It was not easy to be a woman at Princeton during the past four years; it is not easy now to tell you what it’s like to be a female and also to be from Princeton.
Freshman Week, 1969. Pyne Hall courtyard was filled with picnic tables, folding chairs, and probing eyes. I arrived with my luggage, my parents, and a feeling that it was the beginning of a four-year visit to a makeshift English garden party of self-conscious strollers, hesitating smiles, and ingratiating “Hi’s.” The bees that the punch had attracted found my window and seemed to hum the silent strains of anticipation and fear that most of the perspiring female bodies were unpacking with their clothes. The September humidity stuck to our short cotton skirts and clung to our long frizzled hair. The atmosphere held its stale moisture as if awaiting an unknown signal to release it. It was the eerie calm after a storm of bureaucratic decisions and before the ensuing flood of reality in the form of 170 women, including 100 freshmen, who, like newborn babies in a nursery, were ignorant of how they got there or why.
Pyne Hall courtyard usually came awake for me at 8 a.m. Turner the janitor whistled as he dragged sacks of garbage across the walks and sent Coke and Budweiser cans clanking on the pavement. I stumbled to the bathroom from my starkly white room furnished by the university in green plastic furniture. As I waited for the hot water to run truly hot, I glanced at the grey stones of Dillon Gym, at the outdoor balcony which our window conveniently faced. We had spent at least an hour that week staring at the balcony, which at 4 p.m. every afternoon would support at least 40 male bodies in Speedo swimsuits lifting weights to music.
It was the eerie calm after a storm of bureaucratic decisions and before the ensuing flood of reality in the form of 170 women, including 100 freshmen, who, like newborn babies in a nursery, were ignorant of how they got there or why.
I walked to Commons every morning, passing a few emaciated students in sweat pants returning from morning workouts. I would go through the old arched wooden doorway, past a tired forest-green-blazered senior who checked me in. Behind the serving line stood two equally narroweyed workers in blue shirts and black bow ties. With books in one hand, a tray in the other, I would begin what felt like a 20-minute stroll down death row-my leather heels clicking on the stone floor at every step, echoing from the vaulted ceiling. On either side stretched long, dark wooden tables and high-backed wooden chairs stiffly pushed in. The chairs faced each other at regular intervals, as if daring one to upset the symmetry that had existed for untold years. Every chair that was pulled out scraped against the floor. Every scrape sparked a rattling of newspapers which indicated that behind every Prince sat a freshman or sophomore Princetonian, who did not wish to be disturbed.
The eyes of the portraits hung high on the walls where the mahogany paneling stopped bored into me with looks of disapproval. Whence did I come? they seemed to ask each other. They would not ask me. They had seen rituals I had only heard about-food fights and “spooning” people’s dates. They remembered when ties and jackets had been mandatory dress for dinner and probably when beanies had been worn.
I ate my breakfast without the protection of a newspaper, staring meekly at the back sports page which stood upright between the face across the table and myself. It was like being a nun eating with an order of Trappist monks. Conversation would have been ungodly.
I pushed my chair back and again disturbed the spirits haunting the hall. I could feel silent mouths smirking at me from behind the morning news reports and from the mounted portraits. Out I marched through the wooden arched door. I could only hope that by lunchtime, I would not have to face Commons alone. I could always count on a few “Hi’s” from boys in my math class, or nods from fellow French students. If I were lucky I might see a female face by noon.
Our Princeton experience began in the leisurely atmosphere of Freshman Orientation Week. The administrators had successfully tackled the problems of our comfort, privacy and security. They installed lights on the walks to illuminate ominous clusters of bushes. They gave us curtains and put bedspreads on our new six-foot mattresses, while they left the boys with uncovered windows and naked seven-foot beds. They put doors on the toilet stalls and offered us a choice of modern dance or tennis classes. They left us, with maps of the campus and intermittent appointments with advisors, to face the normal confusion of, and adjustment to, a new campus.
The news media ... were determined to get to know all about us and our blind date with a 243-year-old tradition.
But they had overlooked two minor points. The news media knew, or if they didn’t already know, were determined to get to know all about us and our blind date with a 243-year-old tradition. There were no etiquette books, no upperclass women to consult who could give “Sue Pyne,” as the marching band leeringly spoke of us in a half-time show, part of an institution still submerged in customs so old that the Ivy had overgrown and obscured their origin. Women were sisters, mothers, wives or dates.
Most of us had laughed at the invitations that ROTC had mailed to us; most of us had smirked when we received our dormitory assignments to “two-men rooms.” But there was something sad in being able only to watch the sophs battle the frosh in Cane Spree. There were no sophomore women to challenge to a volleyball match; there were and still are neither freshmen nor sophomore women who can enter the main event: cane wrestling. There were no games to lose, and so there were no ’72 T-shirts to win and flaunt at Commons—as the men did.
There was something lonely and depressing in seeing roving bands of boys inebriated with beer who knew that they did not have to show their glazed eyes and staggering walks to a housemaster or waiting father anymore. Some had just been released from four years behind prep school gates; I had just entered the confines of a male society. I would shy away from the somewhat slurred requests that echoed through the Pyne courtyard and were bellowed down our mail slots, “Hey you, wanna come to a par-ty?” The administration installed electrical locks on our entryway doors — a few weeks after the banging and shouting subsided.
Things were calmer in the daytime, but we were more conspicuous, especially after the annual address to freshmen in Alexander Hall. An alumnus had sent us pioneers one hundred seventy chrysanthemums and a poem to be read in our honor. The flowers we held were as obvious and as damning as starred yellow armbands would have been. They showed unquestionably that we were different.
It was difficult coming to a campus that had been forewarned that a “coed” was a girl who won a Miss Bikini contest and that a “coed” was probably more intelligent than her male peers. It was hard to remain nonchalant when photographers, reporters and television crews insisted on portraying us as cute curios, laughably incongruous with the school’s history. The men resented the attention we were receiving. We resented the men’s resentment. In an effort to detach ourselves from a false image in the press which we had not created and had no intention of conforming to, we even avoided each other. Loneliness was as common as the empty kegs and crushed cans of Bud.
Reactions from teachers and students varied. There were the big rushes to find convenient girlfriends, and there were circles of empty seats left around lone girls in lecture. I was denied entrance to an upperclass biology class taught by an aging professor for no ostensible reason, until the registrar assured him that his was the only course which had room to enroll me. I was requested to change to another chemistry laboratory because, the instructor said, there was at least one other girl in the alternative section. The professors failed to perceive our side of the problem. When I was the only girl in a class, especially a small one, I could look around, see only boys, and feel like one of them. To be in a class with another female only made me realize how out of place she and, consequently, I really must have been.
The men resented the attention we were receiving. We resented the men’s resentment.
Some of the undergraduates treated us as normal people and friends. Others, who shuffled along the walks, eyes usually fixed on their taped-over Weejuns, gave the impression that if they did not acknowledge our presence, maybe we would go away quietly. I ate dinner at one of the more traditional eating clubs with a friend during our first fall and was greeted by a table of at least twelve students who quickly laid down their soup spoons and rose until I was seated. It was the middle of the week; there were no imported girls around. I talked with another club member after the meal for at least an hour. He finally asked me what school I had come from to visit. When I said Princeton, he let a controlled “Oh really” slip from his throat ... and excused himself.
By being women in a purely fraternal society of boys, some of whom had not been in classes with girls for more than eight years, there was only the hope that in time, someday, there would be more of us. We wanted to be just people, but we were in a system which could see us only as coeds and freaks. We each wanted to be able to be ourselves, not the representatives of what our preceptors called on us to explain: “the woman’s point of view.’’ We wanted to be left alone to be ourselves.
We were new babies at the hands of caring but bewildered fathers: no one knew exactly how to treat us, nor could we give them guidance as to how they could or should react. In a university where everything from dress to precept conduct was perpetuated by clearly defined but unarticulated roles, we were motherless and sisterless. We wanted to be Princeton students, not Princeton phenomena, but there was nothing and nobody before us to show us how. We had no initial opportunity to become a natural part of the Princeton tradition; we had no idea of how to make our own. We had been admitted to the campus without being admitted to its soul.
During my freshman year, coeds were to the Princeton campus as ladies’ rest rooms were to classroom buildings — scarce and hard to find. Even I would turn my head when another woman passed me; we were so rarely seen along the walks. Occasionally I would spot a lone girl sitting against a building and reading a book. Sometimes there would be more than three of us in the reserve reading room; most of the time, though, there were fewer. A few times, I found a girl near the tennis courts who, like me, was looking for a game; most of the time, I had to bring my roommate, or hit the ball alone against the backboard. Even the checker at the exit of Firestone Library used to ask for my university I.D.
We wanted to be Princeton students, not Princeton phenomena, but there was nothing and nobody before us to show us how. We had no initial opportunity to become a natural part of the Princeton tradition; we had no idea of how to make our own. We had been admitted to the campus without being admitted to its soul.
There were a few areas where one did see more than a token quantity of women-in the Pyne Hall Laundromat, the modern dance class, and the one small bathroom in the basement of McCosh Hall.
The lack of unity among us coeds was even more depressing than our conspicuousness. We each knew each other’s names and faces so well that any female visitor, even a coed’s guest, was immediately recognized as an alien. On weekends, there was no question whether a girl was a coed or an import. But while we knew each other’s names, we did not really get to know one another. A management consulting firm investigating aspects of the impact of coeducation later saw our failure to develop a female community and close personal ties as a result of the highly competitive social situation in which we supposedly viewed each other.
Others cited the isolation of the entryway system in dormitories as a major factor in our not seeing each other, except when we walked around campus. It was also a question of numbers: we rarely met in classes since we were usually the only girl in each section, and there were not enough of us to form and develop groups with specialized interests that would foster friendships. In many ways, it was easier to become friendly with groups of men who were already part of the university’s male-oriented community than it was to initiate our own.
Imagine that tender summer when you were facing the trauma of never returning to high school again, the trauma of being a camp counselor when you had been a camper for 13 years already, and the trauma of being marched onto a stage to be introduced to 150 visiting-day parents? “This is so-and-so,” the head counselor announces, pointing to you. You try to look as nondescript and inconspicuous as the rest of the staff in your black trousers, white blazer, and tanned face. “Swimming, sailing, and field counselor,” the voice continues, “ ... attends Prince-ton.’’
“Ooh’s” and “Ah’s” arise from the crowd seated on hard wooden benches as they crane their necks to see you. Extraloud applause ensues, not really for you, but for some ridiculous school you have not even enrolled in yet. People make a special effort to find you after the presentation and ask you if you are smart. “Gosh, you must really be smart!” their children echo all week long in wonder. “Are you really smart?’’ the older campers ask skeptically.
Although there was only one other woman from my high school entering Princeton, I arrived with the security that I knew six coeds — six percent of the female part of the Class of ’73. The coed whose picture was directly beneath mine in the Freshman Herald had found me during the spring of my junior year in high school at the Radcliffe admissions office. Her dark green sweater was pulled casually over a plaid kilt, which at her knees met matching green socks nonchalantly stuffed into penny loafers. She bounced through the tense atmosphere of the room in which I and a few other potential applicants nervously awaited our tour guide. She asked us each our college board scores. What were my extracurricular activities? What was my class rank? In five minutes she had shattered the Victorian aura of the Radcliffe tour office; she had made us all admit to each other these vital statistics which our stares had only been able to guess at.
She and I found each other again that first September at Princeton. She in jeans and a workshirt, I still in a skirt. We could finally laugh about that day in Cambridge, along with high school activities, test scores, and grades which we would never, no matter how hard we tried, entirely forget. She went on to become one of two women UGA representatives, a UGA officer, and the first woman to win the Pyne Prize.
I had spent the previous summer on an advanced studies program with three other prospective coeds. I had shared my frogs and my fetal pig with two of the three. I had even been in elementary school with another. What we had in common was an informer, possibly the New York Times, which had alerted us during the past winter that Princeton was accepting women’s applications, even if the university was not definitely accepting women.
There were more than New Yorkers and Times readers in our freshman class. There were alumni daughters and granddaughters to whom the song “Old Nassau” was as familiar as “The Star-Spangled Banner” was to me. There were upperclassmen’s and graduate’s sisters who already knew the campus and the old-style Princeton weekends. There were girls who had attended well-known boarding schools and who had come here as naturally as they might have enrolled in a Seven Sisters School. And there were a handful of Californians and Midwesterners to diversify a class whose geographical distribution was heavily loaded in favor of the Northeast and the New York Metropolitan Area.
Other coeds were transfer students, mainly from Smith. Vassar, and Wellesley, who had introduced themselves to Princeton during roadtripping weekends or through Coed Week the winter before. Some transfers were alumni daughters or sisters. Some came for the courses and the books. Some came for the boys. Another handful were Critical Language women who had already spent one year as separate and unequal students. Now at least, they could become less separate.
Princeton did not become a truly coeducational campus until our sophomore year when the female ghetto in Pyne Hall was disbanded. The entryways there and all over campus became coed, with male coeds segregated from female coeds by floor or by bathroom facilities. About 300 more girls arrived, some as freshmen, some as transfers into our class. The ratio dropped from 1:20 to one girl to every ten boys. When we could no longer recognize a girl as a coed or as a date, we finally began to feel as if part of the campus in some way belonged to us, and we belonged within it.
We became part of the clubs and of Bicker. To the delight of some of the men and to the disgust of others, we entered the varsity sport life. Girls were some of the best swimmers, di-vers, tennis, and squash players in the country. Even the boys had to admire the best of the girl jocks. One student could not stay around to graduate. She had been drafted by the Israeli army.
As I look back on the four years during which I have been and have been called a coed, I wonder what a woman at Princeton has come to represent. She lives almost anywhere on campus — Holder, Witherspoon, and even Blair. She can eat and party anywhere, except she still must be a date of three of the private clubs which will not bicker women. She is a member of the undefeated tennis, squash and swimming teams and of a winning field hockey team. She rows at 6:30 a.m. as part of a crew which won the Easterns last year and set a national record.
She holds executive positions on the Princetonian and on the UGA. She wins major academic prizes and scholarships. She has professional or scholarly career aspirations. She cannot believe the stories of the locked entryways in Pyne or the cattle-drive mixers in Dillon Gym.
Academically, when measured by the grades she receives for her work, she performs better than her male peers. Professors have commented that the addition of women to the preceptorial results in livelier discussions and a higher level of intellectual discourse. All-male precepts have become a quiet exception. In precepts with a fairly even number of men and women, instructors have noted that it is the women who make most of the class contributions. If, in what now must too be an exception, there is only one woman in a precept, she is usually somewhat tense, as are the men, a teacher recently told me.
But more than ratios have changed. Many members of the faculty have outgrown their preconception that women have a different perspective on issues which, in most instances, are asexual in nature. We are no longer prodded to expound upon the women’s point of view. Socially, there is less pressure to partake in the Big Weekend-date syndrome. The university and the proctors no longer act in loco parentis. Many clubs have become nonselective; most have become coed. There are two large residential colleges. There are kitchens in many sectors of the campus for independents-those students who do not wish to subscribe to university or private eating facilities.
More than ratios have changed. Many members of the faculty have outgrown their preconception that women have a different perspective on issues which, in most instances, are asexual in nature. We are no longer prodded to expound upon the women’s point of view.
Yes, Princeton is still intact. The initial apprehension of faculty, administration, trustees and students has subsided. Coeducation has not resulted in the decline of anything (morals, alumni giving, scholarly achievement) that would not have fallen, or risen anyway in response to the changing social and economic atmosphere of the country. Princeton has succeeded in attracting more qualified applicants, although the percentage of those matriculating has continued to decline slowly as it has at Harvard and Yale.
The Old Princeton has disappeared only in the sense that Princeton students no longer participate in all Princeton traditions as a unified group. Some maintain the social, personal and academic styles that were prevalent in the time of their fathers and grandfathers. Others feel that different approaches (to sports, weekends, and personal relationships) have enhanced the more traditional aspects of a social life to which one once felt obligated to adhere — clubs, stag flicks, big parties, and weekend-only dates.
This year there is almost a three-to-one ratio on the campus. Next year there will be 1,200 women here. That means that even last year, I was able to regain some of the privacy I had not known since high school.
The changes are more startling than the statistics indicate. Two years ago there were only two women eating on Prospect Street. The prevailing attitude was that men in many of the clubs did not ever want women to join them. Seventeen percent of selective club membership is now female. A graduate trustee of one of the clubs confessed during a recent meeting that he and the graduate board had feared that too many women would sign in last February. That would have created the first sorority in Princeton history.
READ MORE: “The Education of Women at Princeton”
The 1968 report that paved the way for coeducation
Four years of coeducation have had a physical impact. It means that you can see women all the time on campus. It means that Firestone has women on every floor, so that you are no longer pierced by an “oh, you’re the studious kind” stare when you walk through the stacks. It means that there are now rest rooms on every floor.
It means that in June, the first class to have seen four years of fellow female students will be graduated. It means that next September, when the Class of ’77 arrives, all the males at this university will have applied here knowing that it is a coeducational campus, unlike the men of ’73 who learned that there were to be girls in Pyne Hall during April of their senior year in high school.
It means that no one will really talk about coeducation and bad times, and the scars which have amazed and obsessed so many of us. It means that I would love to be a freshman, even again, even at Princeton.