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:…

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