The first thing that usually comes to mind with reference to the history of Princeton University’s Triangle Club is probably a kick line of men in dresses. Until 1969, admission to Princeton was for men only, so putting on student plays meant men often took women’s roles, and performances usually poked fun at this fact. Triangle was a launching pad for several prominent students. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jimmy Stewart, and Jose Ferrer are among its notable members, all of whom seem to have taken the experiences the Club gave them as the foundation for their later careers, just to name a few examples.
Yet Triangle did not always have male-only performers, even before coeducation. In 1922, the Club decided to deviate from the longstanding tradition of presenting a musical, and instead take on George Bernard Shaw’s “The Devil’s Disciple.” In the 1922 Princeton Pictorial, Triangle explained, “Naturally in an undertaking of this kind women’s roles must be played by women.” Three local women acted in the production, one of whom was the daughter of a Princeton alumnus.
Triangle Club did not make inclusion of female performers a trend, however. Memories of the 1922 production seem to have faded quickly; when “Captain Applejack” came along in 1927, the Princetonian reported that the decision to include three female actors was “breaking ancient Triangle traditions.” In general, Triangle productions still utilized (male) student talent for all roles.
In 1968, Sue Jean Lee truly brought Triangle’s men-only tradition crashing down with her starring role in “A Different Kick.” Lee was a “Critter” studying Chinese at Princeton as part of the Critical Languages Program who officially transferred to the University for her senior year. As a member of the Class of 1970, she was one of the first nine women to receive a Princeton A.B. The 1970 Nassau Herald says of Lee, “she would most like to be remembered at Princeton for being the first female member of Triangle Club.” Not everyone was pleased; some alumni expressed dismay at the upheaval to their traditions. Lee expressed confusion over this response: “I couldn’t believe it when people told me that some undergraduates and alumni were against having a girl in Triangle. It all seems so natural.”
Lee’s appearance in the Triangle Show came at a time when controversies raged about Princeton’s deliberations over coeducation. It is likely that this fueled criticism of the decision to cast Lee. The same week “A Different Kick” premiered, the Princeton Alumni Weekly was filled with pages of letters from former students weighing in on whether women belonged at Princeton. “It has not been easy to believe that serious people are seriously promoting coeducation at Princeton,” one said. Others disagreed just as strongly. “Having missed more than women in their Princeton past, so many alumni letters miss the point…” Her place in the Triangle Show was thus symbolic of other changes taking place at the University.
After Lee broke this barrier and coeducation became official, female students became a fixture in the Triangle Show. The 1969 “Call a Spade a Shovel” included six women, Lee among them. Princeton’s Town Topics marveled over this fact: “Never before have six – count them, six – real girls been on stage with Triangle.” Over time, the presence of women on stage became less and less noteworthy. Now, Triangle Club is a part of the Princeton experience for many women.
A few years ago, the women of Triangle made a video tribute to Lee. You may view it here.
Nassau Herald (1970)
Princeton Alumni Weekly
Triangle Club Records (AC122)