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“The End of a Monastery”: Princeton’s First Female Graduate Students

The Princeton University Graduate Announcement for 1961-1962 warned potential applicants, “Admissions are normally limited to male students.” Yet this “adverbial loophole,” as the Daily Princetonian termed it, left room for some admissions that were not “normal” for Princeton at the time. Within the loophole, dozens of women became degree candidates before the advent of undergraduate coeducation.

Clipping from the Daily Princetonian, October 1, 1962.

Most sources examining the beginning of women’s education at Princeton focus on the admission of female undergraduates in 1969. They will also usually mention Sabra Meservey *66, admitted in 1961, as Princeton’s first female graduate student. However, many other female graduate students paved the way for their undergraduate counterparts in the 1960s. This post will survey the rocky path they traveled to gain admission to Princeton and finish their degrees.

Ph.D.s Earned by Women at Princeton University Prior to Undergraduate Coeducation

NameDepartmentPh.D. Awarded
Cheng, T’sai-YingBiochemical SciencesApril 17, 1964
Meservey, Sabra F.Oriental StudiesApril 2, 1966
Hepp, Marie-ClaudePsychologyOctober 14, 1966
Tsurumi, KazukoSociologyApril 15, 1967
Carson, Mary FaithReligionOctober 20, 1967
Hall, Mary StarrittEnglishJanuary 13, 1968
Halaban, RuthBiologyApril 20, 1968
Sessions, Elizabeth PhelpsSlavic LanguagesApril 20, 1968
Gossett, Suzanne S.EnglishJune 11, 1968
Alvarez, Carmen HildaRomance LanguagesOctober 18, 1968
Noriko, OhtaBiochemical SciencesJanuary 11, 1969
Dida, Clara EugeniaRomance LanguagesOctober 18, 1968
Dostrovsky, SigaliaHistoryJune 9, 1969
Peterson, SandraPhilosophyJune 9, 1969

Meservey’s admission was, by all accounts, highly unusual, not merely because she was a woman, but also because she was already teaching history at Douglass College (Rutgers University) in New Brunswick and was older than most of her cohort. What was perhaps more unusual was a secret Meservey kept at the time with Princeton’s president, Robert Goheen.

Sabra Meservey *66, April 1961. Photo by Gerald B. Rorer ’64 for Princeton Alumni Weekly.

Goheen wanted to transform Princeton, but if Princeton were to admit women, he needed a test case, one to which no one could object on any basis but gender. Goheen had been talking with Margaret Bunting, president of Douglass, about finding a suitable female candidate to upend tradition without appearing threatening. Bunting recommended Meservey, so Goheen urged Meservey to apply. In 1960, he wrote to her, “I should like to urge that you test us…I suspect that it will be possible for the University to grant you admission as a special case.”

Goheen convinced Meservey. She was offered admission along with 559 men in 1961. The Dean of the Graduate School, Donald R. Hamilton, reassured the public that Princeton “does not plan to make general admission of women graduate students,” but eight more women were admitted in the following year. The Daily Princetonian declared it “the end of a monastery.”

A sole focus on Meservey as the pathbreaker not only excludes these other students from the story, but it also paints a different picture of what it was like to be a woman at Princeton in the early 1960s than a broader view will provide. Meservey is often quoted as saying that she did not experience any discrimination due to her gender while a Princeton student. However, the Graduate School’s records related to other pioneering female students reveal that others had a range of experiences with gender discrimination.

Whatever Goheen’s hopes, Princeton’s administrators did not necessarily view the admission of female graduate students as a means for training them for careers in their fields. Ruth Halaban *68 wrote to the Assistant Dean of the Graduate School in 1971 to complain that there had been a general sense that even though women could be highly educated, they should not aspire to use that education, saying that made for “unhappy housewives.” Helena Shillony *71 made similar comments. “Nobody thinks a man is neurotic if he seeks a degree, even if happily married and a father. Why do not married women enjoy the same right?”

Perhaps because the Graduate School had different expectations for their career potential than it did for their male counterparts, it did not evaluate applications from women competitively with those from men. As one administrator explained in an internal memo in 1976, there were several “deterrents” Princeton had used to keep the number of women as small as possible. Beyond the admissions criteria for male applicants, female applicants must also be married to a member of the Princeton University community or prove that there was no other institution where they could pursue their research. The Graduate School withheld financial aid for female students in their first year of study, and the Department of Housing denied applications for married student housing unless the female student’s husband was also a student (the “head of household” rule).

Academic discouragement also came through unofficial means:

    • In 1989’s Women Reflect about Princeton, Anna Navarro *69 said that she “felt like an alien creature during my entire stay,” detailing struggles to check out library books from librarians who refused to accept that she was a student herself. They told her they would not allow “dates” to borrow books.
    • Toby Appel *76 said in Women Reflect about Princeton that she had to fight to receive the full stipend offered to male students after administrators initially told her when she arrived in 1968 that they had based her pay on her husband’s salary, as they did for all women (though they did not account for a wife’s salary in determining a husband’s stipend), and she was only entitled to half that of her male counterparts.
    • Helena Shillony *71 wrote in 1971 that a faculty member gave her the silent treatment for six months because she was pregnant. “The experience left me wondering about [a] woman’s place at Princeton.”
Kazuko Tsurumi *66. Tsurumi had begun her doctoral education at Columbia University in 1941, but was deported back to Japan after America’s entry into World War II and did not finish the degree. However, she had continued to work as a sociologist. When she applied to Princeton, she had already published four books, six chapters in edited volumes, seven translations, three articles in English, and more than 75 articles in Japanese. Even so, administrators put her application in a “hold” category to compare it against other female applicants, noting only the top four or five women would receive consideration. Graduate Alumni Records (AC105).
  • Kazuko Tsurumi *66 responded to a reporter from the Daily Princetonian asking about how it felt to be a woman at Princeton in 1962. “In Japan a woman in the graduate school is nothing to be interviewed about,” she said. “There I was not made to feel sex-conscious; here I am.”
  • Meservey also faced her share of microagressions. Her acceptance letter began “Dear Sir,” and she did not receive her diploma for three years because translating the Latin text into the feminine was not a priority. The overall climate at Princeton was not supportive of women earning degrees.
Final Public Oral Examination reports for female degree candidates had corrected pronouns, like this one for Sabra Meservey *66. The default at Princeton was visibly male in many respects. Graduate Alumni Records (AC105).

This lack of support made remaining in graduate school a challenge for those who did get in. Of the nine women admitted to Princeton in 1961 and 1962, only six returned in 1963. Linda Garfinkle Edmunds *64 wrote to the Princeton Alumni Weekly in 2016 to explain why she’d left. “The academic program was stimulating, but it was a lonely experience for a woman.” She reported a lack of a female social network, rather than outright discrimination, as the reason she didn’t finish her degree. The two other female graduate students she had known also left Princeton that year.

Despite the discouraging environment, by 1967 the Dean of the Graduate School, Colin S. Pittendrigh, imposed a quota to cap enrollment, because he felt the number of women had increased enough that it threatened to violate the Board of Trustees’ intent to only admit a few women. To put this in perspective, Princeton had 56 female graduate students in 1968. The total number of graduate students at that time was over 1500, making women less than 0.4% of the overall population.

Graph showing Graduate School enrollment 1964-1972. Graduate School Records (AC127), Box 67.

Ultimately the reason these restrictions were lifted was that the United States withdrew draft deferrals for graduate students, threatening to severely cut the enrollment in Princeton’s Graduate School during the Vietnam War. For the first time, the 1968 Graduate Announcement replaced the warning to applicants about limiting admission to mostly men with “All applications are considered on a competitive basis.” Though women may not have ended male hegemony at Princeton in the 1960s, they did open the door for others to walk through. Phyllis Thompson *76 was quoted in the Princeton Weekly Bulletin in 1989: “Now when my daughter says, ‘Maybe I’ll go to Princeton,’ I smile. … I never thought I would.”


Bibbins, Kristen, Anne Chiang, and Heather Stephenson, eds. Women Reflect about Princeton. Princeton: Princeton University Office of Communications, 1989.

Graduate Alumni Records (AC105)

Graduate School Announcement

Graduate School Records (AC127)

Papers of Princeton

Princeton Alumni Weekly

See also:

Armstrong, April C. “History of Women at Princeton University.”

van Rossum, Helene. “Coeducation in Princeton: It Started at the Graduate School.”

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