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Vol. LXV, No. 50
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
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History of Women at Princeton Showcased In Mudd Library “She Flourishes” Exhibit

Ellen Gilbert

A little-known feature of Princeton University history is the fact that undergraduate coeducation there did not actually begin, as many may believe, in 1969. From 1887 through 1897, the University conducted a “dangerous experiment” with the creation of Evelyn College for Women.

Looking to Radcliffe and Barnard for inspiration, Evelyn was founded by clergyman Joshua Hall McIlvaine, a Princeton alumnus and former professor. He named the college after the English writer, Sir John Evelyn, and was able to recruit most of Princeton’s most noted faculty members, including Woodrow Wilson and Henry Fine, to teach there.

The Mudd Manuscript Library’s modest new exhibit, “She Flourishes,” documents Evelyn College’s brief existence, as well as subsequent “Chapters in the History of Princeton Women.” We learn from the exhibit that the Evelyn student body never included more than 50 students in any year, and that it was largely comprised of the daughters of faculty members and sisters of male undergraduates.

Hopes for the women’s college must have run high: “[i]n the most conservative town, in the most conservative state, right under the shadow of Nassau Hall, a women’s college has evolved,” noted an 1896 Harper’s Bazaar article about the college. The day would come, it predicted, when “our country shall … speak with equal pride of the sons and daughters of Princeton.”

The college fell on hard times financially after the Panic of 1893, however, and keeping enrollment up was a struggle. Evelyn College closed permanently in 1897 after McIlvaine’s death.

It would be easy to flash forward to 1969, the watershed year when Princeton and several other “‘old boys’ schools” admitted women as undergraduates. The exhibit, “She Flourishes,” however, is eager to point out that females were very much a presence on campus during the intervening years. “For most of Princeton’s history,” the curators say, “women exhibited leadership and influence on campus.” This assertion is tempered, perhaps, by the qualification that such influence was achieved “primarily through the selective application of … money and attention,” rather than through intellectual or scientific pursuits. Among the exceptions was the philosopher Hannah Arendt, who came to campus to give the 1955 Gauss seminar and returned as a visiting professor of politics during the 1958-1959 academic year.

Admission of women as graduate students preceded the move to go coed in 1969, and it is good to see a copy of the first dissertation completed by a woman, T’sai-Ying Chen. Her subject was “Fractionation of Nucleic Acids on a Methylated Albumin Column.” Among the more disturbing bits of memorabilia in the exhibit, which runs through August 31, is a mid 1950s photograph of mealtime at the Key and Seal Club, where a uniformed, somber-looking black woman holding a filled cup in each hand attempts to wend her way between two tables of boisterous-looking young men.

While “Take Back the Night” demonstrations began in the mid 1970s, they didn’t become an annual event at Princeton University until the Women’s Center, which was created in 1971, took the initiative in 1987. And old habits, apparently, die hard. A 1960s photo documents the practice of “importing” girls for fun-filled weekends with a photograph of the last in a line of girls boarding a bus to go back to Smith or Vassar or some other all-girls’ school. It is not clear whether the hand of the young man helping the girl step up onto the bus is inadvertently or deliberately hovering just under her backside. Either way, we learn that the “act of ‘importing’ was not new to Princeton and many of the men continued this practice well after the arrival of women on Princeton’s campus.”

The exhibit duly celebrates women’s achievements in sports; the ironically-named Emily Goodfellow, class of 1976, received a total record of 12 varsity letters in three different sports (field hockey, squash, and lacrosse) far surpassing Bill Bradley’s (class of 1965) paltry three letters for one sport, which was, of course, basketball. In 1987 the lyrics to Old Nassau were changed so that the community was no longer just singing to its “sons,” but to “our hearts.”

The exhibit, which derives its title from the University’s official motto, “Dei Sub Numine Viget,” (“Under God’s Power, She Flourishes”), is open to the public free of charge from 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Monday through Friday. The Mudd Library will also be open Saturday morning, June 2, for Reunions.

Beginning in June, exhibit hours will be 8:45 a.m. to 4:15 p.m., Monday through Friday. A companion video compilation to the exhibit is available at Among them, the award-winning Princeton: A Search for Answers, made in 1973, is worth a look with or without regard to coeducation.

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