It may be hard for today’s undergraduates at elite colleges and universities to imagine that many of their institutions -- as recently as the 1960s and 1970s -- would not admit female students. These days when coeducation is in the news, it is typically a women’s college deciding to admit men. But the reality is that coeducation at elite institutions that were once all male did not happen overnight -- and didn’t happen without considerable backlash from alumni and others. Nancy Weiss Malkiel tells the story in “Keep the Damned Women Out”: The Struggle for Coeducation (Princeton University Press). Malkiel is professor emeritus of history at Princeton and served there as dean of the college, overseeing the undergraduate academic program, for 24 years.
Her book details how American and British universities moved toward coeducation, typically with some leaders pushing the process through against strong opposition from alumni and others who wanted, as the book’s title says, to “keep the damned women out.” The presidents formed committees, lobbied influential faculty members and tradition-minded trustees, and also eyed their competitors. One section of the book explores how Smith, Vassar and Wellesley Colleges considered coeducation, with only Vassar opting to make the move.
Malkiel responded via email to questions about her book.
Q: What message do you think was sent by these institutions to the young people (male and female) of that era, by barring women?
A: The message was very clear: women were second-class citizens. The historic role of elite universities was to train leaders -- for public life, for the professions, for commerce. Leaders meant men.
Q: You note that most of the leaders who pushed for coeducation at elite all-male institutions were men, motivated by issues beyond equity. What motivated them?
A: They were motivated by strategic advantage. By the late 1960s, schools like Yale and Princeton were beginning to see a decline in their applicant pools. The “best boys,” as these institutions described the most talented high school students, were making increasingly clear that they wanted to go to school with girls. Admitting women was a way of recapturing the traditional hold of these institutions on those “best boys.”
Q: Today many leading universities face charges that -- while their institutions are coeducational -- female students continue to face discrimination, sexual assault and harassment in some elements of campus social life that are much revered at their institutions. Do you think these institutions would have evolved differently had women led the efforts to address issues related to coeducation?
A: These are very challenging issues, and it is very difficult to know what would have happened if women had been in charge from the beginning of coeducation. What we do know is that the universities in the 21st century that undertook the most important studies to try to make sense of the differential experience of female and male students did so at the initiative of women presidents: Nannerl Keohane at Duke and Shirley Tilghman at Princeton. And Drew Gilpin Faust has led the attack on the all-male final social clubs at Harvard.
Q: Your title comes from a phrase used by students and alumni who opposed coeducation. How long did it take for (most of) them to come around?
A: The first decade of coeducation was very challenging. Many male students made plain to their female counterparts that they did not belong on their campuses. And very conservative alumni organized oppositional alumni groups for whom coeducation was one of the many things wrong with their universities. Over time, however, opposition diminished on most campuses. For alumni, the most important influence in changing the minds of opponents of coeducation was that their daughters and granddaughters could now enroll.
Q: Many women’s colleges are today opting to admit men. At the same time, many coeducational colleges have a solid majority of female students. What do you make of these trends?
A: For women’s colleges, the decision to admit men is often very practical -- it’s a way of ensuring that they can enroll a sufficiently robust student body to stay in business. As for the majority of female students at coeducational colleges, the majority of students going to college these days are women, and their credentials are every bit as strong as those of college-going men.
Q: I see in your biography that you are an alumna of Smith. Would you have preferred to attend Williams or Amherst or some other college then closed off to women?
A: I had a wonderful experience at Smith, and I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. But deciding to go there was a function of the East Coast, middle Atlantic world in which I grew up, which made plain to me, as it did to my peers, that if you were bright and you were a girl, you aspired to go to the best of the women’s colleges. Today that world has changed; the most talented women high school students aspire to go to Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, Amherst, Williams -- all of them long coed.
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