Coeducation at Princeton

Jane Leifer, left, and Lisa Dorota Tebbe, right, hoisting the Class of ’73 Coeducation P-rade banner. In the foreground is Elaine Chan.

Recollections After 50 Years

By Donald Gilpin

As lunchtime approached, my two roommates and I, all of us sophomores, peered out the window of our second story Laughlin Hall dormitory room, watching the pathway below leading towards Blair Arch and the Commons dining halls beyond. It was September 1969. Nixon was in the White House, the Vietnam War continued, The Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” was No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and Princeton University had just admitted regularly-enrolled undergraduate women for the first time.

A young woman came into sight, walking up the path. Sandy Stuart, the bravest of the three of us, quickly headed out the door. We watched as he hustled to catch up to the “coed,” as the 149 regular undergraduate women were called, hoping to introduce himself and maybe even sit next to her at lunch.

His odds were not good. With a ratio of 19 undergraduate men to each woman in Princeton’s first year of coeducation, most male students would find that male-female encounters were rare, and most female students would suggest that encounters with Princeton males were likely to be awkward, unnatural, or worse. 

After 223 years as an institution devoted exclusively to the education of men, Princeton University decided and implemented its first year of educating women with uncharacteristic alacrity. The times were changing in all sorts of ways, politically and socially; Yale was admitting women for the first time in the fall of 1969; the most highly qualified applicants from the top public and private secondary schools in the country were overwhelmingly showing a preference for coeducational colleges and universities; and the mood on campus, among students and professors, was strongly, perhaps even urgently, in favor of opening the doors of Princeton to women — for practical, academic, social, cultural, and political reasons. 

Women arrive on campus, 1969. Woman walking into Princeton University Admissions Office, 1969. (Princeton University Library)

Among the members of the board of trustees and the loyal and generous alumni, opinions were more divided, and, in some cases, opposition to admitting women to Princeton was much more overt. Enraged alumni wrote in to Princeton Alumni Weekly, to the administration, and to the development office, some threatening to never give their beloved alma mater another dollar.

But the forward-looking majority prevailed, and the tradition-bound University made the decision in January 1969 to admit women as regular undergraduates, then in April decided that in September the first freshman women, along with a small contingent of transfers and women in the Critical Languages Program, would launch Princeton University into a new era of educating both genders.

Citing expert opinions that a coeducational environment would strengthen academics and better prepare students for the late 20th-century world, the board stated, “A Princeton which persisted in denying admission to women applicants probably could not long maintain a strong position of leadership in the nation.”

The Patterson Report, an extensive study which weighed heavily in the trustees’ deliberations, had recommended an optimal ratio of 3:1, a far cry from the first year’s 19:1 men to women, but the University was not going to wait any longer. Pyne Hall was designated as the women’s dormitory and was refurbished with new lounges, a kitchen, additional bathrooms, curtains on the windows, and locks on the doors. 

“Like Pioneers”

On Saturday, September 6, 1969, the women arrived, 101 freshmen and 48 transfer students. Stuart, formerly a photographer and journalist, now a businessman, remembers that day. He was the chief photographer at the time for an
undergraduate publication called The Princeton Notice — in charge of covering the first day of coeducation.

“I remember the girls arrived at Pyne Hall with their parents, and there were so many guys standing around, just looking, thinking, ‘Who are these ladies who have come into our world?’” 

Stuart, with an outgoing personality and his job as photographer, was able to overcome the challenges of getting to know the vastly outnumbered coeds. From his point of view, coeducation, at least outside the classroom — perhaps much less so in the classroom — was a success from the start. 

“They were impressive women to me,” Stuart said, “because they knew they were a minority and yet they carried themselves like pioneers. They really did. They would go to class and the professor would come in and say, ‘Gentlemen…and lady,’ because there would be about one woman in each lecture class. There was pressure on them, but they were high performing, very capable people. The first year must have been tough on those women.”

He described his perspective on the contrast between his freshmen year 1968-69, when “every Friday these American Tourister suitcases would come to campus, then leave on Sunday,” and the following year when he developed a range of friendships, more than one still going strong after 50 years.

“It was really great to become friends with these women and not feel that you’re in dating mode. You could have a casual friendship, just drop by and there wasn’t this heavy atmosphere that something was going to happen. You could just talk.” 

He added, “I appreciated that.  It helped me to get a better perspective. For me it was interesting to see the institution bend and flex in those early years — or at least try to.” 

Noting how one of his lifetime friendships started, Stuart described how he would photograph the campus and its newest students. “I kept noticing that a particular beautiful woman kept showing up in my photographs. It turned out it was Lisa Halaby, the future Queen Noor. I felt like I was her personal photographer, and I didn’t even know her at first, but we became great friends.” 

In addition to his memories of some professors experiencing awkwardness in dealing with women in their classes for the first time, Stuart also recalled the remarkable accomplishments of the women’s athletic teams, overcoming difficulties with inferior facilities and equipment and a traditional male sports culture that was not always ready to embrace coeducation. 

“To me,” Stuart concluded, “Princeton was totally transformed. It was even transformed in that first year by those brave women.”

For others, the transformation was not so apparent, nor so felicitous. Stuart himself, whose father had also gone to Princeton, remembers the reactions of some of his father’s friends. “They were never going to give a cent to Princeton again, they said. I don’t know whether they held onto that or not.”

And the reactions of two of Stuart’s classmates, looking back 50 years, were perhaps more typical. “Coeducation had absolutely no impact on my Princeton existence,” said David Barkhausen, a Chicago-area businessman, lawyer, and 1972 Princeton graduate. “I have no recollection of any woman in any of my classes.”

Dan Schwartz, retired international businessman and former Nevada state treasurer, also Princeton Class of 1972, reflected similarly. He described the failure of plans he and his roommates devised to engage with the new female students. “During room draw, my roommates and I chose a room in 1901 Hall overlooking Pyne where the coeds were housed,” he said. “That’s about as close as we came to seeing them on campus. Things got a little better by senior year, but my guess is a couple of decades passed before Princeton became truly coed.” 

“We Became a Kind Of ‘Third Sex'”

Liz Cohen, 1973 Princeton graduate, now a history professor at Harvard University and former dean of the Radcliffe Institute, saw Princeton adapting rapidly to coeducation after the first year. “Over the four years I was a Princeton undergraduate, from the fall of 1969 to the spring of 1973, I experienced tremendous improvement in the environment for women students, and surely for men as well,” she wrote in an email. 

“At first there were so few of us that we couldn’t possibly transform the dominant social scene,” she continued. “Hence we became a kind of ‘third sex’ — apart from our male peers but also distinct from the female dates who visited for the weekend from the women’s colleges. And in classes, our small numbers made us mouthpieces of our gender rather than individuals with unique opinions.”

She described some of the transformations that took place in the context of national and international political upheavals that were taking place as the first year of coeducation at Princeton drew to a close. “For me personally, the politics on campus in the spring of 1970 made a huge difference,” Cohen recalled. “Not only did they engage me with serious activism, but they drew me into a true community of peers — men and women — who shared common commitments and experiences. These friends still define my Princeton world, as we hold our own biennial reunions and I have been married to one from this group for over 40 years.”

And as for the next generation, Cohen continued, “In contrast to my experience in that first class of women, my daughter (Class of 2009) had a fully coeducational social and academic experience — and she too married one of her classmates.” 

Alice Fahs, who joined the class of 1973 for her junior and senior years, described Princeton, even in its third year of coeducation, as “an alien and strange place to be,” but noted that the original 101 faced more prejudice than women transfers.

“It was really odd,” she recalled, “but I didn’t have horrendous experiences either socially or in the classroom.” Now history professor emeritus at UC Irvine, Fahs, who won the Princeton English Department prize for best senior thesis in 1973, described positive experiences in the classroom and supportive professors. She fondly remembered her advisor A. Walton Litz as “inspiring — absolutely wonderful to work with.” She added, “I really appreciated being taken seriously by those professors.” 

Susan Merrill Squier, who graduated with the class of 1972, also transferring to Princeton for her junior and senior years, described a more problematic academic experience, as Princeton’s professors, still almost entirely male, continued to navigate the challenges of coeducation.

She remembers a Chaucer professor mocking the Wife of Bath and “creating what we would call now a ‘chilly climate’ for women, to put it mildly,” and another “rather chilly place for a woman” in a poetry seminar where the presiding professor/poet made fun of her “pinky writing.”  Squier, who is now professor emerita of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies and English at Penn State, won three different University poetry prizes in her senior year.

In an essay titled “Trials of the Coed 100,” published in the Princeton Alumni Weekly in 1973, Jane Leifer, at the end of her four years as a Princeton undergraduate, wrote, “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.”

She went on to reflect on her feelings and experiences during Princeton’s first four years of coeducation. “During my freshman year,” she wrote, “coeds were to the Princeton campus as ladies’ rest rooms were to classroom buildings — scarce and hard to find.” She described the stately freshman dining hall. “The eyes of the portraits hung high on the wall bored into me with looks of disapproval. 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.”

The male tradition, the awkwardness of many male classmates and professors, and the dearth of other females all contributed to the oppressiveness and loneliness often experienced by Leifer and other women during the first years. Princeton’s first women undergraduates did receive a lot of attention, but that attention was often unwanted and discomfiting.

“We wanted to be just people, but we were in a system which could see us only as coeds and freaks,” Leifer said. “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 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.”

Gale Gilleaudeau Stafford, left, and Macie Hall Rensselaer lining up for Reunions P-rade.

“Best Thing … Since 1746”

The first year of coeducation at Princeton was, for most, no honeymoon, despite a humanizing effect on the overall campus environment and some glowing reports from academic quarters. The biggest problem was the lopsided ratio of men to women, which added to the institution’s difficulties in adapting rapidly and effectively.

By most accounts the second year, with more than 400 undergraduate women in six different dormitories spread throughout the campus, significantly improved the social and educational environment. “Princeton did not become a truly coeducational campus until our sophomore year, when the female ghetto in Pyne Hall was disbanded,” Leifer wrote. “The entryways there and all over campus became coed, with male coeds segregated from female coeds by floor or by bathroom facilities. We finally began to feel as if part of the campus in some way belonged to us, and we belonged within it.”

After my freshman year, 1968-69, in Princeton’s 223rd and final year as an all-male institution, and my sophomore year, 1969-70, still in a predominantly male environment, I took a gap year and missed the second year of coeducation.

My motives for taking a gap year in 1970-71 had nothing to do with coeducation, but the transformation of Princeton from spring 1970 to fall 1971 seemed remarkable. The pace of adaptation to coeducation had accelerated dramatically. Huge progress towards normalization was evident, with 327 freshman women, 751 women regularly enrolled in all four classes, and a 4.2:1 male-female ratio, down from 19:1 two years earlier.

Increasing in influence as well as numbers, women began to make their mark and excel in every facet of University life. With admissions for women significantly more selective than for men, it was not surprising that there were women leading student government, campus publications, and other student organizations; winning major academic awards and scholarships; fielding first-rate championship sports teams; even joining all except three of the staid Prospect Street eating clubs. (Cottage Club would not admit women until 1986, and Ivy and Tiger Inn five years later, after a 12-year legal battle waged by 1980 graduate Sally Frank.)

The Princeton I returned to in 1971 for my junior and senior years was a different place from the Princeton of my freshman and sophomore years. The dynamic impact of women in the classroom as colleagues, dramatically raising the level of discussion and engagement for all, and the humanizing effect of women in all facets of campus life truly had transformed the University. And despite dire predictions from some quarters, the admissions and development offices were both reporting record results. Princeton had, and may still have, a way to go to achieve full gender equity, but those first years of coeducation were ones of remarkable progress.

Nancy Weiss Malkiel, in “Keep the Damned Women Out”: The Struggle for Coeducation, her 2016 landmark study of the history of coeducation at top American and British universities, quotes professors looking back on the first decade of coeducation from a 1980 report by Princeton President William G. Bowen. “This University is, in my view, infinitely richer, more varied, more intellectually interesting, more warmly human than it ever was before 1969,” said Edward D. Sullivan, professor of romance languages and literatures and former dean.

Even more succinctly, Charles Gillespie, history professor and director of the Program in History and Science, added, “I have no doubt that [coeducation] is the best thing that has happened to Princeton since 1746.”