The Chronicle Review

How the Ivies Went Coed

AP Photo/Frank C. Curtin

Some Radcliffe College students chose to transfer to Yale in 1969, when it began to admit women.
April 16, 2017 Premium

The most entertaining part of any Ivy League alumni magazine is, invariably, the letters section. Here one finds lyric missives from former students, many of whom graduated decades ago and wax nostalgic about their beloved alma maters: "fair Harvard," "old Yale."

In the past year and a half, letters sections have become battlegrounds where the forces of tradition are pitted against those of change. Often baroque in style, sometimes histrionic in tone, these letters appeal to administrators to resist, in the words of one disgruntled Yale alumnus, the "tyranny of the minority." (He was talking of those who called for the renaming of Calhoun College.) Letter writers implore the university to fortify itself against the winds of change. "Every time an institution of higher learning caves in to such ignorance it loses a gem in its crown," wrote a Yale alumnus in the spring of 2016, dismayed by the prospective elimination of the administrative title "master." A Harvard alumnus, concerned about the proposal to penalize single-sex student organizations, submitted a paean to the institution’s erstwhile liberalism. "Their impulse to overthrow civil liberties, including the freedom of association," he wrote, "seems so ill-suited to the fair Harvard, the tolerant, liberal, live-and-let-live Harvard, the Harvard that has always shone forth as a powerful beacon for human rights. That Harvard is the true Harvard." Lurking behind letters like those is the implicit threat to withhold contributions to the endowment.

Of course, alumni outrage is not a new phenomenon. Ivy League graduates have a long history of attempting to use their financial clout to thwart their alma maters’ progressive initiatives, whether admitting more Jewish students or limiting the privileges of legacies. Universities feel pressure to keep up with the times, and to have their admissions processes reflect changing demographics and social mores. Alumni, however, often see these policy changes as betrayals of the university’s true identity and purpose. Inferior students, they sometimes suggest, are taking the spots of the more deserving (for example, their own sons). When Ivy League universities have decided to start accepting a wider range of students — people of color, women — alumni often balk at the idea that the institution must change in order to accommodate this new population. The university should hold fast to its original mission in the face of student opposition, they argue — or it should simply keep these students out.

The history of women’s entry into the Ivy League university is a case study in alumni/administration conflict. In "Keep the Damned Women Out": The Struggle for Coeducation (Princeton University Press, 2016), Nancy Weiss Malkiel, a professor emerita of history at Princeton and former dean of the college, tells the rich and compelling story of the administrators who brought coeducation to Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. Skillful presidents and wardens, she argues, managed to convince skeptical alumni that their all-male alma maters must admit women or forfeit their elite status. Coeducation was necessary to shore up class privilege.

"Keep the Damned Women Out" is, as Malkiel puts it, "a study in institutional decision-making." She conducted extensive archival research — internal memos, meeting minutes, commissioned reports, and the like — to take readers inside closed-door meetings and make them privy to delicate conversations with donors. She describes in detail the politicking and negotiating necessary to bring about this radical, often unpopular change.

A recent history of coeducation shows that student pressure played a major role in bringing it about.
Reliance on these archival sources, however, is a weakness as well as a strength: We see the process of coeducation through the eyes of administrators, who are not usually disposed to think of institutional change as anything but a tale of their own initiative. University administrators are loath to say that they made a decision as a result of student protest, or that they bent to alumni’s financial pressure. (A Yale spokeswoman recently said, of the decision to rename Calhoun College after months of student demonstrations, that "no action by anyone precipitated this or forced it in any way at all.") The danger with this approach lies in attributing too much power to administrators and too little to the divergent constituencies they were attempting to appease. The story of coeducation, when examined closely, reveals the power struggles that structure decision-making at the private university. The history of these struggles, and of their resolution, indicates how much power might lie in the hands of students today.

When Ivy League universities started exploring coeducation, alumni made their objections known. As Malkiel demonstrates, when the Yale Corporation began discussing the Education of Women, in 1966, they were met with reminders of what Yale is and should always be. "There is a glory to tradition," an alumnus wrote to the Yale Alumni Magazine. He reminded his readers, "gentlemen" all, that "charming as women are — they get to be a drag if you are forced to associate with them each and every day." "The word ‘Yale’ has a ... meaning of its own in which the element of masculinity is clearly dominant," wrote another alumnus, a graduate of the Class of 1926.

As these reactions indicate, coeducation was a radical idea, but it was also one whose time had come. (One Princeton administrator described it as "inevitable.") "Keep the Damned Women Out" begins in what Malkiel calls "the turbulent 1960s," a time when young men and women joined forces to advocate for civil rights and to protest the Vietnam War. Those social movements changed the way men and women related to each other: They were allies fighting against institutions of power, with a shared vocabulary of freedom and rights.

At the same time, higher education was becoming more democratic. In the postwar years, American universities began admitting more Catholics, Jews, and African-Americans. The Higher Education Act of 1965 made financial aid — and thus a college education — more accessible to more Americans. Meanwhile, in Britain, Oxford and Cambridge made a deliberate effort to recruit students from grammar and state schools, rather than drawing only on elite "public schools" like Eton. These changes were pragmatic as well as principled: In the context of the Cold War, universities were charged with training a wider swath of the population and increasing a nation’s "scientific manpower."

Despite these social movements and important new policies, elite universities remained bastions of conservatism. The Ivy League was still an old-boys’ club; women’s colleges continued to offer a "distinctively feminine curriculum" and to train women to be mothers and wives. Adlai Stevenson, speaking at Smith College’s commencement in 1955, said he could imagine "no better vocation" for the graduating seniors than marriage and motherhood. In this climate, it was hard for administrators at both men’s and women’s colleges to imagine an integrated educational experience at the nation’s best universities — despite the fact that students at single-sex institutions clamored for coeducation.

In the early 1960s, Mary Ingraham Bunting, president of Radcliffe, began talking with Harvard’s president, Nathan Pusey, about the possibility of merging their respective institutions. Bunting, a microbiologist, was deeply invested in improving women’s education. A former dean of Douglass College, the women’s school at Rutgers, she also founded the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, an all-female society of fellows that was designed to help highly educated, creative women restart stalled artistic and intellectual careers. A dynamic and ruthlessly practical woman, Bunting believed that much could be done to improve the experience of Radcliffe women. They had inferior dormitories, less financial aid, and lacked the kind of "collegial life" enjoyed by Harvard men. Women weren’t allowed in Lamont Library, which was open only to Harvard undergraduates, but men were welcome to infiltrate Radcliffe’s study spaces. Bunting wanted to level the playing field, and she wanted Harvard to take more responsibility for educating women.

She was, however, ahead of her time. The Radcliffe Board of Trustees was worried about preserving the college’s separate, corporate identity. Radcliffe had its own endowment, and the board wanted to continue to own and manage this money. Pusey, Bunting’s sympathetic partner in the plan, suggested they wait for fuller support from Radcliffe alumnae. It was a long time coming; Radcliffe and Harvard wouldn’t officially fully merge till 1999. Until then, the two institutions maintained a coordinate relationship, marked by increasing cooperation as the years passed.

Indeed, coordinate education was an appealing compromise to Ivy League universities toying with the idea of going coed. It could bring women and men closer together, thus enticing male high-school seniors to attend relatively isolated universities like Princeton and Yale, which often lost admitted students to Harvard, where the women were just up the road. Yale and Vassar spent two years making elaborate plans to relocate Vassar to New Haven. Princeton explored a coordinate relationship with Sarah Lawrence College. Those plans fell through; there weren’t enough incentives for women’s colleges to move. Why would Vassar leave its beautiful Poughkeepsie campus for subpar real estate in New Haven? Sarah Lawrence, meanwhile, was suspicious of Princeton’s conservatism and "academic conventionalism." When an affiliation with Princeton was proposed at a board meeting, it was, in Malkiel’s words, "quashed immediately." The board voted unanimously against it; the "overwhelming consensus was that Princeton had everything to gain and Sarah Lawrence everything to lose."

Professors took pride in addressing students as 'gentlemen,' even when a woman was present.
By the late 1960s, it was clear what the Ivies would gain from coeducation: higher yields, student approval, and the donations of alumni who could now send their daughters and granddaughters to their alma maters. As Malkiel describes it, Ivy League universities went coed out of "self-interest"; they wouldn’t be able to attract the best applicants unless they changed with the times. Princeton and Yale watched each other closely. If one institution lifted its barriers to entry, the other would have to do so as well.

But the benefits of coeducation for women were much less apparent. Bunting was unusual among presidents of women’s colleges in her belief that integration would be better for women. Many women’s colleges had sufficient endowments, loyal alumni, and long histories of educating students successfully. It wasn’t clear that opening their doors to men would improve the lives of their female students. Instead, women’s colleges worried about a "brain drain" from their ranks — and sure enough, some of the brightest undergraduates left Smith and Vassar for Yale and Princeton. Vassar eventually chose to admit men while trying to maintain an empowering educational environment for women. Its counterparts Wellesley and Smith stayed with single-sex education — and watched their admissions standards fall as a result. One of the provocative implicit arguments of Malkiel’s book is that coeducation diminished elite women’s colleges.

Many female students were curious about the Ivy League experience and eager to learn from great faculty. It wasn’t clear, though, that the Ivies were prepared to think carefully about the women’s intellectual or social needs. The "Patterson Report," which outlined and justified Princeton’s coeducation plans, published in September 1968, said little about the Education of Women. The author, Gardner Patterson, an economist, explained, "Our approach has not been ‘Do women need Princeton?’ but rather, ‘Does the Princeton of the future need women?’ " The report’s conclusion, on the second question, was affirmative.

Malkiel shows just how uneven the coeducation experience was for the few hundred women who infiltrated the Ivies in the fall of 1969. These universities, wary of rejecting male legacies and determined to educate "male leaders," accepted only a small number of women. At Yale, where 576 female freshmen and transfer students arrived in 1969, women found themselves outnumbered and alienated. Professors took pride in addressing the students as "gentlemen," even when a woman was present. In class, a lone female student would be saddled with offering the "women’s point of view," whether on a Shakespeare play or a math problem. Furthermore, Yale men couldn’t fathom dating a woman who had a seat at the seminar table, so they continued to drive to Vassar to find dates; many Yale coeds spent Saturday nights alone. When women had the temerity to ask for more women on the syllabus, they were mocked and insulted. One history professor, asked to teach a course in women’s history, said it would be like teaching "the history of dogs."

Even at Princeton, where planning was more deliberate and administrative oversight more thorough, the 170 new female students faced challenges. On moving day, their dormitory was circled by eager young men; one woman’s father threatened to put iron bars on the windows. The Princeton Alumni Weekly published one incoming female student’s SAT scores as well as her "nonacademic statistics — 35-25-35." As the semester progressed, women continued to be on display: An alumna later described the Princeton tradition of "spooning," which involved male students’ banging their spoons on the table to signal the arrival of a woman in the dining hall.

Things were worse at Dartmouth, which struggled the most with coeducation, according to Malkiel. A fraternity there composed a lewd song about the coeds — "cohogs" in Dartmouth-speak — and recruited one of the deans to sing along. In a harrowing anecdote, an alumna describes ducking rocks thrown at her by male students. The message was clear: Women were unwelcome. In the words of the fraternity’s song, they had ruined Dartmouth students’ "masculine heaven."

Nevertheless, women persisted. They proved themselves in the classroom and earned the respect of male professors and students. They agitated for more female faculty and administrators, and for course offerings in women’s literature and women’s history. They staged demonstrations to advocate for better facilities. In one telling episode, the 1976 women’s crew team at Yale showed up in the office of physical education after practice, stripped off their shirts, and delivered a message to administrators, a message scrawled in marker on their torsos: "Title IX."

Women also started agitating for equal, merit-based admissions. In February 1970, a group called Women for a Better Yale staged a protest at an alumni luncheon; their signs read "End Women’s Oppression" and "Women Up From Under." A freshman woman lectured the "stunned" guests about the plight of women at Yale. Though an alumnus present argued that "these ladies should feel privileged to come to Yale," the women eventually won out. By 1977, the Yale student body was 37.8 percent female, up from 12.5 percent in 1969. Yale has approximated a 50/50 ratio since 1997. Princeton didn’t reach that balance until 2010.

Though Malkiel argues that coeducation "resulted not from organized efforts by women activists but from strategic decisions taken by powerful men," her evidence tells a more complex story. Student activism lurks in the margins of her book, from the rowing team’s topless demonstration to student protests against unfair trials of Black Panther members in New Haven to editorials in The Harvard Crimson. Given the students’ mobilization, it doesn’t seem quite right to say, as Malkiel does, that coeducation was "not a story of women banding together to demand opportunity." Administrators might have opened a door, but it was the women who elbowed their way in.

Who is in charge of the private university? Though deans and presidents may have written the policies that made the dream of coeducation into a reality, they had to reckon with forceful arguments and actions advanced by students and alumni. Administrators were indeed "powerful men," as Malkiel describes them, but they were forced into certain decisions when students — especially female students — wielded their own power.

Students might not craft policy or sit in boardrooms, but a share of power is theirs.
Today both undergraduates and graduate students are mobilizing for fundamental changes in the way elite private colleges operate. Undergraduates at several private universities and colleges — including Yale, Princeton, and Amherst — have demanded that buildings named after racists be renamed. Graduate students throughout the Ivy League have organized for unions and for a say in their working conditions. Those student movements have been met with opposition on the part of older faculty members, alumni, and boards of trustees.

In these moments, administrators are caught in a difficult (though exceedingly well-compensated) position: Support the students and challenge the alumni and boards, or accede to the older generation and face the students’ wrath. In some cases, administrators have met the students’ demands; in others, they have held the line. But in all instances, they have shown that university leadership is susceptible to pressure.

The days of student protest are far from over. Provocateurs keep arriving on campus; sanctuaries spring up in defense of the vulnerable. In the past few months alone, undergraduates at Harvard have organized teach-ins, staged rallies, and circulated petitions. In previous years, they’ve shut down the streets. They make their voices heard, and they insist that the administration respond. These students might not craft university policy or sit in boardrooms, but a share of power is theirs.

It can be hard for those who feel powerless — undergraduates, graduate students, adjuncts — to recognize that they do, in fact, have leverage. After all, administrators are often invested in portraying the elite, private university as a timeless institution, its identity determined by its history and not by those who occupy its present. But as an old organizing slogan goes: "Our work makes this place work." Without the participation of students and the labor of TAs, RAs, and contingent faculty members, the activities of the most august Ivy League university would grind to a halt. When these constituencies band together, make their needs known, and disrupt campus life, even the most impervious administrations are forced to listen. They might not always acknowledge why they make the decisions they do, but their actions — call them "strategic decisions," call them concessions — speak louder than their words.

Maggie Doherty is a lecturer at Harvard University, where she teaches writing, history, and literature. She is working on a book about the intellectual friendships among women at the Radcliffe Institute in the early 1960s.