A Brief History of Women at Princeton

Did you know that the wife of an alumnus safeguarded treasures during the Revolutionary War? That McCosh Infirmary was named for a woman? That WPRB greeted the news about co-education by broadcasting the Hallelujah Chorus?

Women have changed the history of Princeton. Earlier graduates, now at the peak of our careers or entering retirement, are eager to reach out to younger generations. Today’s female students and young graduates will take this legacy and make it greater.

It used to be about breaking barriers. Now it’s about forming connections.

The Princeton experience for women — for students, professors, administrators — began as one of struggling to find a place in a traditionally all-male university. For more than 150 years, women were welcome only as faculty wives and as dates for weekend parties. That changed in 1887 when, during a surge of interest in women's education, a former professor founded a sister school for Princeton, Evelyn College. It educated mainly the daughters and sisters of faculty and alumni. Unlike Radcliffe College, which survived and later merged with Harvard, Evelyn died off in 1897 due to financial woes.

In the 1940s, a few women worked on the Princeton University staff as instructors and researchers, and in 1948 one of them was promoted to associate professor. A handful of female graduate students were permitted to earn advanced degrees starting in 1962. But it was not until 1968 the Princeton granted tenure to a female with the rank of full professor. Princeton tested the waters by allowing small numbers of women from other colleges to enroll for one year of classes in “critical languages” — including Chinese, Russian, and Arabic — without earning a degree. They were nicknamed “critters” by their male classmates — a nickname not well liked by the women themselves.

In the late 1960s, an era when the women's movement challenged male dominance, Princeton's Board of Trustees appointed a committee to consider co-education. Most students and faculty supported the idea, but the board had to face down opposition from some alumni, who wanted to protect old-boy traditions and ensure admission for their sons.

The big decision came in early 1969, when the Board voted to admit women undergraduates for a “better balance of social and intellectual life” — just a few months after Yale had a similar vote. Some transfer students, originally part of the critical languages program graduated as early as 1970, and the first class to graduate women with a four-year Princeton education was the Class of 1973. A group called Concerned Alumni of Princeton continued to speak out against co-education, and the administration at first felt compelled to promise not to reduce the number of men admitted each year, about 800 per class. That meant increasing the size of each graduating class to 1,100, which required a major campus expansion and the purchase of Princeton Inn as a residential hall.

In 1974, admission became gender-blind, but it took until 2004 for the actual enrollment numbers to reach 50/50. During these years, female students continued to chip away at male-dominated traditions. The Daily Princetonian acknowledged the transition, publishing a special edition on the 10th anniversary of women at Princeton (including a lead story by Elena Kagan ’81). In the early 1980s, Princeton started one of the nation's first women's studies programs. Starting in the mid-1980s, students organized candlelight marches to “Take Back the Night,” protesting sexual violence. In 1987, the University agreed to change the lyrics to “Old Nassau” to replace the words “her sons"” and make it gender neutral. In 1990, the Supreme Court of New Jersey ordered the last two remaining all-male eating clubs to accept women, 11 years after Sally Frank ’80 originally sued the Ivy Club and Tiger Inn. And in 2001, Shirley M. Tilghman became the first woman to serve as president of Princeton. Ten years later, she appointed a committee to study why there was a sharp drop-off in the number of female students taking leadership roles — and how the trend could be reversed. By 2015, women headed four eating clubs, including Tiger Inn and Ivy, and also held the top spots at The Daily Princetonian and Undergraduate Student Government.

Many prominent women graduates have made the University proud. Sonia Sotomayor ’76 and Elena Kagan ’81 are Supreme Court Justices. Michelle Obama ’85 was First Lady. Meg Whitman ’76 has headed both eBay and Hewlett-Packard and donated $30 million to Princeton to build a residential college, which is named for her. Andrea Jung ’79 has led Avon Products and Grameen America as CEO. Lisa Jackson *86 ran the Environmental Protection Agency for four years. Wendy Kopp ’80 founded Teach for America. Jodi Picoult ’87 is a bestselling novelist. Many others have also achieved prominence in their fields and their communities.

She Roars: Celebrating Women at Princeton in 2011 marked the first time that the University invited its alumnae back to campus for a three-day conference on women. Alumnae gave talks and led panels examining such topics as women in business, higher education, scientific research, technology, the environment and corporate boards, as well as child-rearing and life balance. Attendance of nearly 1,300 alumnae and guests surpassed expectations, and women of many different classes enjoyed the chance to network across generations. Princeton women took the first step toward developing a lifelong sisterhood. Fast-forward to seven years later, and alumnae were invited to a second She Roars, in which 3,000 alumni and guests attended the conference, making it the largest event in Princeton’s history held during the academic year. Read about the conference and see the highlights

Anyone who watches the P-rade at Reunions can clearly see how women have changed the nature and legacy of Princeton. After more than 40 years, women alumni are almost as numerous as men. Students can now say, “My mother went to Princeton.”

Written by Dori Jones Yang ’76