How Smart Women Got the Chance

Patricia Hollander Gross/Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University
Students graduating from Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts, June 1962

In encounters with undergraduates at Yale, where I teach, it occasionally comes up in conversation that until 1969, when 284 women were admitted to the class of 1973, Yale College was for men only. The response I get, from young women and men alike, is one of incredulity. We had no idea, they tell me.

And indeed, why would they? Yale, along with the other Ivy League universities, admits roughly equal numbers of men and women today. At these schools, women run the student newspapers, play varsity sports, compete on equal footing for the most prestigious postgraduate fellowships. Women are serving or have served as presidents of more than half the Ivies. Besides, 1969 is long ago on the time horizon of a college undergraduate. I graduated from the college then known as Radcliffe in 1968. Anyone who might have referred then to an episode of Radcliffe or Harvard history from an equivalently long time before—that is to say, from 1920—would have seemed a faint voice from an irrelevant antiquity.

Nancy Weiss Malkiel’s “Keep the Damned Women Out”, a painstakingly detailed account of how coeducation came to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, is an invaluable antidote to the amnesia that has come to envelop the subject. More than that, it is an important work of cultural history. It seems a truism to observe that so profound a change could not have occurred in a vacuum, and Malkiel takes full account of the social and political revolutions that were convulsing the country in the 1960s. But she digs deeper to show how, as the decade neared its end, the leaders of Yale and Princeton realized that the mission these institutions had long assigned themselves of producing the nation’s leaders would soon be unsustainable in the absence of coeducation.

An emeritus professor of history at Princeton, where she served as dean of the college for twenty-four years, Malkiel writes with an insider’s knowledge of her own institution and from a historian’s meticulous reconstruction of what happened at the others, using official archives, oral histories, and her own interviews of the participants. Her account dovetails with Jerome Karabel’s important 2005 book, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.

But while Karabel’s “hidden history” dwells on the contortions these schools went through in order to maintain themselves as preserves for white Anglo-Saxon Protestants before that goal became untenable, Malkiel’s story of coeducation played out largely in the public eye. And no wonder: it was socially acceptable to have a public conversation about excluding women long after the inventive strategies these universities used to keep Jews out could no longer be discussed openly. (For an enlightening account of that subject, see Dan A. Oren’s 1985 book, Joining the Club: A History of Jews and Yale.) Up until the year before the first cohort of female undergraduates arrived at Yale, the freshman handbook included this passage, as it had for years: “Treat Yale as you would a good woman; take advantage of her many gifts, nourish yourself with the fruit of her wisdom, curse her if you will, but congratulate yourself in your possession of her.”

It would be uplifting to be able to recount that an epiphany had struck Presidents Kingman Brewster of Yale and Robert Goheen of Princeton in the late 1960s, revealing to them that the leadership class they were dedicated to producing—replicating, really—might actually include women. But as Malkiel shows, these universities and their leaders were responding not to women’s interests, but to their own. Yale and Princeton were beginning to lose the applicants they most wanted, young men of the greatest academic and nonacademic talents, who in growing numbers were turning down offers of admission in order to attend such coeducational colleges as the University of Chicago, which began admitting women shortly after its founding in 1892. In the spring of 1968, 132 men whom Princeton had admitted to the class of 1972 said “no thanks” and went to Harvard. In early 1967, Brewster, then in the midst of courting Vassar College to relocate to New Haven, told more than one thousand Yale alumni that “our concern is not so much what Yale can do for women but what can women do for Yale.” At about the same time, Goheen explained to a Princeton alumnus that without coeducation, Princeton would “inevitably become a second-rate institution.”

In a somewhat different category, Harvard plays a vital onstage and offstage part in Malkiel’s account. Harvard had long assumed responsibility for educating the female students admitted by and housed at Radcliffe College, founded in 1879 as the Harvard Annex. Classroom instruction had been coeducational since the late 1940s. The arrangement between the separately endowed institutions was an awkward one, with the ratio of male to female students fixed at 4:1. Numerous Harvard opportunities including, bizarrely, access to the undergraduate library, were kept off-limits to Radcliffe women. But with all its odd features, the arrangement did offer Harvard men the experience of coeducation and made Harvard a magnet for growing numbers of the applicants Yale and Princeton wanted.

Harvard began to award degrees to Radcliffe graduates in 1963 and finally merged with Radcliffe in 1999, with Radcliffe becoming an institute for advanced study and retaining a few of the college’s prized assets, most notably the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. That denouement is outside the period Malkiel’s book deals with, and she mentions it, and the delicate negotiations that preceded it, only in passing. But she finds much of interest in the excruciating minuet that the two institutions engaged in during the more than thirty years that led to that moment.

Both President Nathan Pusey of Harvard and President Mary Ingraham “Polly” Bunting of Radcliffe would have happily agreed on a merger by the late 1960s, with Bunting persuaded that it was the only path to full equality for female undergraduates. But Radcliffe’s board and alumnae leadership were afraid that Harvard would simply swallow Radcliffe and its proud legacy without a trace. One board member recounted: “We went around the table giving our impressions of how we felt about it and I, somehow, pulled myself up and thought to myself: ‘Who am I to be sitting here at the demise of Radcliffe College?’” So Pusey’s and Bunting’s successors were left to approach the goal obliquely. Every intermediate step was complicated, even merging the two schools’ admissions offices; it turned out that the highest-paid employee in the Radcliffe office had the same salary as the lowest-paid person on the Harvard side.

One way or another, men and women would keep going to classes together at Harvard, as they had for decades, even without being able to study side by side in the library until 1967. The heart of Malkiel’s story takes place at Yale and Princeton. (She also touches on the rocky arrival of coeducation at Dartmouth. The book’s title comes from a letter sent by a Dartmouth alumnus to the board of trustees while coeducation was being debated: “For God’s sake, for Dartmouth’s sake and for everyone’s sake, keep the damned women out.”) Unlike Harvard and Radcliffe, Princeton and Yale didn’t have thirty years to ponder the question. Both Presidents Goheen and Brewster regarded the matter as urgent, with the time for finding a pathway to coeducation to be measured in months, not years.

In the fall of 1967, Goheen and his provost (and eventual successor), William G. Bowen, set up a faculty committee to study the question. Part of the committee’s mission was to interview Princeton faculty members who had experience with coeducation. As Malkiel describes the questions they considered, what comes through is ignorance laced with panic:

What difference did having men and women in the classroom make in terms of class participation? Was there any validity to the “oft-repeated assertion that bright girls ‘play dumb’” in classes with men? Did coeducation increase the level of men’s participation so that they would avoid appearing dumb in front of the women? Was “a greater variety of approaches and viewpoints” voiced in coeducational classes? How did the presence of students of both sexes affect student preparation, instructor preparation, and the quality of teaching? Were men reluctant to enroll in, or attracted to, classes with substantial numbers of women? And what of women’s inclinations with respect to classes with substantial numbers of men? Were women more demanding than men of time in office hours?

In other words, was life as we know it about to change, and for the worse? Some important members of the Princeton administration thought so. Arthur J. Horton, the university’s director of development and a 1942 graduate, did everything he could to stem the tide, writing to the head of the faculty committee: “I’m not against females, not against the idea of higher education for them, not against their role in the country. I just don’t see why we feel we should necessarily concern ourselves with educating a few of them” at what he called “the very real risk of spoiling the esprit” that made Princeton Princeton.

Other obstacles came in the form of alumni and current students—young men who, after all, had made the explicit and increasingly countercultural choice to attend a single-sex college. Samuel A. Alito Jr., a member of the class of 1972, would later join an organization called Concerned Alumni of Princeton and would use this affiliation as a conservative credential when he applied for a job in the Reagan Justice Department in 1985. Malkiel doesn’t mention this, but she does discuss the organization at some length, describing its viewpoint as:

Everything about the “new” Princeton was troubling: not only coeducation and the admission of significant members of black students but also the increasing emphasis on drawing students from more modest socioeconomic backgrounds and from public schools, the downplaying of the admission of alumni sons, campus protests over the Vietnam War, the retreat from ROTC, and a philosophical imbalance that tilted toward leftists and “liberal-radical[s]” among the faculty.

Challenged during his 2006 Supreme Court confirmation hearing by Democratic senators who read aloud inflammatory passages from the organization’s magazine, Alito testified that he didn’t remember having joined.

Princeton invited female high school seniors to apply for admission to the class of 1973. But as applications poured in by the hundreds during the spring of 1969, when admissions decisions would have to be made, the outcome of the board’s deliberations on coeducation remained so uncertain that the admissions office prepared two sets of letters: one, to thank applicants for their interest but tell them that the admission of women had not yet been authorized, and the other, accepting or rejecting applicants in the usual manner. Finally, in mid-April, the board voted overwhelmingly to go ahead with coeducation, encouraged by the knowledge that Yale had already decided to do the same thing. (Malkiel also looks across the Atlantic at the admission of women to formerly all-male colleges at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. The process there went more smoothly because of institutional differences that spared individual colleges from having to deal with boards and alumni on the question.)

In later chapters, Malkiel makes it clear that a seat in the classroom was just the beginning for these young pioneers who had ventured into an alien landscape. Yale had two tenured women on its faculty. Princeton had given tenure to its first woman a year earlier (informing her of the successful tenure vote with a letter that began “Dear Sir”). A female student who asked the head of Yale’s history department about offering a course in women’s history was told, “That would be like teaching the history of dogs.” A Princeton English professor responded to a female student who wanted to write a paper on women writers: “I’m interested in auto mechanics, but I don’t try to bring that into the curriculum.”

But these women were tough, and proved themselves soon enough. In Princeton’s first coeducational class of 1973, women were 18 percent of the class but 32 percent of those elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and the captain of the women’s tennis team was deemed “Princeton’s Best Athlete” on the cover of the alumni magazine.

If that were the end of the story, we could all breathe a sigh of relief and turn the page. But there is much more to say. The admission of women to the Ivy League had serious consequences for the single-sex colleges that had previously attracted many of the brightest women. Malkiel looks closely at the impact on Smith and Wellesley, which have survived as women’s colleges, and on Vassar, which might once have struck a deal with Yale and in the end turned to coeducation as a survival strategy. It’s also clear all these years later that there is still a good deal to learn about creating a classroom and campus environment in which young women can thrive. The questions the Princeton faculty committee confronted in 1968 have yet to be fully answered.

In a sobering epilogue, Malkiel observes that “coeducation has not resolved longstanding complexities in the relations between men and women.” Sexual harassment and assault on campus are rather recent arrivals to the news columns, but they are not new phenomena. The roots of this behavior are deep. Early in the coeducation experience at Dartmouth,

Men sitting on the roof of Massachusetts Hall shouted numbers from one to ten as women students walked by—with the numbers meant as ratings of the women’s attractiveness. The same happened in the dining hall, where men held up signs bearing numerical ratings “as if you had just completed a dive.” One woman reflected, “No matter how cool you were, no matter how self-possessed you were as a woman and mind you a lot of us were 18 at the time it was devastating.”

Fast forward two generations, and we have Harvard’s discovery last fall that members of its men’s cross-country and soccer teams had for years been issuing crude and sexualized rankings of many women. The university canceled the soccer season and put the cross-country team on probation. Similar behavior came to light at other universities. Harvard has also wrestled with the problem of sexual assault on the premises of the private all-male clubs that exist without official university recognition while continuing to have an outsized part in undergraduate social life.

Incidents like these provide a footnote, at once poignant and maddening, to a comment a Yale undergraduate made to the Yale Daily News in 1968, explaining why he favored coeducation. At an all-male college, this young man said,

You get entangled in a weekend-to-weekend existence, and you become a product of it. You lose sight of the simple fact that girls are people, just like you and me. Instead they become things to play with on allotted days. Things.

That was an accurate description of the problem, surely, but it also expressed a naive belief in coeducation as the cure. All too often on all too many campuses, it appears, women are still seen as they were back then: as things.

With some 6,900 accredited postsecondary educational institutions in the country, one might question Malkiel’s focus—and Karabel’s before her—on a tiny handful of elite institutions. Surely the contemporaneous integration of women into the flagship state universities in North Carolina and Virginia has symbolic as well as practical significance, to speak nothing of the arrival of women as cadets and midshipmen at the service academies a few years later. True enough. But Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are not only leaders in American higher education; they have the power to set priorities and define the purposes of education. Even if their motivation was largely self-interested—a bow to the inevitable, a reflection of a changing world rather than a desire to effect change—their admission of women told the world that at least as a formal matter, women belonged. The recent sexual assault scandals—along with the continuing severe underrepresentation of women among university teachers—show us how much work still needs to be done.

Coeducation, Malkiel observes, “accompanied, but did not cause, more profound social transformations in these colleges and universities.” Referring to increased diversity along racial and ethnic lines, she adds: “Elite education became less aristocratic and more democratic/meritocratic—again, in parallel with, but not as a result of, coeducation.” Keeping their doors closed to women was simply unsustainable for institutions at risk of becoming anachronisms.

As I finished reading “Keep the Damned Women Out”, I thought back to my own graduation from Radcliffe in 1968. Our small commencement ceremony—there were only three hundred women in the class—was held in the Radcliffe yard, a few blocks from the thousands gathered in Harvard Yard for the university commencement. Our graduation speaker was Walter E. Washington, the mayor of Washington, D.C., great-grandson of a slave and the father of a classmate who was one of the handful of African-American students.

The Harvard men’s graduation speaker was the Shah of Iran. In pomp and ceremony, we were far outshone. Some of us, the white armbands on our robes signifying opposition to the war in Vietnam, even felt a little cheated. The Harvard ceremony up the street was unfolding on a world stage. Ours seemed by contrast small bore, domestic if you will. But it now occurs to me to ask of these two long-ago events: Which represented the past, and which the future?