- - Monday, January 9, 2017



By Nancy Weiss Malkiel
Princeton University Press, $35, 672 pages illustrated

The title of this scholarly, interpretative, fact-filled book may strike readers as if they were being grabbed by the scruff of their necks. It certainly is a great way of getting their attention, but it is not just deliberately provocative, rather an accurate reflection of the strength of feeling against unisex colleges embracing coeducation. Indeed, the full quote from which Princeton Professor of History Emeritus Nancy Weiss Malkiel draws her title is even more pungent and impassioned. An outraged alumnus wrote: “For God’s sake, for Dartmouth’s sake, for everyone’s sake, keep the damned women out.” And he was not alone or even the most hyperbolic in his effusion. Across the Atlantic, coeducation coming to Cambridge University’s venerable colleges was said to be “like dropping a hydrogen bomb in the middle of the university.”

One startling fact stands out more than anything else in this account: Coeducation was driven by determined administrators often over the objections not just of alums, but of faculty and even many students. All this took place at a turbulent time in history and the title of Ms. Malkiel’s introduction: “Setting the Stage: The Turbulent 1960s” is significant. Change on all sorts of fronts was in the air and it is beyond dispute that Zeitgeist was a crucial context in which this struggle took place.

As a longtime Princeton faculty member, it is not surprising that the author gives her institution its due, and it does seem that its deliberate, perhaps even cautious, gradual transformation was in many ways exemplary. But Ms. Malkiel’s examination of the process at other institutions on both sides of the Atlantic is equally exhaustive, drawing as it does on a great deal of archival material as well as interviews. Her scope is wide, but it is matched by the depth of her explorations and the wisdom of her interpretations.

As a Yale alumnus whose four undergraduate years on campus were neatly divided into two years before — and two after — coeducation came to the college (professional and graduate schools had long been coed), I naturally found Ms. Malkiel’s lengthy examination of Yale particularly interesting. Her account is buttressed by her characteristic mixture of analysis and fascinating facts. How many people remember that in the fall of 1967 when I entered Yale as a freshman, serious consideration was underway of merging it with Vassar, notwithstanding that it was located in another state a good two hours’ drive away? Practical considerations soon trumped this half-baked attempt at a solution of what was seen as the problem of implementing coeducation, which in the event was done hastily and without adequate planning.

This book also provides plenty of anecdotes about the resistance on campus and the travails undergone by these new female Yalies. I could add my own, although many of them are too over the top to be repeated in a respectable newspaper. If I have a criticism of Ms. Malkiel’s account, it is not of the inevitably more-tame anecdotes she provides since they are also telling. Rather, I think she underestimates the lack of accommodation, residential and academic offered to these unaccustomed newcomers.

When Brasenose College Oxford admitted women, full-length mirrors and shower curtains as well as general upgrading of facilities ensued. Male students then demanded equality, an example of a rising tide lifting all boats. But at Yale, the sole accommodation in the girls’ bathrooms was the provision of wastepaper containers: for the rest they had to put up with the same Spartan facilities we endured, along with bunk beds in the rooms.

When it came to choosing courses, little help was provided to those who were coming in as sophomores or juniors who were treated like any other transfers, not assigned a dedicated faculty adviser and generally left to sink or swim. One outraged newcomer, who had been drawn to Yale by its distinguished faculty and the huge range of subject matter taught there, confided in me that the orientation meeting for female undergraduates consisted largely of boasting how many gynecologists had been added for their benefit and advice on how and where to obtain birth control information.

But if Yale’s serious consideration of a merger with Vassar will always win the prize for the most impractical attempt to achieve some measure of coeducation without taking the plunge, a prestigious institution of higher learning in my hometown of Pasadena, California, provided a pretty good runner-up. Before admitting women in 1970, a year after Yale and Princeton, that hard science bastion Caltech actually contemplated, albeit briefly, a merger with Immaculate Heart, a struggling Catholic college in Los Angeles. Negotiating the notorious freeway traffic and other practicalities were not, however, uppermost in the minds of Caltech scientists, one of whom exclaimed in real outrage at a faculty meeting, “Have we so soon forgotten Galileo?” That such an unlikely union was even considered shows the strength of resistance to actual coeducation, which this book demonstrates was by no means a universally ineluctable or inevitable force despite its undoubted strength.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, California.

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