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Pioneering Women: The 50th Anniversary of Princeton’s First Female Undergraduates

Fifty years later, the University’s first undergraduate women look back on their time at the University. News Editor emerita Patience Haggin writes about those who remember Princeton’s first coeducational program.

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This academic year marks the 50th anniversary of the moment five women shattered Princeton’s “sacred all-male tradition,” as a ‘Prince’ headline declared. Though full coeducation would not come until 1969, women first enrolled as undergraduates in fall 1963 through the University’s Cooperative Program in Critical Languages — an extremely selective grant-funded program which allowed college students of any gender who studied one of the U.S. State Department’s critical languages to spend their junior year on Princeton’s campus.

Although area papers winked at how hotly demanded these women would be for dates and marriage proposals on a campus of 3,200 men, their actual reception by male peers was somewhat icier. After all, Princeton’s students had chosen to attend an all-male school.

A Life Magazine shoot in September 1963 left the women “sullen,” “scornful” and “fierce,” one of the program’s top administrators wrote in a letter preserved in the Mudd Library archives. The women were eager “to be left alone so that they [could] get on with their work.” One of them, Barbara Engel, asked the administrators “with some indignation whether we had known all this would happen when we invited them here.”

“It denigrated our seriousness,” Engel, then Barbara Alpern, recalled. “And for those who resented us, it intensified the resentment.”

Class and religion isolated the women in the program’s first year even more. Their home colleges — City College of New York and Rutgers University’s Douglass College for Women — were known as two of the best public schools. And during an era when the University kept “Jewish quotas,” the fact that four of the five women were Jewish did not go unnoticed. It prompted unseemly comments in the 1964 Bric-a-Brac, such as, “The Princeton Chapter of Hadassah sent out a welcome wagon.” On the same page, a photo of three of them was captioned: “Purity, Body, and Flavor,” quoting the slogan of a popular beer ad.


“I remember one of the guys called us ‘a travesty,’ ” Engel said. While the women went on occasional dates with their classmates, their year at the University was far from the husband-hunting frenzy local press had predicted. “As a general rule, we were not looked at as marriage material.”

But marriage was “the furthest thing from my mind,” said Lenore Doler, then Lenore Patow. Their workload was intense: critical language students took a full undergraduate course load, including one intensive daily language course in Russian, Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Chinese or Japanese. Their year at Princeton was bookended by intensive summer courses, which in some cases took them abroad.

They dined in Wilcox Hall with the Woodrow Wilson Society, the “maverick outsiders” who had not joined the eating clubs. They found most of their male friends there, Doler explained. The rigor of Princeton coursework kept them occupied.

“I wrote my parents that they kept us so busy we barely had time to go to the bathroom,” Engel noted. Study hours stretched late into the night. Doler said she left Princeton with more memories of enchanting snowy walks home from Firestone Library than of dating. The first year’s cohort also included Thea Brodsky, Barbara Eve Cohen and Barbara Fitch Shirk, none of whom could be reached for interview.

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Women from the program’s later years described feeling much less resentment from their male peers. Still, levels of comfort and integration on Princeton’s campus varied.

“My junior year as a broad”

In its second year, the Critical Languages program expanded to include students from elite private colleges, including the Seven Sisters network of women’s colleges. These women, whom Princeton’s male students saw as their social equals, met a more welcome reception than their peers from less prestigious schools. This meant dates, boyfriends and meals in the eating clubs.

“We had more invitations than we could accept,” Susan Shirk recalled, who studied at Princeton in 1965-1966, during her year away from Mount Holyoke College. “I call it my junior year as a broad.”

They joined student groups and even played intramural sports with the boys. Susan Harrigan, of the 1964-1965 cohort, acted in a Theatre Intime production. Constance Davies ’71, who came to Princeton in 1968, became the first female reporter for the ‘Prince.’

Their constant presence on campus gave the women a unique perspective on Princeton’s nearly exclusively male environment and a better representation of how Princeton men treated their female guests. On Saturdays, women from elite colleges traveled to campus for parties at the eating clubs, and Princetonians behaved well in front of them, the women said. However, on Friday nights, the men brought dates from less prestigious local schools — and behaved quite differently.

“I was appalled by the way these girls were treated,” Susan Shirk noted, remembering that the men ignored them or excluded them from conversation. The male undergraduates simply assumed their guests wanted to be kissed and fondled, she explained. “The girls tolerated it, because it was such a cool thing to be dating a Princeton guy.”

Critical languages women from the more elite schools — as most of them were in the program’s later years — described being treated respectfully, as the men’s intellectual equals and potential girlfriends. But women who attended the program’s first year from City College and Douglass were left out.

“The Seven Sisters women were in the right social category, and they were smart. The local girls tended to go to Westminster Choir College, which was not a very elite school,” explained Engel, who attended The City College of New York. “We felt outside either of those categories, because we were smart.”

The “boys will be boys” culture also bred some rowdy behavior. Memorable incidents included a notable football halftime show, where the Harvard band performed a salute to Princeton’s “cunning linguists.” One woman remembered an evening when her date had to physically shield her from a group of immature boys.

“One night, while we were walking back to the dorm, the guy I was with pushed me against the wall. I didn’t know what was going on,” one of the women remembered. “The guys on the second floor were having a contest as to who could piss farthest.” Her date wanted to keep her dry.

Speaking for 50 percent of the human race

“We were in a fishbowl, and people were watching what you did and what you said, because we were 12 women on a campus of men,” said Linda Orenstein, known as Linda Pollack while at Princeton in 1965-1966. “I was told by one professor that he didn’t really like us being there, because he couldn’t curse [in front of women].”

Women often felt most visible in precepts, where they were usually the only one woman in the room. But this visibility was not always positive. Shirk took a sociology class where the professor often singled her out by asking, “Well, Miss Shirk, would you like to give us the feminine perspective on that issue?”

Their gender stood out in extracurricular activities as well. When Davies became the first female reporter of the ‘Prince,’ her assignment to the “women’s issues” beat made her feel pigeonholed.

“They were constantly putting me into that position, where I should be a spokesman for women. And I didn’t really like being in that position,” Davies explained. “I am just not the kind of person who likes to speak for 50 percent of the human race.”

At times, it was difficult to even make this discomfort understood in Princeton’s all-male environment.

“At one point I went to the school psychiatrist because I was having a hard time dealing with the situation of being one of so few women. He said he could not possibly imagine why,” Judith-Ann Corrente ’70 noted.

“Rules and Regulations”

Even as coeducation became popular in the sixties, coed campus living was unthinkable. The Critical Languages women lived apart, under more restrictive rules imposed by the University. But even these were transformed by the social turbulence of the mid- to late sixties.

In the program’s early years, the women lived in a chaperoned house at 31 Library Place owned by Princeton Theological Seminary. When their numbers grew in later years, they were moved to the Graduate College.

According to a 1963 list of “Rules and Regulations for Women Students,” women were not permitted to wear pants to classes or meals. At the time, rules like this were so commonplace that the program’s female participants barely noticed them.

As the years passed, parietal rules fell away. Then-assistant dean Allen Kassof assumed leadership of the critical languages program in 1965 and had little interest in enforcing the parietals his predecessor had set. Under his direction, dress codes that forbade women from wearing pants dissolved, along with their official curfews of 11:15 p.m. on weekdays, midnight on Fridays and 1 a.m. on Saturdays.

One day, Kassof received a call from the women’s house chaperones. They were concerned that one of their charges regularly signed out to spend nights with her boyfriend, a graduate student who lived in an apartment off campus.

“There was a sort of implicit notion that the administration really did not want scandals. So I asked her, ‘Do you know about birth control?’ This was the middle of the sixties. She said ‘Yes.’ ” Kassof decided that all he needed was to know where she was, in case her parents should call in an emergency. “So, I said, ‘Do me a favor: stop signing out. Just tell your roommate where you’re going.’ ”

“It never had occurred to me that women could do law.”

For the women who filtered through the Critical Languages program throughout the sixties, a year at Princeton was life-changing. In an environment more intellectually demanding than they had ever known before, many of them said they discovered the passions that guided their subsequent careers.

Meeting the University’s challenges with success built confidence. It taught the women to aspire to the same careers as their male classmates. When Antoinette Emery’s male classmates discouraged her from taking a famously difficult course on constitutional interpretation, she took it as a challenge.

“They were all saying, ‘You don’t want to take this class. This is the hardest undergraduate class except for organic chemistry. You don’t want to get into this class.’ And of course, that made me want it more,” added Emery, known as Toni Carter while at Princeton in 1964-1965. According to Emery, nothing was more satisfying than her preceptor’s look of surprise when he realized the high quality of her first paper.

“It never had occurred to me that women could do law,” she added. In that course, Emery discovered her passion for law, which led her to a career as an attorney after a post-graduate stint as a Chinese linguist for the Department of Defense.

Vivienne Shue’s year at Princeton taught her to pursue higher aspirations than she had ever considered. Known as Vivienne Bland at Princeton in 1965-1966, she dated a graduate Rhodes Scholarship recipient. His experience inspired her to apply for the Marshall Scholarship. She won it, married the boyfriend and is currently director of the University of Oxford’s Contemporary China Studies Programme.

“It all roots back to that year as a critical language student,” Shue explained. “Maybe I wouldn’t have won a Marshall scholarship if I hadn’t gotten this extremely rare qualification.”

The program ended in 1972 when its grant funding dissipated. Despite fond memories, most of the critical languages women have not maintained a close connection to the University. With the exception of the few women who transferred into Princeton’s classes of ’70, ’71 and ’72, critical languages students are not considered University alumni, according to Assistant Vice President for Alumni Affairs Margaret Miller ’80 who added that they have not contacted her office requesting alumni status.

“I’ve always wanted to have more of a Princeton connection, but Princeton kind of dropped us,” Shirk explained. She has visited the University’s campus as a guest lecturer, but never as an alumna. “They never tried to find out what we were doing, or tried to count us as Princeton students.”

A “backdoor” to coeducation?

“Immediately the primary attention was focused on the women,” noted Gilbert Rozman GS ’71, a man who studied in the program’s first year. “The theme on campus was that this was bringing coeducation to Princeton.”

Throughout the sixties, students and alumni debated coeducation, weighing progress against tradition. Some saw the “critters” as a bellwether to full coeducation, or even a potential“backdoor approach” to it.

“Was it the backdoor to coeducation? Or was it talked about as the backdoor to coeducation, because there were now women on the campus? I don’t really know the answer to that,” Kassof noted in reflection on the program. He was dubbed the “Dean of Women” while in charge of the program from 1965 to 1968.

The women’s presence fueled the arguments of both camps. Their academic success proved women could thrive at the University, while some found their presence a distraction. Davies was told her presence broke a classmate’s concentration.

“He said to me, ‘Holly, Princeton shouldn’t go coed, because just the other day, when you stepped into the classroom, it disturbed me. And well, I wasn’t thinking about political science anymore,’” Davies said. “I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know where I would even start to get into this argument.’ ”

At the height of debate, Critical Languages became a weathervane for coeducation. Kassof proposed expanding the program in 1968. Though supportive of coeducation, then-Provost William Bowen was wary that expanding the critical languages program might be perceived as trying to sneak it through. Bowen denied the proposal, writing to Kassof, “the benefits associated with having five more girls in this program are not worth the risk of rocking the entire coeducation boat.”

When coeducation did reach Princeton, it came through the Critical Languages program. The University’s trustees voted to admit women in 1969, but initially would not allow transfers. After some petitioning — and rumors of a threatened “nude-in” at Nassau Hall — the University allowed the Critical Languages to apply as transfers. Nine women in the program matriculated and graduated as members of the Class of 1970.

“Blazing a trail”

“That I was part of the group that was blazing a trail was kind of lost on me,” Shue said. “I guess that’s what the girls who came to Princeton were, even if we were too young to quite realize what that would mean.”

For the women interviewed for this story, studying and succeeding at Princeton were personal successes, rather than milestones in the history of women’s education. Nearly all of them said they have only realized the significance of their presence in retrospect.

“It really changed my life, and I knew it at the time. I felt like I was being given this opportunity that required me to live up to it,” Engel said.