture of the Woodstock music festival. Students came with issues of every kind: roommate disputes, health problems, questions about when students could visit each other’s rooms and what to do if a roommate brought in a visitor at 2 a.m. Abortion was illegal in those years; staffers quietly put students with unwanted pregnancies in touch with a network of clergy who helped women to find sympathetic doctors, Bohen says. 

That first class with women all four years graduated in 1973, barely a decade after the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Even women with expensive educations questioned whether they should pursue careers. (Bohen consulted her children’s pediatrician before taking the job as dean, she says: “I asked him whether I would harm my children, and he said, ‘Absolutely not. Do it.’ ”) To help students think through these issues in their own lives, Bohen organized small-group discussions where students could ask questions of dual-career couples with children. An audience of 40 students in the first year turned into an audience of 130 students in the next. 

Bohen helped to grow the residential-adviser program. At annual fall retreats at Blairstown camp, she trained advisers to get to know the freshmen assigned to them, keep tabs on their circumstances, listen with compassion, and refer students to support systems within the University if need be.

To the University’s surprise, of the 60 students who signed up for the first round of dance classes, 50 were men. This was the first hint of what became a pattern, Bohen says.

Sex on campus was a subject of breathless interest among alumni and journalists. LIFE magazine ran a photo spread on Princeton coeducation with lots of close-up shots of women in miniskirts. Most women on campus wore slacks, Bohen says. “I’ve received quite a bit of hate mail,” Bohen told a newspaper reporter in 1969. “Comments on the promiscuity of the coeds to pleas that I will personally see to keeping these girls virtuous.”

In 1973, Bohen gave a talk to the Class of 1950 at the Princeton Club in New York City, on “Changing Sexual Behavior and the Campus.” Although the long-term consequences of coeducation were still to be seen, she told her audience, already evidence showed that men and women flourished in each other’s company in ways that had little to do with sex. At Radcliffe, she said, researchers had found that “not only do women in coed dorms develop easy and multiple friendships with their male neighbors (whereas those in single-sex dorms usually had only dating relationships), but their friendships with women also became more positive, affectionate, and trusting.” 

“They have learned to ‘be themselves’ — as smart, or funny, or serious as they really are — around both sexes,” Bohen added. “They no longer have as many fears about being ‘unfeminine.’ Their lives are more intellectually interesting and more fun.” 

As dean, Bohen was “a godsend” to the women of Princeton, according to a recent book on coeducation by professor emerita of history Nancy Weiss Malkiel, but her contributions helped the whole of the campus to flourish — and can still be felt in the daily life of the University today.

Bohen served as assistant dean for eight years. “I relished the opportunity to help advance women’s opportunities and especially loved the engagement and fun with students — as well as the opportunity to get to know, learn from, and develop friendships with so many others in the University community — many of which are still integral parts of my life,” she says. Today, she has a dual career, as a psychologist with a private practice in Washington, D.C., and as a visual artist. She has exhibited her art widely, and more than 250 of her works are in private collections.

The first days for women on campus found the community tentative, timid, exasperated, uncertain. After the freshmen’s move-in day, Bohen told reporters that the women, embarrassed by the profusion of men offering, in the daytime, to give them a “tour of campus” and, at night, to bring them a drink, were waiting eagerly for classes to begin: “They hope to find, in the academic side of life, more relaxed and open relationships with the men.” The biggest complaint from her charges, Bohen said, was that “they’re fed up with cutesy stuff about coeducation, especially the press and photographers.”

In time, the journalists left the campus, the administration found ways to address student needs that had long existed but never been considered, and the men and women of Princeton found they enjoyed one another as utterly ordinary classmates. All of that was soon to come when, at the beginning of freshman week, Admission Director John Osander ’57 — standing beside Bohen — addressed the new class: “Gentlemen and — at long last — ladies, I officially present the Class of 1973.”