We have previously written about the first women to take a class at Princeton University, unseating nearly two centuries of tradition. Today, we’re highlighting what our collections tell us about another group of women who changed Princeton’s established patterns as the first to live in campus dorms, another result of World War II’s radical changes to nearly every corner of American life.
During the war, many students left before graduating to enter military service. Completing their degrees posed challenges for both Princeton and its students. James M. Donnelly, Jr. ’43 wrote to administrator C. William Edwards on August 25, 1945. He hoped to return to Princeton, but there were special considerations. “I am also married and hope to bring my wife to Princeton when I return. However, the procedure I must follow to procure housing, with University aid, is also unclear.”
This wasn’t unclear only to Donnelly. Despite a commitment to allow its students to complete educations disrupted by war, the surge of returning veterans presented huge logistical problems for Princeton. Like Donnelly, many had married; some also had children. But residential colleges are not generally equipped to handle a large population of married undergraduates, and Princeton was no exception. This was, they anticipated, only a temporary problem, but nonetheless an urgent one.
One way Princeton responded to this new housing crisis was to build apartments, but these weren’t ready in time for Donnelly and many others. Thus, Princeton decided to have couples move into Brown Hall and a few other campus locations. For the first time in 200 years, women would live in dormitories at Princeton. If the students accepted these cramped accommodations, Princeton would allow them to return before the new Butler Apartments were constructed. A letter sent to one veteran by the Department of Grounds and Buildings warned, “None of the accommodations offered are at all satisfactory or desirable and very few have private baths or cooking facilities. Those which do are used for assignment to couples with a child.” Despite such ominous words, a significant number of veterans and their wives decided to come back to Princeton anyway.
Two of the women who arrived with this wave of veteran students at Princeton in 1946 were James M. Donnelly’s wife, Ruth Donnelly, and Doris Pike, the wife of Otis Pike, Jr. ’43. The Daily Princetonian put Ruth and Doris to work as columnists reporting on the life of a woman on campus, noting that they had never before had female reporters. Through their columns, we get a glimpse into a side of Princeton rarely seen.
Though living in dorms, the journalists explained that their accommodations bore at least some resemblance to living in an apartment building, because each family was given two or three rooms. In these rooms, residents improvised, using hot plates and waffle irons to create makeshift private “kitchens.” When the weather became too warm to use windowsills for refrigeration, a group pooled their money to buy a small refrigerator to share.
For those who came to Princeton with children, there were additional challenges. Pike and Donnelly reported that those women had sidestepped privacy concerns by simply choosing to live communally. In the words of one veteran quoted in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, “Privacy is something this generation doesn’t know anything about.” These women pooled their resources, shopped for all of the families at once, and cooked and cleaned for the whole group in turn on a schedule they worked out.
Women living on campus was a novelty that received a variety of responses. The Nassau Sovereign sponsored a beauty contest. Eileen Totten, wife of Gilbert Totten ’46, won the title of Princeton University Sovereigness and magnanimously pronounced the campus “a pretty wonderful place.” Eileen had attended Northwestern University, where she said the “vigorous social whirl” contrasted with Princeton’s “sedate” campus. The Sovereign reported that her husband “is very pleased with her cooking, demonstrating that beauty, intelligence, and culinary proficiency are not irreconcilable.”
Undergraduates’ wives did not simply spend their days cooking and cleaning, however. In some ways, Princeton was part of larger cultural shift in the aftermath of World War II as women who worked during the war often wanted to continue to do so, but were expected to give up careers to make room for returning veterans and take up housework. While our sources reveal Princeton’s efforts to paint a reassuring picture that the influx of women only meant having homemakers around, the women themselves seem to have had a different perspective. As Donnelly and Pike pointed out more than once, the women living on campus also had experiences and interests beyond their dormitory homes. Most were college graduates with a significant diversity of majors. Many of them were veterans in their own right, representing war service in the Navy, the Army, the Red Cross, and the Office of War Information in Cairo. Several others had spent the war working in defense factories building weapons and aircraft. A few, besides Donnelly and Pike, had careers in journalism prior to their time at Princeton. One clerked in the State Department and the U.S. House of Representatives. Four had been teachers. One had modeled, another was an insurance claims adjuster, and another had worked as a hospital dietitian.
Like Donnelly and Pike, many found jobs on campus, while others sought to further their own educational pursuits by auditing classes. But the reporters warned that not all professors were open to having women in their classrooms: “the impression was received that women in the classrooms were too great an infringement on tradition to be tolerated, and we inferred that one department took enough pride in the average Princeton undergraduate’s intellect to assume that wives (most of whom are college graduates), would be unable to master the complexities of their introductory course.” Another department, they said, restricted women from attending lectures if the lecturer was deemed too young and/or handsome to lecture to women. Undaunted, Donnelly and Pike offered a list of courses whose lectures women were welcome to attend, but also reassured alumni that their beloved Princeton hadn’t really changed. “Princeton’s female contingent does not constitute a fundamental retreat from the hallowed idea of a strictly male educational system, but is entirely a post-war concession to married veterans. … the womanhood on Tiger territory will be removed as soon as we can tutor our husbands through, but in the meantime, that womanhood will go on having a mighty good time.”
After these women left their mark on Princeton, the return to an all-male campus was short-lived in spite of Pike and Donnelly’s promises to worried alumni. In 1961, Princeton admitted its first full-time female degree candidate, graduate student Sabra Follett Meservey. Two years later, female students from other colleges began pursuing undergraduate coursework at Princeton through the Critical Languages Program. Finally, in 1969, the Board of Trustees decided to make Princeton University fully coeducational. Women are not an unusual sight in today’s dorms, but married undergraduates remain a very small minority within the student population.
Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112)
Historical Subject Files (AC109)
Historical Subject Files, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC110)