Keep the Damned Women Out: Professor Nancy Malkiel on why some Colleges and Universities 'went mixed'

14th November 2016 in Archives Centre, News and Events, Women at Churchill

On November 4, Nancy Malkiel, Professor Emeritus of History at Princeton visited Churchill College to give a talk to launch her new book "Keep the Damned Women Out": The Struggle for Coeducation — exploring the decision in the 1960s and 70s by several Ivy League universities in the USA and colleges in Cambridge and Oxford to 'go mixed'.

Her research took her to the archives of the three Cambridge colleges that were the first to go co-educational: Churchill, King's, and Clare.

Churchill College is proud of being the first men’s college in Cambridge to decide to admit women. So it is salutary to remember that it was the last Cambridge college to be founded for men only. What was unexceptionable in 1960 had become unthinkable by 1970. A wave of reforms swept through higher education, and coeducation was one element in a multilayered revolution. On the larger canvas, Churchill’s decision in 1969 was unremarkable. In just five years, 1969-74, dozens of colleges on both sides of the Atlantic ‘went mixed’, including Princeton, Yale, Dartmouth, and Vassar, and three Cambridge and five Oxford colleges. The momentous decision at Churchill is set in the wider context in an impressive new book by Nancy Weiss Malkiel, ‘Keep the Damned Women Out’: The Struggle for Coeducation (Princeton University Press). 

Nancy Malkiel speaking to a seated audience in the Churchill Archives Centre

Professor Nancy Malkiel speaking at Churchill College, November 4, 2016.

She argues that, on both sides of the Atlantic, the move to coeducation was largely inspired, not by high principle, but a desire for positional advantage. Colleges were worried, as ever, about their competitive edge for the best students. Young people increasingly did not want to be at single sex institutions. In Britain, whereas Cambridge had just 10 per cent women among its undergraduates in 1965, the new universities reached ratios of around 40 per cent. Admitting women was part of a wider move toward diversifying student cohorts. In the USA that typically involved religion and race (Jews, Catholics, African Americans), in Britain it meant school background (grammar instead of public schools). There was little high-minded talk about justice and equality, and, in so far as general principles were expressed, it tended to be the language of national efficiency: avoiding wastage by exploiting a larger pool of young talent. The primacy of the competitive edge expressed itself nowhere better than in Princeton’s chaotic scramble to admit women in 1969 so as not to be upstaged by Yale.

According to Malkiel, the switch to ‘coed’ was more difficult in the US than in Oxbridge. The alumni were far more powerful and controlled purse strings, and the male dining clubs were more intransigent (it took the New Jersey Supreme Court to force the Princeton clubs to open up). Her book is depressingly rich in examples of visceral hostility. A Dartmouth alumnus expressed the sentiment which she uses for the title of her book. Women students experienced condescension from staff and horrendous misogyny from male students, especially in initiation rituals. She argues that the change in Oxbridge was much smoother (though I think she’s too roseate about the lack of sexism there). True enough, Oxbridge had been educating women for a century, and, similarly, Harvard and Radcliffe had been interacting for decades, whereas at Yale and Princeton the change was more abrupt. One thing certainly made things easier at Churchill: nobody could say that the College’s 600 year heritage was being betrayed. (At Clare, the Master wittily and accurately retorted that in 1870 it had been said that allowing Fellows to marry betrayed a 500 year heritage and would ‘distract’ men from scholarship.)

The relative impacts of college heads, faculty, and students varied as drivers of change. In Oxbridge, college heads sometimes set the pace, especially Sir Eric Ashby at Clare College. At Churchill, the decision was forced by the Fellows against the opposition of the Master, Sir William Hawthorne, with the Senior Tutor Dick Tizard leading the way. When Alison Finch became the second female Fellow in 1972 Sir William told her, ‘Well, Miss Finch, I voted against the admission of women’.

In the early coed years, Yale and Princeton maintained caps on female numbers, declaring that the production of ‘leaders’ (which meant men) must not be diminished. There was a cap at Churchill too, with the parallel case that the College had been founded to produce ‘leaders’ for industry and technology. But the quota, like single-sex staircases, and female tutors for female students, soon lapsed.

It is good to see a key aspect of Churchill College’s short career now becoming the stuff of history books. Malkiel’s Ch. 21 takes for its title a remark by Sir John Colville to Sir Winston Churchill when Winston dared to suggest that maybe his new College could have women. That would be ‘like dropping a hydrogen bomb in the middle of King’s Parade’.

 — Mark Goldie, November 2016