Hillary Rodham at her 1969 commencement, along with the Wellesley College president Ruth M. AdamsWellesley College Archives

Yale men, those charmers. In a 1966 letter to the editor of Yale Alumni Magazine, Conrad Yung-Kwai urged his peers not to let women students on their campus. “Gentlemen—let’s face it,” he wrote. “Charming as women are—they get to be a drag if you are forced to associate with them each and every day. Think of the poor student who has a steady date—he wants to concentrate on the basic principles of thermodynamics, but she keeps trying to gossip about the idiotic trivia all women try to impose on men.”

Although it’s hard to imagine now, this was the tenor of conversation about coeducation on elite college campuses in the 1960s and ‘70s. Nancy Weiss Malkiel, an emerita professor of history at Princeton University, has written a history of  this era: ‘Keep the Damned Women Out,’ a title provided courtesy of a Dartmouth alumnus, class of 1929, who summed up his thoughts on coeducation thusly. She writes that the largely male leaders of elite schools worried that they wouldn’t be able to compete for top high-school talent, who no longer wanted to attend an all-male college or university. They also wanted to outdo each other—Princeton’s trustees, for example, didn’t want to be “upstaged” by Yale’s coeducation efforts. What they didn’t seem to care much about, it seemed, was educating women.

The history of university coeducation is particularly interesting at this moment in America, when the country is poised to elect its first woman president. Hillary Rodham, who would later become Hillary Rodham Clinton, was a student at the all-female Wellesley College around the time when elite, all-male institutions were considering whether to enroll women. Elite, all-women institutions were similarly grappling with what their future would be. Clinton graduated before conversations about the possibility of coeducation at Wellesley began in earnest, Malkiel said in an interview, but the speech she gave at her senior commencement in 1969 speaks to the era in which she came of age. She spoke about protest, and encouraged her fellow students to try and improve their imperfect world. While she would go onto Yale Law School, where she and her female peers were surely not “drags,” in that moment she spoke from a world—Wellesley—in which women’s leadership was the default.

While the first women showed up as enrolled students at schools like Dartmouth, Yale, and Princeton nearly 50 years ago, their experiences may seem eerily similar to the women who are still becoming “firsts” today—including, perhaps, Hillary Clinton. I spoke with Malkiel about the history and legacy of coeducation on college campuses; our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Green: Perhaps this is naive, but I was stunned by the sexism you described on campuses during this era. Was this surprising to you?

Malkiel: Certainly, the sexism is enormously striking. The unfettered ways in which older men and even male college students expressed their disdain for women, and their sense that women belong in a different or lesser category or status—it is really stunning. One has to work hard to remember an era in which that was just the way it was.

But remember also, this is the way people grew up. This is largely before the women’s movement. This is at a time when women are still unable to do basic things like get credit in their own names, or take certain legal actions on their own authority. It’s an era that we aren’t really so familiar with anymore, but the dominant mode was clearly: Men are in charge, and women don’t belong here, whether “here” is in the corridors of power or on an all-male campus.

Green: With the upcoming election, there’s potential for a new “first” for women: winning the White House. What were some of the challenges you noticed for the women who were in the first coeducational classes at these schools, who were also “firsts”?

Malkiel: They were constantly under a microscope. Everybody was watching them. They were constantly asked for the woman’s point of view, in every class—whether it was in engineering or mathematics, where there is no woman’s point of view, or a class in history, literature, psychology, or sociology. It may have been that their male teachers thought they were paying appropriate attention to the women who were new students, but that isn’t the way it worked. It worked to make those students feel very self-conscious, as though they weren’t just students—they were representing their gender.

Green: In what way do you think this burden of tokenism—women having to represent their whole gender—had implications for how women acted on campus, and how well they were able to be educated?

Malkiel: It was a tough burden to carry, and it meant that the earliest generations of women at newly coeducational schools had a really challenging time. It’s hard enough being a new college student—figuring out a new environment, getting your bearings. But if you’re doing that at the same time that you are conscious of how you are regarded as a woman—it made a lot of women very reluctant to speak up, especially in class. They were very often so worried that they ended up remaining quiet—it was just easier to do that than venture out and possibly make a mistake.

Green: I was struck by this anecdote:

June Fletcher, a freshman from Elberton, New Jersey, … had been named “Miss Bikini, U.S.A.” in a contest the summer before her admission. … Writing about her SAT scores and extracurricular activities, the Princeton Alumni Weekly chose, chauvinistically, also to publish “her non-academic statistics”—“35-25-35.”

How were women in these spaces treated as bodies or sex objects in a way that their male peers were not?

Malkiel: That was the way male students were accustomed to treating women. The fact that these women were fully qualified students—with credentials every bit as good as, if not better than, most of these men—seemed to take second place to the fact that they were women. Either they were appreciated as women, or they were denigrated.

There were students at Yale who said, “If you have to admit women, why don’t you admit good-looking women, rather than these dogs?” This was a sentiment: If we have to have them here, you ought to do a better job of getting women we can admire.

Green: Something that came up repeatedly in your book is the idea that schools like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton existed to cultivate the next generation of men who would lead the world. In discussions about coeducation, some argued that it’s not the role of a Princeton or a Harvard or a Yale to educate women, because the world’s leaders are men.

How did this change over time?

Malkiel: It was very clear that places like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were in the business of creating leaders. That had been their self-appointed role for centuries, and they were fully committed to carrying it out. There was a significant concern that women were not going to be leaders, and women would be taking places away from men who would be leaders.

What became clear, as women enrolled and the numbers of women increased, is that women had all the potential to be leaders that the men had. They, if anything, outdid the men in their academic achievements. They began to assume leadership in campus activities. They began to achieve impressive results in intercollegiate athletic competition. The notion that women could not possibly be leaders ran into the reality of the fact that this first generation of women students was stunningly accomplished.

Green: You included a comic in your book showing two women at a cocktail party. “I went to Princeton,” one woman said. “Oh, that’s funny, I’m a Yale man, myself,” the other woman replied.

Even if you bring women onto these campuses, they were—and perhaps are—male institutions. This is true of other parts of life—for example, even though there are now women serving in both the House and the Senate, those institutions are fundamentally male.

In what way do you think women changed these kinds of institutions when they joined them, and in what way do the institutions changed the women?

Malkiel: I was struck by how often contemporaries in the 1960s and beyond described the women students as “little men.” In other cases, the formulation is “honorary men.”

Women were invited to assimilate into these institutions, but there wasn’t really a thought about the fact that women were likely to change the institutions. For example: In the curriculum, women began to say, “There are questions about gender that are worth asking in the curriculum.” If we ask about men and women’s experience and perspective, no matter the field, we get a different view of the most important questions that animate these fields. There’s a slice of academic inquiry that’s different because of the questions that are raised and the inquiries that are made when you take account of women as well as men.

But I do think that women have more often participated in the institutions in their traditional guise than transformed them. It’s hard to transform a centuries-old institution, especially for 18-to-22-year-olds.

Green: What does it mean to you to have the first woman president potentially elected—breaking into another formerly all-male institution?

Malkiel: I think it’s enormously exciting and important to have a woman running for president of the United States. I think we’ve been preparing for the cultural shift that permits a woman to run for president for a while now. I think of women assuming the presidencies of major universities. At first, that was big news, and now, it normally happens. We’ve begun to see women elected in significant numbers to the U.S. House of Representatives and United States Senate. There are women elected governor of a number of states—not in line with women’s share of the population, but still, it is notable that we’ve made important steps. Women as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies: no longer a rare occurrence. Every time you put a woman in a leadership position where we have not seen women before, it helps create a culture, an environment, and a context in which you can imagine a woman running for president of the United States.

What I don’t know, and what’s troubling to me, is how many people out there won’t vote for a woman simply because she is one. I’m sure there are such people, and I’m just hopeful they’re not present in sufficient numbers to be a determining factor.

We’ll see.

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