Princeton's first coed students celebrate.
It was in 1969 - as the world outside its gates clamored for equal access to intellectual power - that Princeton University first admitted women as undergraduates.

Princeton's transition from over 200 years of single-minded male focus to coeducation was, frankly, hard work for everyone involved: university officials, male students, as well as the female newcomers.

But to its credit, the Princeton of that era displayed, for the most part, a good-natured grace as it bashfully admitted women into its ranks. The gutsy women students displayed their own amazing grace, and much patience, as they took the university up on its offer of acceptance.

For decades before, there had been murmurings of support for the admission of women to Princeton by various alumni.

And in 1887, the university actually maintained and staffed a sister coIlege in the town on Evelyn and Nassau streets, called the Evelyn College for Women, which was closed down after roughly a decade of operation.

There were also women who studied cartography at the university during World War II.

However, it took a surprise front-page article from student-run newspaper The Daily Princetonian to make the university get serious about coeducation.

In the May 17, 1967 article, university President Robert J. Goheen told student reporter Bob Durkee, Class of '69, that coeducation was only a matter of time.

"It is inevitable that, at some point in the future, Princeton is going to move into the education of women," Goheen said. "The only questions now are those of strategy, priority and timing."

This thunderclap revelation stirred up a good deal of interest amidst the media, as well as Princeton faculty, alumni, and many delighted undergraduates.

A faculty committee was quickly formed to deliberate on the issue. One committee member, economics professor Gardner Patterson, was authorized to conduct research on the subject, the findings of which he presented in a report in 1968.

Armed with the Patterson Report and the committee's recommendations, Princeton's Board of Trustees announced - during a well-attended Jan. 13, 1969 news conference - that it "has approved in principle the university undertaking the education of women at the undergraduate level."

A major factor in its decision, the Board explained, was the widespread opinion of college educators that a mixed-sex school environment improved the learning experience and "serves better to prepare students for the late 20th-century world."

The board also had concerns that Princeton would not be able to attract quality students in the future if it remained all-male.

"A Princeton which persisted in denying admission to women applicants probably could not long maintain a strong position of lead ership in the nation," the board declared.

Durkee, now Princeton's vice president of communications, said that most of the undergraduates, a majority of whom at that time were coming from public, coeducational, high school backgrounds, welcomed the decision.

"Increasingly by the late '60s, it just felt like an artificial experience, to be living in a single-gender community," he said. "Almost the entire world, it seemed to us, lived in a coeducational setting, and we didn't. It felt very strange."

Coeducation, Durkee gaid, wasn't just about socializing or scholastically debating with women - or even dating.

"It just started to dawn on men that women were going be -- in greater and greater numbers – lawyers, doctors and political figures," he said. "We realized that it would be an advantage to us, for the rest of our lives, to have had some experience with women, in this vital point of our lives, in a way that wasn't just social."

However, Durkee remarked, "the alumni were in a more complicated place."

"They had been in an all-male Princeton -- but opinions were much more divided than many have stereotyped," he said.

Among the more vocal opponents to coeducation was the university's director of development, Arthur J. Horton, Class of '42. Between 1967 and ’69, he wrote letters to university officials and alumni against coeducation and vigorously documented Princeton's coeducation process until his death in 1980.

Nevertheless, through media reports and word of mouth, female students learned of the announcement and began mailing in applications to Princeton, which the university duly began to process.

Meanwhile, the administration raced to formulate the concrete steps of transforming the school's operations and facilities into a female-friendly campus.

The administration barely finished these plans by April 1969, when the admission's office had to start mailing out its acceptance letters. Its five-year coeducation plan provided $7.8 million for the development of new facilities that would eventually house and educate 650 women students at Princeton by 1974.

The timing was so close that admissions officials printed out two sets of letters to the women applicants: one set that informed whether or not they had been admitted, and a second set which apologetically announced that Princeton wasn't accepting women that year.

Durkee said the school's commitment to coeducation by the fall was expedited by a healthy dose of competitive worries when Yale made its own coeducation announcement that same spring.

Ultimately, 148 women, consisting of 100 freshwomen and transfer students of other years, entered Princeton on September 6, 1969 amidst a frenzy of media ogling and ribbing.

Scores of women's papers and magazines, like Woman's Wear Daily, featured articles on what the stylish Princeton freshwoman wore on campus, and practically every woman student was featured in her hometown newspaper.

Even national newspapers were tickled by the thought of women entering a two-century-old school with such quaint traditions as eating clubs, cane-wrestling and P-rades - the yearly reunion parades that feature all living -and-willing alumni, wearing as much orange and black as is possible, marching through the town.

For example, in a Dec. 5, 1969 article, The New York Times announced to the world Princeton's innovation of including women in the all-male-in-drag chorus line -- a decades-old tradition which has concluded almost every performance of The Triangle Club, the university's comedic troupe.

And featured in the article - to drive home the comprehensive historical context - was a fetching photo of Princeton alumnus F. Scott Fitzgerald wearing a dress and makeup for a 1914-15 Triangle production.

For some, the media circus was a painful experience.

"It was difficult coming to a campus that had been forewarned that a ‘coed’ was a girl who won a Miss Bikini contest and that a ‘coed’ was probably more intelligent than her male peers," wrote Jane Leifer in "The Trials of the Coed 100," an account of her experiences as one of the 100 pioneering freshwomen published in the Princeton Alumni Weekly in May, 1973.

"It was hard to remain nonchalant when photographers, reporters and television crews insisted on portraying us as cute curios, laughably incongruous with the school's history," she added.

The women braved day-to-day life in an elite and youthful male community, that as a whole, was still awkwardly learning to embrace the opinions, the lifestyles - the very presence - of women.

"There was something lonely and depressing in seeing roving bands of boys inebriated with beer who knew that they did not have to show their glazed eyes and staggering walks to a housemaster or waiting father anymore," Leifer would write in her account about those Friday nights when the boys acted like boys.

However, those bright young men and women couldn't help but grow up and learn to respect each other, just as the rest of the country was learning to do the same.

"It was an enormous change for people," said S. Georgia Nugent, now an associate provost of Princeton, who was also a member of Leifer's class.

"Indeed, the faculty was overwhelming ly in favor of us, but it was still a community of guys. Guys who went to all-male schools and expected to go to an all-male and college, said Nugent, a classicist who was the first of her female classmates to gain a tenured faculty position at Princeton.

However, Nugent remembered some faculty members were not without their endearing, eccentric male traditions.

One of her classics professors, she said, would approach the classes he taught that contained women – her class consisted of her and just five men -- and insist on addressing the class as:


When not gamely smiling at the omnipresent all-male charm., Nugent said she and her friends concentrated simply on doing well in school.

"I think I was just busy trying be one of the guys," she explained.

Nugent acknowledged that some of her classmates had some bad experiences "or felt they had to represent women."  However, she said, "I didn't have that experience."

"That was 1969, it was just the very beginning, if that, of the women's movement," Nugent stressed.

It was also the time of the American sexual revolution, during which the unspoken rules of courting, flirting, and sex were being challenged so that women stand on equal footing with men.

In that, like everything else, the Princeton women explored their brave new world with a curiosity and intelligent self-possession.

"Outsiders assumed that Princeton must be a romantic or sexual paradise for we few women. We knew how far that was from reality, but I have to smile now, much older and still single. Looking back, pleasures of the flesh were indeed abundant," wrote Carol Rahn, who graduated in 1972, in a university-published book entitled "Women Reflect on Princeton."

For the women, braving the whole experience was, Nugent said, "a tremendous advantage to those of us who went on to professional lives in fields largely dominated by men."

"By and large, my life has been marked by a mutual degree of comfort with men, and that's been a great asset," she said.

Princeton itself has made many gains braving through coeducation as well.

The university built a Women's Center in 1977 and developed a program in Women's Study in 1982. The feminist scholars at the university are looked upon as among the best in the country.

However, Nugent said, although there are some ways that Princeton "made the transition quickly, easily and well, it will still take a generation for the transition to be complete."

Males, she said, are still what most people think of at first, when they think of doctors, lawyers, bankers.

Role models are still not widespread for women in some fields, she said, forcing women to create -- "imagine" as she put it -- their own places in those fields.

They still have to pioneer, she said.

Much like the 148 female students did, in 1969, when Princeton opened its gates to women.
1969: Going coed with guts and grace
By TOM FERNANDEZ / The Trentonian
1900s   1910s    1920s    1930s    1940s    1950s    1960s    1970s    1980s    1990s