by guest contributor Yung In Chae
When professional troll James Delingpole recently bemoaned in the Spectator the demise of “a real Oxbridge education” at the hands of misguided social justice initiatives, professional classicist Mary Beard ended her response with the following postscript: “… when I quickly scanned the first link I was sent and saw the phrase ‘sterile, conformist monoculture’ applied to Oxbridge, I assumed that you were referring to what Oxbridge was like when it was a blokeish public school monoculture before the women and the others were ‘let in’! Whoops.”
Beard implies that there is a sterile, conformist Oxbridge to react against, but that it’s not the one Delingpole is thinking of—and that it exists more in the past than the present. So what is this “blokeish public school monoculture” that Beard references, and how did it fade? If we wish to restore the context that Delingpole so sorely lacks, with a view to understanding why his tantrum is not only plain wrong but also founded on troubling premises, this strikes me as an important missing piece of the puzzle. We can do so with relative ease, thanks to a book whose title has a poetic resonance with Beard’s ironic comment that women were “let in”: Keep the Damned Women Out: The Struggle for Coeducation (2016) by Nancy Weiss Malkiel, Professor of History Emeritus and former Dean of the College at Princeton University.
On October 31, 2016, I went to a talk in honor of Keep the Damned Women Out at the Institute of Historical Research in London. It was appropriate that the event took place on Halloween, because, as I learned from Malkiel that evening, the main actors—with the exception of Mary Ingraham Bunting of Radcliffe College, yes, all men—found the prospect of women infiltrating male educational spaces very scary indeed. The book itself is no less intimidating: fire-engine red and, at almost seven hundred pages, as thick as my thumb is long. On the cover, the title stands out in large font and harsh invective, the heartwarming contribution of a Dartmouth alumnus who wrote in 1970 to the Chair of the Board of Trustees: “For God’s sake, for Dartmouth’s sake, and for everyone’s sake, keep the damned women out.”
“And he could not have been more typical in his sentiments,” Malkiel commented before pointing out more instances of thinly veiled contempt, rife among the elite institutions that form the core of her book—elite institutions, she clarified, because that’s where the story is. (She added in response to a post-lecture question that the most elite of the elite were especially slow to change because if you’ve been doing things a particular way for centuries to great success, you think, don’t fix what isn’t broken.) Some choice quotes from my own alma mater, Princeton, include a description of coeducation as a “death wish” and concern that women would “dilute Princeton’s sturdy masculinity.” We even see prudent consideration of finances: “A good old-fashioned whorehouse would be considerably more efficient, and much, much cheaper.”
Then how, in the face of such outrage, did the damned women sneak in? Something Malkiel made clear upfront was that admitting the women had little to do with educating them. In fact, women had little to do with the story at all. This story, like so many other stories, was about men: their interests, actions, and even their defeats (in the struggle against coeducation). Furthermore, coeducation was not the mission of men who had “drunk the social justice Kool-Aid,” as Delingpole would say. That is, coeducation did not happen because of “a high-minded moral commitment,” but because “it was in the strategic self-interest of all-male institutions.” This was true in both the United States and the United Kingdom, Malkiel added.
But let us examine the two places separately for a moment in order to tease out what such strategic self-interest entailed, exactly. In the late 1960s, the top American schools began to see declining application numbers and yield rates, as men decided that they no longer wanted to attend single-sex institutions. Harvard, for example, started pulling students away from Princeton and Yale because it had Radcliffe up the street, when previously the three had been neck-and-neck. It became clear that women were key to attracting and retaining the “best boys.”
Women played “the instrumental role of improving the educational experience of men,” so their own educational experiences were, unsurprisingly, less than ideal. One Dartmouth oceanographer included pictures of naked women when presenting a list of sea creatures. The Chair of Yale’s History department responded to a request for a women’s history course by saying that that would be like teaching the history of dogs. Again at Dartmouth, the song “Our Cohogs” (cohog being a derogatory term for coeds) won a fraternity-wide songwriting competition, and afterwards the judge, the Dean of the College, joined the winners in performing ten verses of sexual insults.
Around this time, there was a wave of social change, including the civil rights movement (incidentally, Malkiel’s last book to have the word “struggle” in the title was Whitney M. Young, Jr., and the Struggle for Civil Rights), the anti-war movement, and the women’s movement, the effects of which were felt in Europe as well. The composition of student bodies started to shift, as universities admitted more state-educated students, students from lower-income backgrounds, Catholic and Jewish students, and African-American students. Women were the natural next step. Men and women were also voting and protesting together, so it began to seem strange that they should not be educated together.
In the UK, Oxford’s and Cambridge’s prestige made the “best boys” problem less likely. Nevertheless, they found themselves competing for talent with newly-founded universities, which had modern approaches to education and no history of gender segregation. (Keep in mind that by the 1970s, Oxbridge had been educating women for about a century at separate women’s colleges, even though mixed colleges were a novelty.) Simultaneously, there was a push to triple student bodies through broader recruitment at state schools. At that point it felt silly to draw the diversity line at women.
Competition within the same university was another consideration. The first colleges in Oxbridge to admit women were generally not the most prestigious, richest ones, and they did so partly to climb the league tables. Indeed, women’s colleges sat at the top of the tables at the time, and coeducation was a way to steal not only the top women students but also the accomplished men who wanted to be educated with them.
In the British case, unlike its American counterpart, the faculty played the largest role in implementing coeducation, with the Fellows of Churchill College, Cambridge even overriding the objects of the Master, noted antifeminist Sir William Hawthorne. (As Lawrence Goldman, the Director of the IHR, noted in Q&A, you have a much smaller number of men making the decisions at each college, and they were all in residence and thus continuously interacting with each other.) And in contrast to the horror stories from the Ivy League, we have no evidence of women being harassed or asked for the “woman’s point of view” at Oxbridge—which, of course, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Overall, the process of integration seems to have gone smoothly, and women continued to do well.
“Are we there yet?” Malkiel asked toward the end of the talk. Clearly, issues remain: Gill Sutherland, a fellow emerita of Newnham College, Cambridge and a preeminent historian of education and women, happened to be in the audience, and she pointed out that a pyramid scheme still exists when it comes to women graduate students and faculty. And the mere fact that the Spectator gave Delingpole a soapbox shows that class, in addition to gender, persists as a problem. Nevertheless, Malkiel chose to end her talk on a confident note, saying that we’re “well on our way.” Are we where yet? Well on our way to what? Malkiel didn’t clarify. If anything, her copious research shows that coeducation was not one step on the road leading to A More Perfect University, but the result of complex, sometimes questionable decisions. The narrative is less about progress than it is about change.
Change does happen, and it can happen with such force that people forget things were ever any other way. Malkiel noted that at Cambridge and Oxford, respectively, Eric Ashby and Hrothgar Habakkuk assuaged some fears by saying that coeducation would be like the removal of the celibacy requirement for fellows a century earlier, which nobody gave a second thought about by the 1970s. But change hardly removes the traces of the past. As Goldman—who went to university during the final years of single-sex Cambridge—said in his introductory remarks, “You get so old, eventually they start writing history about your own experiences.” One day they’ll start writing history about yours.
Yung In Chae is the Associate Editor of Eidolon and an MPhil Candidate in Classics at the University of Cambridge, where she is a Gates Cambridge Scholar. Read more of her work here.