A new book explores the dawn of coeducation at elite universities

Princeton officials “were thinking a little bit about whether Princeton would be good for women — but they were thinking a lot more about whether women would be good for Princeton.” — Nancy Weiss Malkiel
Sameer A. Khan

In the late 1960s, several prestigious universities in the United States — including Princeton — decided to admit women for the first time. The reasons it happened at this particular moment are surprising and largely unexplored. In her new book, “Keep the Damned Women Out”: The Struggle for Coeducation, professor emerita of history and former Dean of the College Nancy Weiss Malkiel illuminates the forces that prompted a small group of powerful men to implement this pivotal change. She spoke to PAW about her findings.

In the book, you focus on a handful of universities that were male-only in the 1960s, even though other elite institutions had been coed for years. What was different about the universities you write about?

There’s a long tradition of single-sex education among Eastern elite universities and colleges, going all the way back to Harvard’s founding in the 17th century. Places like Princeton, Yale, Dartmouth, Harvard — they were all founded on the presumption that they would educate men. They had been educating men for one or two centuries when, at the end of the 19th century, we see the founding of private colleges for women, like Vassar, Smith, Wellesley, and Barnard.

No one was thinking at that time about opening up institutions like Princeton to women, because they believed their long tradition of single-sex education really worked. These places provided an excellent education for young men; they developed leaders; they fostered camaraderie among students that led to lifelong friendships and important business associations. And there was a belief that the magic of all that — if you will — depended on the fact that these institutions were male.

Coeducation at these universities took place during the profound social shifts of the 1960s. How did those shifts affect the decision to admit women?

As we all know, the 1960s were an extraordinarily complicated and turbulent period. By the end of the decade, American society in general — and American educational institutions in particular — bore only a limited resemblance to what they had been 10 years before. At the beginning of the 1960s, you couldn’t have a person of the opposite sex in a dormitory except at very specific times of the week and times of day; there were regulations about everything from cars to when you could actually leave campus.

All of this was shaken up during the 1960s. Conservative private, elite universities began to think about socioeconomic diversity, to consider the idea that maybe you would look for students in public schools, Catholic and Jewish students, African American students. Coeducation fits into all of this because if you’re beginning to open up admissions, why not think about gender?

But one has to stop for a moment because the real motivation for places like Yale and Princeton as they embarked on serious consideration of coeducation wasn’t really all these [social] movements. It was the changing face of admissions.

What do you mean?

Around this time, the “best boys” in private and public high schools were beginning to show that they didn’t want to attend places that only had men, these “monastic institutions,” as President Robert Goheen [’40 *48] called Princeton. So they needed to figure out a way to regain their hold on these “best boys.”

Two institutions in particular — Princeton and Yale — realized that they were in trouble at about the same time, and watched each other and reacted to what the other one was doing. At first, they tried to deal with this by having women nearby, in a coordinated institution. In the middle of the 1960s, Yale tried to persuade Vassar College to move from Poughkeepsie to New Haven. Vassar seriously considered this offer, and this led President Goheen to approach Sarah Lawrence College about relocating near Princeton’s campus. When Vassar and Sarah Lawrence both eventually said “no, thank you,” the conversation slowly turned to coeducation.

How did Princeton influence other schools’ decisions to embark on coeducation?

Princeton really stood out in its careful and thoughtful approach. While it was courting Sarah Lawrence, Princeton’s leaders decided that they needed to study the question of coeduation. In the spring of 1967, the Board of Trustees agreed to President Goheen’s proposal that they invite Gardner Patterson, a professor of economics, to undertake a serious analytic study of whether the education of women made sense for Princeton.

When this report was finished in September 1968, it was sent to the president of Yale. He had been considering establishing a coordinate college for women, but he decided that Yale needed to get out ahead of Princeton, and got approval to begin coeducation starting in the fall of 1969. There was no process or planning — they just turned on a dime. Princeton had to respond. So this is how, in April of 1969, Princeton’s Board of Trustees voted to enroll women the following fall.

Were the leaders of Princeton thinking about whether coeducation would be good for women?

They were thinking a little bit about whether Princeton would be good for women — but they were thinking a lot more about whether women would be good for Princeton. Women were imagined to be a vehicle for restoring the “best boys” to places like Princeton and Yale. They were instruments, if you will.

One of the most fascinating parts of the Patterson report is a tiny little section titled “Can Princeton Do Justice to Women Students?” In it, Patterson wrote, “It would be a disgrace to Princeton were the University to admit women only because it believed that this would serve the interests, however broadly defined, of its male students.”

That’s a wonderful sentiment, but frankly, very little about the process of making the decision for coeducation spoke to this issue. Clearly there was a concept that there were women of talent who could do the work here and thrive here. But to consider what we needed to do for women students — none of these institutions were doing that. And I think that is partly why it was so tough for the first women students — because these places had no experience in educating women and they didn’t know how to do it.

How difficult was it for the early women students?

Well, of course there were the large majority of alumni who thought the magic of Princeton, the special experience of attending school here, would be irreparably damaged by admitting women. They thought women wouldn’t be serious about their studies, that they would come to places like this to look for husbands, that they were taking up places that could be filled by able men.

READ MORE: Trials of the Co-ed 100

A 1973 PAW essay by Jane Leifer ’73

But it wasn’t just the alumni who made things challenging for those first women students. You had male professors who would ask them for the women’s point of view, putting the sole woman in precept on the spot, even in classes in math and statistics. A faculty member at Dartmouth put slides up on a screen, including nude women among sea creatures. A woman student at Yale asked the chair of the history department if he would consider giving a course on the history of women, and he said, “That would be like teaching the history of dogs.” The first cohorts of women were essentially under a microscope; the first Princeton women say that they felt they were in a foreign country.

June Fletcher ’73 remembers her arrival on campus in 1969: “Although some alums greeted us warmly, I was told some who were still unhappy about the decision were wearing these buttons in protest of our arrival. Someone — I don’t remember who — gave me one, and I instantly put it on as a cheeky ‘so-there’ statement. I proudly wore it the rest of the day.”
Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

You write,“Fundamentally changing Princeton would take much more than adding some female faculty and students.” Can you elaborate?

Getting women students respected for the quality of their intellects and the effectiveness of their imagination and analytic ability — that didn’t happen automatically. It took a while for some faculty to come to the view that women were fully capable of excelling as students. And none of the places that were newly coeducated moved quickly to hire and then tenure women faculty.

Those realities caused a lot of bumps along the way. Are we fully past them? No, we’re not. There are departments here that have very few women faculty and students. As we know from the report on undergraduate women’s leadership published in 2011 [See PAW, April 6, 2011], we don’t have a gender-neutral pattern of leadership in undergraduate activities.

So coeducation is very much normal now, but the full integration of women and men into a student body that warmly embraces and supports equally both genders — it’s not a finished project.

You were one of the first female faculty members at Princeton. What was your experience, as both an observer of and a participant in coeducation?

There were three women in the professorial ranks when I arrived in 1969. That meant there were endless opportunities to participate in committees and activities and give talks — they wanted one of us. In some ways, it gave me a broader acquaintance with the place than I might have had otherwise.

My students seemed amused by me. I had a junior advisee who brought me an apple during office hours. Did I encounter situations where not everyone was enthusiastic about my presence as a woman faculty member? Yes. But on the whole I had a very good time. That was not true of my counterparts in every department, of course.

What was the effect of coeducation on women’s colleges?

This story starts with Vassar. They weren’t in a geographical location near men’s colleges, so coeducation came to them as a means of institutional self-preservation. Wellesley and Smith were able to be more reflective. But they had to think seriously about coeducation because of what the men’s schools were doing. Would it be possible for a school like Smith, for example, to retain its hold on excellent students and faculty if all these men’s schools were going coed? In the end, Smith remained single-sex largely because of the women’s movement. Gloria Steinem, who was an alumna of Smith, gave a commencement speech in 1971 where she said, essentially, that feminism means being a strong women’s college.

The result was that because really excellent women students now wanted to go to Princeton and Yale, places like Smith and Wellesley had to adjust to a rather different set of credentials — in terms of SAT scores and grades and class rank — for their incoming students. But they’re still producing women who go on to become leaders, which is what they used to do.

Do you think there’s still a need for single-sex schools?

I served on the Smith Board of Trustees for a decade, so I’ve often talked to prospective students about the advantages of a women’s college and can make that pitch easily. At a women’s college, you’re the principal business of the institution. You have every opportunity to study any subject without any concerns — you’re the ones who will be the presidents and the editors-in-chief.

But then I’d always say, but I actually think that my women students at Princeton have all these opportunities too. What I sometimes acknowledge is that if women high school students were thinking about what would really be good for them as a long-term investment, they might well choose a women’s college. But if they’re thinking about where they’ll have the best time as a student, they’ll choose a coed school.

What surprised you most in researching this book?

I had no idea that President Goheen had tried to persuade Sarah Lawrence to move to Princeton. That stunned me. The male presidents of the major single-sex institutions that were contemplating coeducation did their damnedest to figure out a way to do it without actually going coed.

Interview conducted and condensed by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux ’11


In June 1967, President Goheen asked Professor Gardner Patterson to study the advisability of coeducation at Princeton. His report argued for the admission of women — but as Malkiel writes in this excerpt from her book, the discussion didn’t focus on women’s interests.

“Can Princeton Do Justice to Women Students?”

Ricardo Barros

What is striking is how little of the discussion of the Patterson report focused on the education of women. It was not that women were absent from the conversation — far from it, because the issue at hand was what would happen if women undergraduates were permitted to enroll at Princeton. Still, most of the conversation was about Princeton as an institution and about Princeton men. Put differently, there were three main actors in this drama: Princeton University, Princeton men, and, potentially, Princeton women. To the extent that women figured in the conversation, it was mainly in terms of how their presence would be good, or less good, for Princeton University and Princeton men. As was the case in so many all-male institutions considering coeducation, women and their needs were largely left out of the equation.

Early on, Patterson had written to a woman who opposed coeducation at Princeton, “Our approach has not been ‘Do women need Princeton?’ but rather, ‘Does the Princeton of the future need women?’ Will Princeton be a better place if there are women in the undergraduate body?” The committee’s primary concern, he said, was “whether the presence of women would heighten the value of the educational experience of the students.”

The Patterson report took a similar tack. Patterson made plain that women were fully able “to participate in the intellectual life of the University”; that they enrolled in college with excellent academic records (indeed, stronger records than those of men, on average); that they brought to college “superior cultural achievements and interests”; and that, at Harvard-Radcliffe and Stanford, the schools most comparable to Princeton, their “average academic records” often surpassed those of men. And women typically graduated at slightly higher rates than men.

Going beyond the qualifications of women students, Patterson raised a tantalizing question: “Can Princeton Do Justice to Women Students?” That section of the report — two-thirds of a page in length — began with a promising paragraph:

“It would be a disgrace to Princeton if it were to admit women only because it believed this would serve the interests, however broadly defined, of its male students. Unless the University, its trustees, its faculty and its students are ready to give continuous and serious concern and effort to what it can offer women for their intellectual growth and development; unless we are willing to accept as desirable that women will demand a quality of education in no way inferior to that offered men; unless we are prepared to acknowledge that the restricted roles of women in the past are outmoded, and the intellectual talents of women are ‘an important personal and public resource to be developed and used with care and courage’; unless we can embrace all of these things, Princeton should abandon all thought of admitting women. In our opinion, this point cannot be stressed too much.”

But then the text meandered in puzzling ways. After asserting that Princeton could meet the charge, the report said, among other things, that there would be no need for massive curricular changes. Additional facilities would be needed for the creative arts, but those would benefit men as well as women. Women, who were less likely than men to be on a clear pre-professional track, might “profit from greater freedom in the choice of majors and distribution requirements.” It might be a good idea to permit “a certain amount of upperclass work taken at other institutions” to count toward requirements for a Princeton degree. It might be desirable to introduce some new introductory courses “with somewhat different content and approaches from those we have now,” whose pre-professional emphases were either “greater or lesser” than would be “appropriate for many women students.” It might “be necessary, in certain disciplines, for the faculty to make a special effort to encourage women students to generalize and to speculate.” And — perhaps the most arresting observation of all — “Princeton would have to avoid graduating a group of ‘little men.’” All told, “Can Princeton Do Justice to Women Students?” was the least focused, most poorly reasoned part of the Patterson report.

READ MORE: “The Education of Women at Princeton”

The 1968 report that paved the way for coeducation

Princeton was working out its destiny at a moment when American society was in the early stages of a major debate about the role of women, and thus at a watershed moment for the higher education of women in the United States. Some parties to the discussion could see what was at stake. At the Princeton Club gathering [about the report] in Denver, for example, “the best question,” Dean of the College Edward D. Sullivan later recorded, “was from a wife, a Smith graduate, who in a very thoughtful and articulate fashion wanted to know if Princeton was really prepared to undertake the education of women, if we had learned well enough how to take on a whole new set of emotional and other problems, and were we prepared to accept the really changed image of Princeton when a number of women alumnae joined the ranks.” She wondered, too, whether [development director] Jerry Horton’s view “that women would damage Princeton was widespread and might in itself be damaging to the women who were admitted.” She favored coeducation but wanted to be sure that Princeton understood what was at stake.

In a five-page letter written to Sullivan after the meeting, a Princeton wife who had spoken at the gathering wrote to elaborate on her concerns. (It was likely the same woman Sullivan had written about, though, as she said, she was a Wellesley alumna.) Although it was clear that it would be good for Princeton men to admit women, it was not at all clear whether it would be good for women. “Princeton would have to do as well by its women as by its men. But Princeton’s accomplishments and sensibilities lie with men.” How much thought had Princeton given to the needs of undergraduate women? “Is it feasible,” she asked, “for women to receive a personally meaningful and valuable educational experience in an institution so deeply and traditionally male?” “My concern,” she said, “is that Princeton is as responsible in doing this, as it is bold; that it recognizes the subtlety, extent and depth of its male tradition and has the institutional courage to become as effective a coeducational institution as it was a men’s college.”

TALK BACK: How have women changed Princeton — and what work remains? Share your views in the comments section

How much did issues of this sort — admittedly subtle and complex — figure in the Patterson committee discussions? How much were they on Patterson’s mind as he wrote? It is not easy to tell from Patterson’s text. Patterson acknowledged women’s increasing participation in the labor force, presenting data showing that women would use their education by entering into employment outside the home, especially in professional and technical fields, and arguing that Princeton therefore had the opportunity to help to meet the growing “demand for highly-educated women,” thus “responding to national needs and opportunities.” He gave reason to believe that he understood that the university was facing a sea change in American society in terms of roles and expectations for women — for their education, as well as for their later lives. But that was about as far as he went. 

Excerpted from “Keep the Damned Women Out”: The Struggle for Coeducation by Nancy Weiss Malkiel. © 2016 Princeton University Press. Reprinted with permission.