‘KEEP THE DAMNED WOMEN OUT’: The  Struggle for Coeducation

By Nancy Weiss Malkiel.

Princeton University Press.  646 pp. $35

There is something inherently romantic about revolution, or at least there is supposed to be. Fighting the establishment, upending entrenched interests, changing the world — all that good stuff — is wrapped up in ad­ven­ture, emotion and odds-defying victories. Revolution isn’t supposed to be dull.

Nancy Weiss Malkiel’s book about the advent of coeducation at America’s most elite colleges and universities is fascinating precisely because its story is so prosaic. The way undergraduate women broke into several Ivy League schools in the late 1960s and early 1970s is not a story about gender-equality protests or social movements rushing at the barricades. Instead, “Keep the Damned Women Out” is about boards of trustees, skeptical alumni, endless special reports and joint committees, and, above all, white male university presidents who did the right thing for the most mundane and often self-interested of reasons.

“As appealing as it might be to imagine the coming of coeducation as one element in the full flowering of mid- to late twentieth-century feminism, such a narrative would be at odds with the historical record,” writes Malkiel, a historian and longtime dean at Princeton. “Coeducation resulted not from organized efforts by women activists but from strategic decisions taken by powerful men.”

Malkiel focuses on Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Dartmouth, as well as women’s colleges such as Vassar, Smith and Wellesley, which grappled with the pros and cons of coeducation long after it was common elsewhere in American higher education. The civil rights, feminist and student movements of the era are a constant backdrop — and Malkiel notes that as elite schools attempted to diversify their male student bodies by race, religion and socioeconomic background, “it became increasingly anachronistic to draw the line at admitting women” — but they are not major pressure points in the tale.

No, in the author’s telling, the key motivating factor for coeducation was competition within the Ivy League for top-flight male applicants, who increasingly preferred a coed environment. For instance, this put Yale, moored in New Haven, Conn., at a disadvantage against Harvard, which had Radcliffe College and other institutions nearby. For Yale President Kingman Brewster Jr., the answer was clear. As he told a 1967 gathering of alumni, “our concern is not so much what Yale can do for women but what can women do for Yale.” Similarly, Princeton President Robert F. Goheen told the university board in 1967 that the school was “beginning to become comparatively less attractive to some applicants whom we would like to have because of lack of girls here.” In these bastions of maleness, administrators at times regarded the prospect of female students as one more amenity, like better athletic facilities, to entice male students.

Of course, university presidents also cited the imperative to offer the best possible education to a previously excluded population, but their priorities are evident in the solutions they considered. Rather than embrace coeducation wholeheartedly, they explored options short of full equality. Yale and Vassar discussed relocating the women’s college from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to New Haven, while Dartmouth considered tapping a wealthy donor to establish a “coordinated” college for women close to the Hanover, N.H., campus. Schools first envisioned more visiting students, exchange programs — anything other than going fully coed.

A major consideration was the impact on donors. “The ultimate threat,” Malkiel writes, was a drop in financial support from newly disgruntled alums if women were admitted. “If Princeton becomes coeducational I will cease permanently all contributions to Annual Giving,” wrote a member of the Class of 1933. While current students and younger alumni were most enthused at the prospect of coeducation, older graduates were typically most resistant.

“Gentlemen — let’s face it — charming as women are — they get to be a drag if you are forced to associate with them each and every day,” a Yale graduate wrote to the school’s alumni magazine. “Think of the poor student who has a steady date — he wants to concentrate on the basic principles of thermodynamics, but she keeps trying to gossip about the idiotic trivia all women try to impose on men.” Alumni also feared a wholesale remaking of their beloved colleges. “As the castrated bull must be renamed steer, so, too, must a coeducational Dartmouth find a new identity, for its character is fundamentally altered,” one graduate wrote of the prospect for coeducation. (Malkiel notes that at Dartmouth, “the virtues of an all-male community were celebrated more assertively” than elsewhere; indeed, the book’s title comes from a letter to Dartmouth trustees from an angry alumnus.)

As schools edged closer to coeducation, the pressures of competition — which Ivy would get there first? — overcame worries about obstreperous graduates. “Women were coming to Yale in September 1969, and Princeton could not imagine allowing Yale to take the lead,” Malkiel writes. Or as Radcliffe College board chairwoman Helen Gilbert complained about the long-running negotiations with Harvard, “In the baldest terms, Harvard appears to want to stay ahead of Yale and Princeton and merely absorb Radcliffe.”

The schools approached the process differently: Princeton was particularly studious, first commissioning a massive report from economics professor Gardner Patterson to study all aspects of a potential move to coeducation; Yale jumped in with less preparation, resulting in a more harrowing transition for its new female undergraduates; Harvard steadily deepened its de facto integration with Radcliffe; and Dartmouth, for all its macho bluster, ended up with a more “affirmative case,” Malkiel writes, for educating women. “It is clear that women now will be playing an increasing role of leadership in our society and that Dartmouth can, and should, contribute to their education,” the trustees announced, “making it possible for them to become, as Dartmouth men have through two centuries, outstanding doctors, lawyers, business leaders, scientists, and leaders in government.”

The experiences of the new female undergraduates — in many cases, schools had long granted graduate degrees to women — make up some of the most compelling aspects of “Keep the Damned Women Out,” but their stories get a little lost among the bureaucratic processes that Malkiel details. Yale sought female applicants who evinced “a certain toughness, a pioneering quality,” Malkiel writes, traits they would certainly need. New female students endured sexism, resentment and outright hostility, and especially in the initial years, they were treated like curiosities. At Yale, women recalled the sensation of being constantly watched, of always being asked for the “women’s point of view,” even in math classes. One early Princetonian said that her high school experience as an exchange student in India “did me good, because I felt I was in a foreign country. . . . I had never before felt so alone as a girl.”

Malkiel herself was one of the first female faculty members at Princeton, and she offers a memorable anecdote about her arrival. When she interviewed for a post in the history department, the chairman told her “that the department did not have a policy against hiring women,” Malkiel recalls. “It was just that no one had ever suggested it before.”

The author devotes less but still considerable attention to how women’s colleges deliberated in this same period. Vassar pondered an association with Yale before opting instead to begin admitting men. Smith remained all-female, swayed in part by a stirring 1971 commencement speech from Gloria Steinem, Class of 1956. Wellesley, which considered paths toward coeducation while Hillary Rodham was student government president there (“consult with Hillary,” the college’s executive vice president reminded himself in a note), eventually held on to its women-only tradition.

While in past generations, Malkiel writes, some of the most prominent American women in politics, business and the arts were graduates of women’s colleges — such as Katharine Graham and Meryl Streep of Vassar, as well as Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright of Wellesley — many trailblazing women of the next generation, such as Princeton graduates and Supreme Court justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, hail from the newly integrated Ivies. “There was no difficulty at all in getting women to apply to Princeton and Yale,” Malkiel explains. “But it was not at all easy to persuade men to apply to a college that had, until very recently, been exclusively for women.”

Perhaps the account feels less than revolutionary because, in Malkiel’s eyes, “coeducation did not mean revolution.” She concludes that women have adapted to these venerable institutions more than they have transformed them. And coeducation has hardly resolved challenges involving sexual harassment and assault, as well as the persistence of gendered fields of study for men and women.

Nonetheless, this hefty book offers a compelling study of institutional change that came not because it was demanded, and not because the motives of its agents were pure. More simply, it was about damned time.

Correction: A previous version of this review referred to the Ivy League as having been “all-male” prior to the 1960s and 1970s. Although several Ivy League schools did not adopt full coeducation until that period, others, such as Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania, had begun admitting female undergraduate students decades earlier.

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