Advocates for women’s studies: Kathryn Surace ’81, left, and Kay B. Warren *74, in the early days of the program.
From left: The Daily Princetonian; Doug Boothe ’86/The Daily Princetonian
That Was Then: January 1981

The introduction of coeducation in 1969 opened Princeton’s doors to women but did not ensure that they would encounter themselves in the curriculum. Overwhelmingly the product of male scholarship and largely taught by men (in 1979, just 2 percent of tenured faculty were female), the course of study proved harder to adapt than dormitories.

Although the faculty formed the Women’s Studies Committee in 1976, it was not until Jan. 5, 1981, after more than a decade of intensifying advocacy, that it voted to create the Program in Women’s Studies. As President William G. Bowen *58 acknowledged, “Some have felt that we have been too slow and too conservative in our approach to women’s studies. However, as with any new interdisciplinary approach, the faculty has been concerned to respect traditional disciplines.”

The vote, when it came, was almost unanimous — in the words of The Daily Princetonian, “the wave of ‘ayes’ that rumbled across the room overpowered the two dissenting ‘nays’” — but were it not for the determination of a small but energetic group of women, there would not have been a vote at all.

The faculty’s action owed much to the work of the faculty-student Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of Women’s Studies, led by Associate Professor of History Nancy J. Weiss (later Dean of the College Nancy Weiss Malkiel), which recommended the creation of a full-fledged program in its 123-page report. Pressure was exerted by the Women’s Studies, Hiring, and Education Network, which argued that women’s studies are “not a passing trend” but rather “a permanent and serious area of scholarship that introduces a new vitality into academia.” And the Student Advisory Committee on Women’s Studies, spearheaded by Kathryn Surace ’81, helped keep the issue front and center.

“This university is a fairly conservative place,” Surace said. “It takes a while to get any idea through.” But in the fall of 1981, Princeton marked an important milestone by naming one of its own graduates, Kay B. Warren *74, to lead its Women’s Studies Program. 

John S. Weeren is founding director of Princeton Writes and a former assistant University archivist.