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.