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“We May Be Unable to Give You an Admission Decision”: The Women of the Princeton University Class of 1970

Photo from Nassau Herald (1970).

In 2013, 26,642 people applied to the Princeton University Class of 2018. Princeton made offers of admission to 1,983 of these applicants, an acceptance rate of 7.4%. Though many find this competitiveness discouraging, clearly a significant number choose to try their odds anyway. Yet how many applications can one imagine Princeton would get if the school announced that they might end up rejecting all of those who applied? This was the dilemma faced by female students in the winter of 1969: whether to apply to a university unsure if it would admit a single woman.

The Board of Trustees had approved making Princeton College coeducational “in principle” on January 11, 1969, “the largest single decision that has faced Princeton in this century,” but did not yet plan to implement any changes. The decision to approve coeducation in practice would wait until April 19, but nonetheless, the 1970 Nassau Herald noted that the campus radio station immediately “registered its approval by playing Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.” Princeton’s president, Robert Goheen, said he did not want to wait until 1970 to bring in female undergraduates if the Trustees did approve. Applications to Princeton were on the decline, a fact attributed to its peer institutions having embraced coeducation. The best students were going to Harvard and Yale. Pressure to act quickly intensified. Thus, the Admissions Office presented a curious opportunity to 1969’s female high school graduates: a chance to become part of a theoretical change to Princeton University, one that might or might not be realized in time for them to experience it. Princeton did not give these young women much time to consider their course of action; the February announcement of the possibility gave an application deadline of March 15.

This is the letter the Director of Admission, John T. Osander, sent to young women interested in a Princeton education:



The Daily Princetonian felt the Admissions Office was overstating its uncertainty, but it is hard to imagine that applicants, unlike the Prince, took the repainting of one dorm entry yellow as a sign of Princeton’s absolute intent to have female students in the fall of 1969. Goheen had said, after all, that admitting women that year was “certainly not likely, given the problems of facilities and finances.” The Admissions Office, not able to wait entirely upon a decision from the Trustees, took the step of preparing two sets of letters for applicants—one rejecting all applicants if the Trustees decided not to admit women, and others admitting some applicants, assuming the Trustees had decided in favor of coeduation. “Facilities and finances” were only part of the concern, as the minutes of the Board of Trustees meeting on April 19, 1969 reveal: they worried that, given no active recruitment of female students, those who applied might not “be of sufficient quality to permit the University to admit women…”

When the news came of the decision in April 19, the Admissions Committee mailed the second set of letters, requiring those it accepted to respond by May 1.

Application chart

With both transfer students and freshmen, 150 women joined 3,258 men as undergraduates in the fall of 1969: 9 in the Class of 1970, 27 in the Class of 1971, 14 in the Class of 1972, and 100 in the Class of 1973. The following year, without the uncertainty that faced applicants in 1969, a total of nearly 2,500 women applied to Princeton. Out of this number, another 263 female students, including transfers, came to campus, bringing their total number up to about 400.

1970 Class Day Committee. Photo from Nassau Herald (1970).

Those women admitted to the Class of 1970 were special cases; they were already studying at Princeton as part of the Critical Languages Program. The program, which began in 1961, had allowed students from other schools, including a handful of women, to spend a year or two at Princeton in intensive language study. Nicknamed the “Critters,” most of these students fought for the right to stay as Princetonians. Of those studying at Princeton in the spring of 1969, all but two sought admission as transfer students in their senior year. Here, we present a gallery of the Nassau Herald (senior yearbook) photos of these first women to receive Princeton University A.B.s. (Please note that Priscilla Read, also of the Class of 1970, did not have her picture in the Nassau Herald.)

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Admission Office Records (AC152)

Board of Trustees Records (AC120)

Daily Princetonian

Nassau Herald

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