Women

Women have played a varied and significant part in the life of Princeton from the beginning. Esther Burr, whose marriage at twenty-one to the second president when he was thirty-six created a stir among the students, has added feminine insight to what we know of the College's early years through the pages of her diary. Annis Stockton, wife of the first graduate trustee of the College, had the distinction of being the only woman on the rolls of the American Whig Society, which gratefully voted her honorary membership because she safeguarded Johnson's Dictionary, brass andirons and candlesticks, and other Society treasures during the Revolution. She was also celebrated for the verses she wrote to General Washington while he was in Princeton for meetings of the Continental Congress (asking, in one: ``Say; can a female voice an audience gain? / And Stop a moment thy triumphal Car. . .'').

Two wives of latter-day presidents made contributions to the University's welfare that have been perpetuated through the work of like-minded women of succeeding generations. Isabella McCosh, wife of the eleventh president, ministered to the health of students and is memorialized in the infirmary that bears her name; her example has been emulated over the years by members of the infirmary's Ladies Auxiliary. A similar influence has been exerted by the University League, founded in 1920 by Jenny Davidson Hibben, wife of the fourteenth president, ``to provide a friendly spirit among the wives and families of men connected with the University.''

Wives of deans similarly contributed to the quality of life in the University. Long before Princeton had a music department, Philena Fobes Fine, wife of the third dean of the faculty, pioneered in bringing outstanding musical performers to Princeton, and when she died in 1928 her friends endowed a fund in her name to help carry on the program of concerts she had initiated.

Wives of faculty members, though lacking faculty status, often collaborated with their husbands in their scholarly activities. One of them, Margaret Farrand Thorp, who worked with her English-department husband, was the author of a book of special interest in this context: Female Persuasion: Six Strong-Minded Women.

Another woman used her handiwork to beautify the campus. Beatrix Farrand's contribution as consulting landscape gardener for thirty years is commemorated by an inscription on a bench near the Chapel: ``Her love of beauty and order is everywhere visible in what she planted for our delight.''

Daughters of alumni got their educations -- and made their contributions -- elsewhere. A notable example was Sylvia Beach (daughter of a graduate of 1876), who published the first edition of James Joyce's Ulysses from her renowned Paris bookshop Shakespeare and Company in 1922, thus earning the gratitude of students of literature everywhere and the particular pride of Princeton, which has the bulk of her papers in the Firestone Library's Sylvia Beach Collection.

With the coming of shorthand, the typewriter, the telephone, and the growing complexity of administrative procedures, the contribution of women to the management of University affairs took on increasing importance as women assistants and women secretaries became indispensable helpmates of presidents, deans, professors, and others. A conspicuous example in earlier years was Anna B. H. Creasey, a ``strong-minded'' woman who ruled the Graduate School office in Nassau Hall with the same magisterial air with which Dean West presided over the Graduate College and was accordingly nicknamed Dean East by graduate students. During the years after World War II, when secretarial help was in short supply, the University was able to meet its needs with the services of graduate student wives who toiled to supplement their husbands' G.I. benefits (leading one observer to declare that many a student earned his Ph.D. by ``the sweat of his frau'').

Women thus filled a variety of useful roles in Princeton life long before they were accorded full faculty or student status. Although the first woman full professor was not appointed until 1968, when sociologist Suzanne Keller was given that rank, women were discharging research and teaching responsibilities as long ago as the 1930s when the distinguished demographer Irene Taeuber began her career as a research associate in the Population Research Section, and the 1940s when a number of departments began adding women to their staffs to help meet increased student demand for foreign-language instruction.

A first step toward the admission of women as students had been taken as far back as 1887 with the founding of the quasi-coordinate Evelyn College for Women, which encouraged Harper's Bazaar to look forward to the day when ``our country shall come to speak with equal pride of the sons and daughters of Princeton.'' But the new college, falling on hard times after the Panic of 1893, had to close its doors in 1897, and almost another three-quarters of a century would pass before Harper's prophecy could be fulfilled.

A modest extension of Princeton's educational opportunities for women came in World War II when twenty-three were admitted to a government-sponsored defense course in photogrammetry. More significant changes occurred in the 1960s with the admission of women graduate students (the first Ph.D. was awarded in 1964), and the admission each year of several dozen young women for a year of concentrated study in ``critical languages.''

The day before the 1967 Commencement the Board of Trustees authorized a careful investigation of ``the advisability and the feasibility of Princeton's entering significantly into the education of women at the undergraduate level.'' At the exercises next day the unexpected appearance of a pretty brown-haired girl, who had been smuggled into the academic procession in cap and gown by a graduating senior friend, prompted President Goheen to interrupt his formal announcement of the trustees' decision to note that one young woman had already ``worked her way'' into Princeton's midst.

A ten-member committee, headed by Economics Professor Gardner Patterson, thereupon conducted a 16-month study and produced an extensive report which, according to President Goheen, offered evidence that ``the presence of talented young women at Princeton would enhance the total educational experience and contribute to a better balanced social and intellectual life.'' It would also help ``sustain Princeton's ability to attract outstanding students,'' while providing a Princeton education for young women ~who could be expected ``to make worthy contributions to the national life, where clearly women are, and will be, taking increasingly active parts.''

A special trustees' committee, headed by Harold H. Helm '20, worked with administration and faculty representatives to test the findings and recommendations of the Patterson Report while meetings were being held in twenty-five cities for discussion of the report with alumni. One such meeting, conducted by the Princeton Area Alumni Association in McCosh 50, produced a long and lively discussion. Toward the end of the evening an alumnus clergyman took as his text Genesis II, 18: ``And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone,'' adding that since the hour was late and there was not time for a sermon, he would simply say that it appeared that God favored the Patterson Report.

In January 1969 the Helm committee recommended to the board that Princeton undertake the education of women at the undergraduate level. It gave two reasons: first, that both Princeton faculty and Princeton alumni engaged in higher education elsewhere now believed that ``the educational experience is improved . . . when it is carried out in mixed, rather than single-sex, circumstances,'' and second, that the general shift toward a favorable view of coeducation among younger alumni and faculty, combined with the clear preference of today's students, seemed to them ``to have very important implications for Princeton's future.''

The trustees, by a vote of 24 to 8, approved coeducation in principle and instructed the administration to develop plans for its implementation. An ad hoc faculty-administration-student committee, appointed and presided over by the president made an intensive study of all aspects of conversion, including the relative merits of coordinate versus coeducational arrangements; all of its members came to be convinced that if properly worked out, coeducational arrangements would be ``both better educationally and generally more economical.''

The committee's implementation plans were approved by the trustees in April, and President Goheen announced that coeducation would become a reality in September. The Prince congratulated the trustees on their ``courage, foresight, and ability to change with the times,'' and WPRB concluded its broadcast of the news with the Hallelujah Chorus.

During the first weekend after Labor Day in 1969, a pioneering band of 171 women arrived in Princeton as candidates for bachelor degrees; among them were 101 members of the freshman Class of 1973 looking forward to full Princeton careers along with their 820 male classmates. Four years later, on Commencement eve, the New York Times highlighted some of the achievements of the women in Princeton's first coeducational class. One of them, Marsha H. Levy, was the first woman to win the Pyne Prize and the first to be elected an alumni trustee. Princeton's only Marshall scholarship winner was a woman, as was one of its three Fulbright recipients. Princeton women had fielded undefeated teams in tennis, squash, and swimming, and the women's crew, which practiced daily at 6:30 a.m., had won the Eastern championship in 1972. Marjorie Gengler, captain of the undefeated tennis team, never lost a set in her intercollegiate career, and later became Annual Giving's first woman class agent.

In his concluding remarks at the 1973 Commencement President Bowen declared, ``The women among us have now added their gifts of fallibility to our own, and I think we are a far better university -- and a far richer community of people -- for them.''

Women continued to excel in scholarship and athletics: At the 1975 Commencement Lisa Siegman '75 was salutatorian and Cynthia Chase '75 valedictorian -- the first time women had won both honors. A year later Emily Goodfellow '76 became the first Princetonian to win twelve varsity letters, four each in field hockey, squash, and lacrosse. That December, Suzanne Perles '75 of Anchorage, Alaska, was one of the first thirteen American women chosen as Rhodes Scholars.

In 1976, Nancy B. Peretsman '76 became the second woman to be elected alumni trustee, bringing the number of women on the Board to four, Mary St. John Douglas and Susan Savage Speers having been elected charter trustees in 1971.

Although the curricular interests of women in the first coeducational class covered a wide range in the liberal arts and sciences, none of them chose an engineering program. By the spring of 1976, however, thanks to the new directions engineering was taking in America and to the Engineering School's strenuous efforts at recruitment, nearly 14 percent of the University's engineering students were women, compared to a national average of less than 5 percent.

The proportion of women in the undergraduate body as a whole also rose substantially and continued to rise after the trustees removed an earlier quota by adopting, in 1974, a policy of equal access. By 1976, the undergraduate body numbered 1,395 women and 2,965 men.

Among graduate students, the proportion of women also rose -- by 1976 there were 367 in a total student body of 1,415.

In 1977 Nina G. Garsoian became Dean of the Graduate School and Joan S. Girgus, Dean of the College -- the first women to hold Princeton's second and third oldest deanships.


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

Go to Search A Princeton Companion