Very Inbred

Helen McCarthy

  • ‘Keep the Damned Women Out’: The Struggle for Coeducation by Nancy Weiss Malkiel
    Princeton, 646 pp, £22.95, May 2018, ISBN 978 0 691 18111 0

At some point in the mid-1960s, large numbers of ambitious young men in Britain and North America lost their enthusiasm for elite, male-only colleges. The prospect of spending three or four years in an exclusively masculine environment had diminishing appeal. The absence of women felt ‘unnatural’, ‘unhealthy’, and increasingly at odds with the social and professional worlds in which the sexes now mixed relatively freely. Many students at Harvard, Princeton and Yale, or at the men’s colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, held this view. One freshman wrote of the ‘social illness’ he believed to result from intermittent and strained contact with girls. These young men wanted the kudos of a top degree, but they also wanted, as one Harvard student put it, ‘to normally sit down and talk with a bunch of girls as I can with a bunch of boys’.

Masculine exclusivity, once a mark of prestige, had suddenly become a reputational risk, and governing bodies moved quickly to prioritise coeducation. In the words of one trustee at Dartmouth College: ‘If you’re in the milk business and all of your competitors start making ice cream, perhaps you ought to look into the ice cream business as well.’ By the mid-1970s, nearly every member of the Ivy League had gone coed. Eight men’s colleges at Oxford and Cambridge had started to admit female undergraduates, and most of the rest would follow suit over the next few years. Leading women’s schools in the US, including Vassar and Sarah Lawrence, meanwhile, began to admit men, as did Lady Margaret Hall and St Anne’s in Oxford, and Girton in Cambridge. In an extraordinarily short space of time, coeducation had ceased to be a distant possibility and was in widespread operation.

One obvious explanation for the speed with which single-sex education was abandoned was the radical moment at which the demand for mixed colleges occurred. This was the era of civil rights, anti-war protest and women’s liberation, causes which convulsed campus life across the Western world. The demand for coeducation can be read as one more sign of the egalitarian and febrile mood of the times. Although cultural revolution provides a noisy backdrop, it is not the main drama in Nancy Weiss Malkiel’s absorbing study. An outcome which in retrospect looks inevitable was the result of lengthy, often fractious negotiations carried out by university heads and their mostly male governing bodies. For coeducation to happen, alumni had to be persuaded and donors reassured. Evidence needed to be gathered and regulations rewritten. Emotions had to be managed and compromises reached. This is the ‘struggle’ of Malkiel’s subtitle: not rallies, petitions and sit-ins, but committees, memorandums and board votes.

In each institution, the advance towards coeducation was shaped by a particular set of constraints. At Harvard, it was complicated by a history of close co-operation with Radcliffe, whose female students had been taking classes with Harvard men since the 1940s. Further integration of administrative functions in the 1960s, together with shared library space and experiments in shared halls of residence, brought coeducation to Harvard in all but name, although Radcliffe was not formally absorbed until 1999. Yale initially tried to replicate this model, embarking on a short-lived scheme to move Vassar to New Haven, then developing plans for an entirely new ‘co-ordinate’ women’s college, which would enrol women separately but be affiliated to Yale. When these projects failed, Yale’s president, Kingman Brewster Jr, pushed for straightforward coeducation, persuading his trustees that it would put Yale ahead of the competition.

Princeton also flirted with the idea of a co-ordinate college, but also ended up plumping for coeducation. The ground was prepared by an authoritative report commissioned by Princeton’s president, Robert Goheen, and drafted by Gardner Patterson, an economist at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Both men’s political instincts and diplomatic skills were tested to the limit when the report reached sceptical alumni, whose reservations were encouraged and amplified by Princeton’s director of development, Jerry Horton. But Patterson’s report proved indispensable in making a credible case for admitting women. Tellingly, it relied not on principled arguments about equality of opportunity, but on a cost-benefit analysis complete with tables, graphs and polling data. The evidence pointed in one direction: Princeton’s world-leading status was at risk if it failed to embrace coeducation.

At Oxford and Cambridge, the story was rather different. The decentralised nature of the college system meant that fellows at individual colleges played a more important role than academics in the US. Ivy League faculty were generally in favour of coeducation, but decision-making power lay elsewhere: with trustees, alumni and donors. By contrast, Oxbridge dons had real clout, in one case – Churchill College, Cambridge – outvoting a college head who was openly opposed to the admission of women. The starting point for the debate was different too. Following the 1963 publication of the Robbins Report, which recommended an expansion of university places and equal access to all who could benefit, England’s two ancient universities were under sustained pressure to enrol more women: female candidates could only apply to one of eight women’s colleges, which placed an artificial limit on numbers and made it much harder for them to get in. In the mid-1960s, women represented only 16 per cent of the undergraduate body at Oxford and less than 10 per cent at Cambridge, far short of the nationwide average of 28 per cent.

It was clear there could be no substantial increase without women being admitted to men’s colleges, but who would jump first? As in the US, there were advantages in being ahead of the curve. Some college heads felt they would be more likely to attract top applicants of both sexes and would mark their institutions out as progressive. For older colleges, going mixed might help dislodge a stuffy public school culture. Moving from Queen’s University, Belfast to take up the mastership of Clare, Eric Ashby found the college ‘very inbred’ and in need of a ‘breath of non-Cambridge air’. Next door at King’s, the radical anthropologist Edmund Leach described his college as resembling ‘a seminary for young gentlemen’. Poorer, more recently established colleges, like Churchill in Cambridge and St Catherine’s in Oxford, took up the issue partly because it complemented their identities as ‘young’, ‘modern’ institutions, and partly because they thought it might help them lure outstanding students away from their illustrious rivals.

The posturing, plotting and pen-pushing Malkiel patiently describes will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in a university common room on either side of the Atlantic. Outcomes turned on the timing of a board meeting, the tone of a speech, or the form of words used to frame an issue. As well as examining the interplay of interests, egos and bureaucratic structures, Malkiel also shows that sexual politics gave a heightened charge to proceedings. For many people, the character – even the soul – of these institutions seemed to be at stake.

This depth of feeling was most evident among alumni, such as the Dartmouth graduate who wrote in defence of ‘man-to-man competitiveness and companionship’, which in his view formed the essence of training for leadership. Admitting women, a Princeton graduate noted, ‘would terminate the University which has meant so much to me, since the Princeton I know would no longer exist’. Some used violent images of emasculation: ‘As the castrated bull must be renamed steer, so, too, must a coeducational Dartmouth find a new identity, for its character is fundamentally altered,’ one wrote. Others didn’t disguise their misogyny: if Princeton men wanted girls around, ‘a good old-fashioned whore-house would be considerably more efficient, and much, much cheaper.’ Not everyone reacted this way: younger graduates expressed support for coeducation, while some had a change of heart when it was pointed out that their daughters or granddaughters might benefit from the new arrangements. Others stopped giving money or changed their wills. One Cambridge man returned his rowing club blazer. A long-retired octogenarian don at Clare took a train from the south coast in order to vote against the admission of women. He died just five weeks later.

Going mixed may have felt traumatic for many men, but it raised existential questions for the women’s colleges. Like their male peers, young women were becoming less keen on single-sex institutions. As Ivy League universities moved to admit women, top schools like Radcliffe, Wellesley, Smith and Vassar saw an immediate drop in the academic quality of their undergraduates. The former men’s colleges even resorted to underhand methods to attract female students. In the first year of coeducation, Yale made nearly fifty transfer offers to students enrolled at Smith, an act its president described as ‘unfriendly, unwise and anti-social’. At Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford, the principal, Lucy Sutherland, worried she would lose her best female candidates to the ‘older and more glamorous’ men’s colleges, and was especially concerned about whether women would continue to apply to LMH to study male-dominated subjects like science and maths. She worried that women’s colleges might shrink into specialist institutions for the liberal arts, languishing at the bottom of the Norrington Table, which ranked college performance.

Despite these threats, the women’s colleges moved unevenly towards admitting men. After the failed New Haven scheme, Vassar went ahead with coeducation on its own, fearful, as its president put it, of becoming a ‘brilliant anachronism’. But many female graduates were just as horrified as their male counterparts by proposals for coeducation. A Vassar alumna described the proposed partnership with Yale as ‘euthanasia’. A Radcliffe woman felt ‘not only let down but betrayed’ by plans for a merger with Harvard. ‘My Wellesley will be dead,’ another wrote, when the question of admitting men was raised. Many defended the principle of separate education on pedagogical grounds, arguing that women fared best when freed from the pressures of male competition and the toxic sexual dynamics of mixed classrooms. Single-sex colleges gave young women an opportunity to develop their personalities and build leadership skills in ways unavailable on male-dominated campuses. It was far from obvious, these women claimed, that there was no place for the women’s college in higher education. Institutions like Smith, Wellesley and Radcliffe should hold their nerve, remember their historic mission and remain ‘mistress of their own house’.

This position gained strength in the early 1970s as a result of the growing influence of the women’s movement on student and faculty opinion, which had been tilting towards admitting men. Gloria Steinem delivered an electrifying graduation speech at her alma mater, Smith College, in 1971. Taking women’s political consciousness as her theme, she argued that patriarchy’s ideological hold was still too strong to risk coeducation: ‘Our heads are not together enough yet as women to be integrated,’ she told her audience. Smith’s task was to ‘become, again, a feminist institution, a radicalising institution, so that when we integrate we will understand that we are not receiving the benefit of the great intellectual male presence which is going to validate our classroom experience, but that we have got to offer the elements of the female culture … which the males very, very badly need’. Analysis of this kind helped turn the tide against coeducation at Smith and Wellesley (which remain women’s colleges) and slowed progress on the Radcliffe-Harvard merger.

Early evidence from the newly mixed Ivy League schools showed that relations between the sexes were anything but ‘natural’. This was in part a consequence of deeply skewed gender ratios, with places for women restricted to assuage concerns that coeducation inevitably meant fewer places for men. The first female undergraduates at Yale were outnumbered eight to one. At Dartmouth the ratio was nine to one. As an extreme minority, the first female undergraduates found themselves under permanent scrutiny: probed by male academics to offer the ‘woman’s perspective’ in class, hounded by newspapers and TV for interviews and photo-shoots, and received with wariness, boorishness or hostility by male students. The women’s dorm in Princeton, one undergraduate recalled, ‘was a zoo. Drunks came knocking on doors at all hours soliciting for their parties. The noise was incredible.’ The atmosphere at Dartmouth was especially bad. In 1975, one entry to the annual song contest organised by the men’s fraternities included the lines ‘Send the bitches home’ and ‘They are all a bunch of whores.’ The college dean, who was present, sang along. By comparison, the male reaction at Oxford and Cambridge was less extreme. The misogynists had peaked decades earlier: in Cambridge in 1921, male undergraduates took a handcart to Newnham and battered its bronze gates in protest against the admission of women to university degrees. (The women were being awarded diplomas; Cambridge didn’t award them full degrees until 1948.)

But many women enjoyed their pioneer status. As one undergraduate put it, ‘sexism was something we were fighting just by being at Yale and doing well there.’ ‘One felt swept up in one of those grand assaults on the conventional wisdom that transforms everyone’s life – for ever,’ a female professor at Princeton said. The appointment of more women to tenured positions and fellowships at leading universities was an important by-product of coeducation. This in turn laid the groundwork for the establishment of women’s and gender studies programmes and helped feminist politics and activism to establish a presence on hitherto all-male campuses.

Despite all this, coeducation worked out much better for male institutions than for women’s colleges. It made sense that the brightest girls would try to get into Harvard or Yale, but it was much harder to convince ambitious boys to consider a college with a history of educating women. Meanwhile, places like Smith and Wellesley, which remained single-sex, struggled to attract the best applicants. By going mixed, the Ivy League universities and the men’s colleges at Oxbridge retained their status as providers of elite education. Although women could now benefit from that education, promoting gender equality had never been the aim. ‘Our concern,’ Kingman Brewster told alumni in 1967, ‘is not so much what Yale can do for women but what women can do for Yale.’ At Hertford College, Oxford, one don recalled, the debate was entirely about how to ‘improve the quality of our entry … At no time was anything approaching a feminist argument made.’

Soon enough, mixed classrooms and dorms started to feel normal. ‘There are girls on the same floor as guys,’ one Princeton freshman said in 1972, ‘and you just walk across the hall and rap with a girl about your class reading. You don’t get hung up about girls being a separate species.’ Coeducation did not, however, erode the masculine pleasure culture centred on sport, clubs and fraternities. Yale’s secret societies remained single sex until the early 1990s. Most of Harvard’s Final Clubs are still to admit women, despite recent efforts to sanction undergraduates who join them. Continuing problems with sexual harassment, rape and assault on campus make it harder for women to thrive in the elite university, where the legacy of male privilege hangs heavily in the air. Malkiel cites troubling evidence about women’s academic under-achievement at Princeton, their lower share of Oxbridge firsts and their unequal representation in positions of student leadership, points often obscured in contemporary debates about the ‘feminisation’ of higher education. In truth, coeducation was never likely to deliver gender equality, because the policy originated in the status anxiety of elite males.