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“Studying Is Fine, but Living Has Been Another Problem”: Mary Procter *71 and Coeducation at Princeton

Earlier this year, I began telling the story of the female graduate students who paved the way for undergraduate coeducation at Princeton University starting in 1961. This blog continues that story with a focus on Mary Procter *71 (often misspelled as Mary Proctor *71) and her unusually influential role while a Princeton graduate student.

Procter got then-Provost William Bowen’s attention with a 1968 letter to the Daily Princetonian that took campus men to task for their treatment of the few undergraduate women who were in Princeton classrooms at the time as exchange students in the Critical Languages Program. Procter made vague reference to the fact that the band had referred to these women as “cunning linguists” and made other crude jokes about them during the halftime show at the Princeton-Harvard game. Anonymously signing her letter as simply “Female Graduate Student,” Procter had written, “I had always thought that men’s universities produced men, lusty and bawdy if you will, but not sniggering sickly creatures, obsessed with double meanings which suggest that they are not interested in girls so much as lollipops or bits of mashed potato.” Procter later said she wrote in to the Prince because she was “furious” and felt “Princeton does not deserve to be coed.”

Jackie Johnson *70, Katie Marshall *69, and Mary Procter *71. Photo from the Princeton Alumni Weekly, May 13, 1969.

Female graduate students faced all sorts of barriers to their success at Princeton in the 1960s, and Procter was probably familiar with the degree to which they, too, were battling sexual objectification. The Graduate School’s records related to these pioneering students reveal the dangers of encroaching upon male dominance at Princeton. Multiple reports of sexual assault and stalking span the years before full coeducation began. One female graduate student asked a male friend to escort her every night after being attacked twice on her way home from the library. Efforts to protect these women met with resentment among their male peers, one of whom wrote to E. C. Wentworth, assistant dean, after a change in parking rules at the Graduate College. The student complained about what he perceived as their overactive imaginations in 1969. “Supposedly the purpose is to protect our nubile wenches from sexual assault. In the first place it is doubtful that such a danger exists at all…” Wentworth responded, “perhaps you will be able to forgive the women for being female and for disliking the things which have in fact happened to them.”

There are other reasons to think Procter’s outrage was probably not limited to the single incident at the football game. She wrote in an article entitled “Why a (Princeton) Woman Can’t Be More Like a Man” in the Princeton Alumni Weekly in 1969, “Studying is fine, but living has been another problem. We had not kidded ourselves that it would be easy to adjust to an all-male college, but most of us have found the experience more uncomfortable than we had anticipated.” But the concerns she expressed were more about the younger women Princeton proposed to bring to campus than about the graduate students. “Girls of seventeen are potentially far more vulnerable and confused than those of 21 or 25. Unless Princeton is willing to undergo the changes that will make it a truly heterosexual university, admitting girls might do more harm than good.”

Somehow, Bowen had found out who had written the letter to the Prince. Bowen was supportive of coeducation and hoped to guide Princeton toward full integration. Female graduate students speculated among themselves about why, assuming it was because Bowen had grown up in a female dorm at Denison University, where his mother was also the dorm mother. In order to plan for coeducation at the undergraduate level, Bowen hired Procter to serve as his special assistant. Procter prepared the first draft and did the underlying analysis for “A Status Report on Planning for Coeducation at Princeton” in 1970.

Beyond her work on the 1970 report, Procter helped shape the campus culture in a variety of ways. She pushed Princeton to explore how informal education could compliment formal education, analyzing the campus to figure out whether its design invited students to linger and talk to one another and guiding Princeton toward a cozier, less rigid approach to building study spaces. After she insisted that the ratio of men to women was too high for coeducation to be effective, Princeton upped its quotas of female undergraduates. She chaired a committee to bring child care to campus in partnership with the National Organization for Women. The University-NOW Nursery opened in 1970. When the undergraduate dining system began running at a serious deficit, Procter and a colleague, James P. Mnookin, offered recommendations for changes to remedy the situation in what became known as the Procter and Mnookin Reports in 1971. Several recommendations were immediately followed.

Students at the University-NOW Nursery, September 1992. Office of Communications Records (AC168), Box 150.

Despite Procter’s influence, being the special assistant to the provost did not protect her from the belittling and often sexualized male gaze of Princeton’s community. Prince articles quoting Procter in her official capacity referred to her as “Princeton’s prettiest assistant to the provost” who “swirls through Nassau Hall in a bright mini-skirt” while “using her feminine intuition” and “the 28-year-old, mini-skirted administrator.” The Prince published a photograph of her alongside one article taken at an angle that featured her legs–a treatment also given to Sue Jean Lee in a 1968 article in the PAW. A report about a 1969 lecture Procter gave that appeared in the PAW referred to her as “one of the girls who is doing graduate work at Princeton,” while another dubbed the lecture “a lively and undeniably feminine talk” given by “a crisp young graduate of Radcliffe College.” Procter held her own, but not always without creating more controversy. “I’m…not very diplomatic,” she said in 2009. “I probably ruffled more than a few feathers.”


Graduate School Records (AC127)

Office of the Provost Records (AC195)

Papers of Princeton

Princeton Alumni Weekly

See also:

Armstrong, April C. “‘The End of a Monastery’: Princeton’s First Female Graduate Students.”

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

Malkeil, Nancy Weiss. “Keep the Damned Women Out”: The Struggle for Coeducation. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.

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

3 responses to ““Studying Is Fine, but Living Has Been Another Problem”: Mary Procter *71 and Coeducation at Princeton”

  1. Thank you for sharing this story! I just happened to see it on Twitter right after an article from the Chronicle on Higher Education on the reality of women in academia. Both make it painfully clear how far we still have to go towards justice and equality. Here’s hoping that we see more and more “unusually influential” women (and men!) changing the status quo in academia!

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