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History of Women at Princeton University

Written by Vanessa Snowden

For much of its history, Princeton University had the reputation of being an “old-boys’ school.” Starting in the fall of 1969, Princeton became co-educational, and nine women transferred into the Class of 1970, with slightly greater numbers in the two subsequent classes. Women who matriculated as freshmen in 1969 graduated in the Class of 1973, the first undergraduate class that included women for all four undergraduate years. However, the first steps towards co-education came as early as 1887, with the founding of Evelyn College. From its inception, this women’s institution was associated with Princeton University, and it was hoped that the link would be similar to the Radcliffe and Harvard University relationship. Unfortunately, Evelyn College closed in 1897, due to financial problems and a lack of support from Princeton.

For the next half-century, women instead made their presence known in unofficial positions. Wives and daughters of Princeton faculty and administrators succeeded in exerting significant influence on campus life as advocates for students as well as assistants in research. Isabella Guthrie McCosh, wife of James McCosh, the 11th president of Princeton, was deeply involved in protecting the health and welfare of Princeton students. As a result of her unflagging dedication, the campus infirmary was built and named in her honor.

“Reminiscences of Mrs. McCosh,” June 1935. Auxiliary to the Isabella McCosh Infirmary Records (AC175), Box 2.

Women were also important forces in the academic world. Margaret Farrand Thorp, wife of English professor, Willard Thorp, often assisted with her husband’s research while simultaneously producing her own independent work. Fittingly, she wrote a book entitled Female Persuasion: Six Strong-Minded Women, which was published in 1949. Speaking of her lot as a female at Princeton, Thorp once quipped, “We who practice the pleasant profession of faculty wife are often amused by Princeton University’s apparent hostility to the feminine sex. Hostility is probably too strong a word. The situation is, rather, that for the University, the feminine sex does not exist.” (See William K. Selden, Women of Princeton, p. 33.)

Female scholars were, in fact, overlooked for official research positions until the 1940s. In 1942 Elda Emma Anderson came to Princeton as a visiting research associate in the physics department. In 1943 five women arrived at Princeton as instructors of Turkish and various European and Slavic languages. Finally, five years later, Helen Baker, Associate Director of the Industrial Relations Section, became the first woman awarded “faculty status with the rank of Associate Professor” by the Board of Trustees.

Along with the influx of female faculty and research associates in the 1940s, female students also began to gradually filter into the University system. Wives and daughters of Princeton faculty and administrators had been sitting in on classes informally for many years, but the first women to be officially enrolled in a University course were given the opportunity to do so during World War II. During the war, 23 women were permitted to take a government-sponsored course in photogrammetry. Later, in 1947, three female members of the library staff, in order to be better prepared to handle an enlarged Russian literature section of the library, enrolled in a class on beginners Russian, side by side with male undergraduate students. Still, more than twenty years would pass before the first co-educational class would walk the stage at commencement.

In 1961 Princeton offered Sabra Follett Meservey acceptance in the graduate program in Oriental Studies. She was the first woman in the University’s history to be enrolled as a full-time degree candidate. However, in a not so subtle slip, her letter of acceptance began “Dear Sir.” Meservey later became the first woman to be granted a master’s degree from Princeton. In 1962 eight more women enrolled in graduate programs at Princeton, and in 1964 Dr. T’sai-ying Cheng, a student in biochemical sciences, became the first woman to receive a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Princeton.

The first full-time undergraduate female students were admitted in 1963 when the Critical Languages Program (CLP) was introduced. This program enabled students from other colleges to spend one year in Princeton studying Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Persian, Russian, and Turkish languages and related regional studies. Five women came to Princeton as part of the CLP, and were subsequently nicknamed “Critters” by resident Princetonians. Although they were full-time students, these women were not eligible for a Princeton degree, as the program encompassed only the students’ junior year.

Assistant Dean Allen Kassof talks with two Critical Languages students, ca. 1966-1967. Historical Photographs Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box MP19, Item No. 460.

After contemplating and finally rejecting a proposal to forge an association with Sarah Lawrence University in 1967, President Robert F. Goheen commissioned a study of the possibility of admitting women as full time undergraduate degree candidates. Gardner Patterson, a professor in the Department of Economics, headed the committee. In its final report, issued in January of 1969, the committee noted that “the presence of talented young women at Princeton would enhance the total educational experience and contribute to a better balanced social and intellectual life,” as well as “sustain Princeton’s ability to attract outstanding students,” which had been flagging under its rather conservative image. Later that year, the trustees voted 24-8 for the implementation of coeducation.

In September 1969, 101 female freshman and 70 female transfer students joined the ranks of the Princeton student body. In 1973, the New York Times highlighted some of the achievements of the women in Princeton’s first four-year coeducational class. Marsha H. Levy was the first woman to win the Pyne Prize and the first to be elected an alumni trustee. Marjorie Gengler, captain of the undefeated tennis team, never lost a set during her entire intercollegiate career, and she later became Annual Giving’s first woman class agent. In addition, Princeton’s only Marshall scholarship winner that year was a woman, as was one of its three Fulbright recipients.

Female Princeton University student during the first year of coeducation. Photo taken from 1970 Bric-a-Brac.

The 1970s not only witnessed the graduation of Princeton’s first coeducational class, but also the rise of women in upper-level administration. In 1971 Mary St. John Douglas and Susan Savage Speers became the first two female trustees. The following year, Adele Simmons was appointed Dean of Student Affairs, becoming the first female dean in Princeton’s history. In 1977 Nina G. Garsoian became Dean of the Graduate School and Joan S. Girgus, Dean of the College. They were the first women to hold Princeton’s second and third oldest deanships.

The eating clubs were one of the last vestiges of male-exclusivity associated with the University. Although most went co-ed immediately after women were accepted in 1969, four refused to do so. In 1979, after failing to gain membership to Cottage, Ivy, and Tiger Inn as a result of these restrictions, third year student Sally Frank filed a lawsuit with the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights. In 1992 the court stated that the clubs must admit female students, though they had already been doing so since the spring of 1991.

Finally, in 2001, Princeton appointed its first female president. Shirley M. Tilghman, a professor in the Molecular Biology Department since 1986, accepted the position after being chosen by the very presidential search committee of which she was initially a member. In so doing, she not only broke a 255-year-old tradition, but also came to represent the veritable integration of women into Princeton University.

Related Sources

Committee on the Education of Women at Princeton Records, 1955-1969

Concerned Alumni of Princeton Records, 1970-1979

The Daily Princetonian (Student newspaper)

Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series, c. 1850-1996

Historical Subject Files Collection, 1746-2005

Arthur J. Horton Collection on Coeducation, 1968-1990

Keyser, Catherine. “Transforming the Tiger: A Celebration of Undergraduate Women at Princeton University.” (Princeton, New Jersey: Office of Printing and Mailing Services, Princeton University, 2001).

Leitch, Alexander. A Princeton Companion. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1978). Also available online.

Office of the President: William G. Bowen Subgroup, 1940-1998

Office of the President Records: Robert F. Goheen Subgroup, 1924-1988

Office of the Provost Records, 1953-1996

Princeton Alumni Weekly

Princeton Alumni Weekly Photograph Collection, c. 1968-c. 1991

Willis M. Rivinus Papers on the Sally Frank Case, 1979-1991

Selden, William K. Women of Princeton: 1746-1969. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University, 2000).


Note: This post was previously on the Mudd Manuscript Library’s FAQ website and has been moved to our blog as part of our website upgrade.

4 responses to “History of Women at Princeton University”

  1. […] The class of 45 ultimately included 23 women, most from the east coast region between New London and Philadelphia, and one from Royal Oak, Michigan. The Prince marveled, “One of the few remaining strongholds of the male, the classrooms of Princeton University, have been opened by the war to women students for the first time in the 196 years of its existence.” This was a bit of an exaggeration, however, as only a few classrooms were actually open to women, and the photogrammetry class was the only one taken by American women. Three female members of the British military also attended classes here during the war (Princeton Alumni Weekly, December 10, 1943), but afterward, coeducation at Princeton became nothing more than a memory until the 1960s. For more on the history of women at the University, see our previous blog post. […]

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