“Keep the Damned Women Out”: The Struggle for Coeducation, by Nancy Weiss Malkiel

Book of the week: A history of the fight to share elite spaces focuses on gender over race and class, says Mary Evans

October 13, 2016
Female students shopping for Princeton University sweatshirts
Source: Getty
Tortuous progress: only in 1963 did Princeton break with tradition and admit five co-eds, seen here buying sweatshirts, to its language programme

Entering the world discussed and documented in Nancy Weiss Malkiel’s book is not far short of entering a nightmare. A nightmare in which highly educated people defend exclusive spaces, subject women to endless derision and, up until very recently, voice support for the higher education of women through the benefits it brings to “the next generation of sons”. But this is in fact a real world, and one familiar to many women, rather than an imaginary one, or one that has disappeared from the planet. As a study of this place, Malkiel’s book must be one of the most thorough accounts ever written of the determination of highly educated and powerful men to keep women away from the places that endorse exclusive forms of power. It is a superb, richly documented study and one that provides vivid insights into the ways in which the privileged seek to retain their power.

The central location of power that is being defended in this case is, first, that handful of universities in the US known collectively as the Ivy League. Thus Harvard, Yale and Princeton universities figure large in the narrative, and so too do the female counterparts of those once male-only institutions, the so-called Seven Sisters women’s universities. In second place are the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, which appear at the end of the volume; in those contexts, the struggle over access was complicated by the independence of colleges. In both countries, the battles and debates discussed by Malkiel date largely from the 1960s.

On both sides of the Atlantic, what a struggle it was. And – as one might well say – even today what a struggle it remains to achieve gender equality in higher education. As many might equally well say, a part of the struggle over access to privileged education is not just about gender, it is also about race and class, two forms of inequality that are mentioned relatively seldom in Malkiel’s study. Those forms of exclusion remain, and what demands notice here is that the “loss of talent” argument has much less often been made about exclusions of race and class than it has been about gender. Yet in reading Malkiel’s material, one of the recurrent themes is that of the ways in which the “loss of talent” argument endlessly took precedence over fair and equal access for all sectors of the population. So what comes across in these pages is that, at the same time as this is an account of Western, 20th-century, absurd and redundant arguments against co-education, it is also a story about the self-serving, ferociously competitive reality of the elite institutions themselves. Certainly, the misogyny is rife, endlessly present and frequently ridiculous. But it is the form of power that is being defended that becomes, ultimately, the dominant theme of this book.

However, since universities were the context of this particular battleground in which women fought for the same access to privileged power as that of men, the tools of the debate exhibited many of the more negative aspects of higher learning. Complex and tortuous debates, and the ingenious concealment of the determination to hang on to every last vestige of privilege, were everywhere. Among the most often cited reasons against the admission of women to the august portals of knowledge were those of tradition and the distractions of heterosexuality. (Malkiel’s study did not identify, as far as I could see, any homophobic concern about the possible dangers of all-male institutions – a remarkable absence, given the wider culture of the time.) The importance of tradition, and traditional social and intellectual engagements with learning, were endlessly invoked, as were arguments for the sexual seclusion necessary for “higher learning” that would not have been out of place in the monasteries of 12th-century Europe. Less fully articulated and imaginatively inspired attempts to defend the exclusion of women were more immediately recognisable as fundamentally sexist: women would need new forms of physical resources and, worst of all, dilute the symbolic privilege that elite education is supposed to ensure. The assumption – and the terror – about the dilution of symbolic power is one that continues in various contexts to this day.

In this historical record, it is all too tempting to see a simplistic narrative in which women struggled for access to male spaces. That women had to fight (and continue to have to fight) to gain access to sites of exclusive male privilege is beyond doubt; no university considered by Malkiel had anything approaching a straightforward, enthusiastic welcome for women either as students or as teachers. In all cases, there was a tortuous progress towards co-education, often helped as much as hindered by men. From this, we have to be wary of reading the campaigns about co-education as simply about battles between men and women.

Indeed, one of the most disturbing themes to arise in Malkiel’s book is the way in which competition between universities in the US and Oxbridge was central to the positions that these institutions took up. In summary, many men at Oxbridge colleges thought that it would be a good idea to admit women because it would improve the performance of their college in university degree class lists. On both sides of the Atlantic, women running the women’s colleges were concerned at the loss of high-performing female students to the famous all-male institutions. Those fears were, to a certain extent, realised, and as Malkiel points out, more than one women’s college in the US (the example explored is that of Wellesley College) had to adopt different kinds of admission standards. In the UK, what occurred rapidly after many of the Oxbridge women’s colleges went co-educational was the appointment of more male teachers and fellows.

To see this pattern emerging is to see – certainly in the UK – the impact that enforced inter-university competition, brought about by exercises such as the research excellence framework, can have on the gendered relations of higher education. A more competitive university sector no longer necessarily privileges one gender over another, but it certainly privileges those with the greatest resources for the achievement of academic excellence. Many of those resources are not innate. Yet what is crucial to see at work is the consistent view – shared by women and men across elite universities – that there is such a thing as innate intellectual and academic competence.

Moreover, this view was fundamental to the cause of co-education. Malkiel writes about the many furious parents – in most cases, they were fathers – in both the UK and the US who were outraged that their sons might not be admitted to “their” university/college because there were now better-qualified female applicants. But, and it is a very important “but”, those “better” applicants were part of a changing university world in which the relatively transparent social elitism once enjoyed by Harvard, Yale, Oxbridge et al. was being replaced by a far more complex elitism derived at least in part – and paradoxically – from more widely available access to higher education. The conundrum of the meaning, and the implications, of equality of access to privilege is central to this fascinating book.

Mary Evans is centennial professor in the Gender Institute, London School of Economics.


“Keep the Damned Women Out”: The Struggle for Coeducation
By Nancy Weiss Malkiel
Princeton University Press, 672pp, £24.95
ISBN 9780691172996 and 9781400882885 (e-book)
Published 19 October 2016


The author

Nancy Weiss Malkiel, emeritus professor of history at Princeton University, and upon her retirement in 2010 the university’s second-longest serving dean, was raised in Baltimore, Maryland. “My parents – a college-educated mother, and a businessman father who left school part-way through high school to help support his family after his father died – encouraged me to believe I could do anything I wanted to do. That kind of encouragement for a young girl in the 1950s was atypical.”

Malkiel took her undergraduate degree at Smith College, a women-only institution, where she was “deeply engaged in academic work, but also deeply engaged in the life of the college community”.

Smith, she says, “gave its students the opportunity to grow and flourish – the encouragement to study any subject that interested you and to aspire to the highest levels of achievement; the knowledge that as women students, we were the faculty’s top priority; and the opportunity to develop important leadership skills.

“There are many young women today for whom that kind of experience is still valuable,” she adds. “They tend to be first-generation college students, students from immigrant backgrounds, foreign students, students from conservative religious backgrounds. They present somewhat more modest academic credentials on entrance than my generation did. But they are being equipped very well to thrive in the classroom and to emerge as leaders on the community, national and world stages.”

What gives Malkiel hope?

“The extraordinary students I have taught. The extraordinary young scholars joining our faculty. The fact that we have seen such striking changes in our views about and institutional policies with respect to gender and race, and that we have opened our doors to a much more diverse group of students.”

Karen Shook

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POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Their privilege at stake, the elite pull no punches

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