Coeducation brought female students to Princeton, but it didn’t bring the first women. There have always been women connected with the institution. Nonetheless, coeducation did change the lives of the women who were already here. Esther Edwards Burr, Sarah Pierpont Edwards, and Isabella McCosh, wives of three Princeton presidents from earlier centuries, have all received historians’ attention as individuals, but the ways in which faculty wives as a group shaped and reshaped Princeton has not been fully explored. As Princeton celebrates its 50th anniversary year of undergraduate coeducation, it is worth looking back at some of the women who pushed hardest to end male-only hegemony: the ones who married the men who taught on Princeton’s campus.
It can be hard to uncover many of their names even now, as records are often found filed among their husbands’ papers in the University Archives or otherwise obscured by their scattered presence across diverse collections. The women who lived in town because of their husbands’ teaching careers at Princeton University did not always find the institution itself particularly welcoming to them, but they formed their own communities and found ways to pursue their own passions despite an environment they often described as outright hostile. Ultimately, Princeton University’s first regularly enrolled female student came from their ranks.
In prior centuries, a variety of activities were available for faculty wives. Many joined local women’s organizations like the Ivy Hall Library and the Present Day Club in the 19th century. In the early 20th century, faculty wives had groups of their own. The Ladies Auxiliary formed in 1902 and in 1904 changed its name to “Ladies Auxiliary of the Isabella McCosh Infirmary” to reflect its major sphere of interest. The University League was formally organized in 1920, originally to host faculty teas. The League expanded to include groups for foreign language conversation, performing arts, gardening, and various other affinities. Sometimes, their activities were controversial, as when a dean wrote to demand that his wife’s name be removed from a list of women in a book club who had read Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, but in general, as Margaret Smagorinsky noted in 1981, “the roaring twenties by-passed Princeton.” (Office of Communications Records (AC168), Box 105)
Katharine Fullerton Gerould would probably have agreed with that assessment. She took Princeton to task for providing insufficient stimulation in a 1924 article in the Princeton Alumni Weekly. Gerould had an A.B. and M.A. from Radcliffe College and had taught at Bryn Mawr for a decade before her marriage. Though many universities that were not coeducational would have allowed a woman to audit courses, Princeton did not. In “A Woman in Princeton,” Gerould wrote, “If we added to the congestion of Nassau Street yet another bloc—of female graduate students—I think Princetonians could hardly bear it. Moreover, from the point of view of the artist, it would be a grave error to give women any rights in this male Paradise. Princeton is, I should suppose, the last stronghold in America of male domination.” She concluded that she would audit courses at Penn or Columbia.
Gerould noted that the town itself was also challenging to live in as a woman, complaining that men’s clothing was readily available locally but she had to shop in New York or Philadelphia. Attendance at football games was sex-segregated, so Gerould could not sit with her husband if she wanted. “The only public place in Princeton where women govern is Bamman’s [the grocery store across the street from campus]; and I have heard disgusted masculine comment even on that. The men say it is ‘like a damn tea-party.’ I think they would like to restrict us to Witherspoon Street.”
Like Gerould, who gave the Isaac H. Bromley Lectures at Yale University in 1923, some wives engaged in scholarship in spite of the barriers at Princeton. Josephine Platner Shear worked alongside her husband, a Princeton professor, in Athens in the 1930s, where she was in charge of the numismatics department of their Agora archaeological dig. There, she discovered a 2nd-century C.E. Athenian coin previously unknown to scholars. Shear lectured to local women about her work and published articles in archaeological journals. Eleanor Cross Marquand, wife of the first chair of Princeton’s Department of Art and Archaeology, became a respected, published expert on the symbolism of the use of flowers and trees in art. She was self-taught. In 1948, Princeton recognized her contributions to the field with an honorary Master of Arts.
After World War II, life in Princeton had changed forever, as the PAW observed in 1957: “Perhaps the most striking feature of ‘The New Princeton’ is the continual, never-ending presence of women.” Carla A. Sykes wrote her own reflection on the life of a Princeton faculty wife that year. Sykes also noted that there were more women in town than there had been in the 1920s, thanks in part to female students at Westminster Choir College, so women’s clothing had become readily available in town. Yet, she said, “a certain ‘male-ness’ pervades,” bringing a combination of “sweet and sour” to women’s lives.
As women began to be considered partners in their husbands’ careers, Sykes said a faculty wife was “expected not only to be interested in her husband’s work, but…to be a sort of unpaid co-worker as well.” Wives typed manuscripts, proofread copy, and maintained schedules for their husbands, as well as listening to and providing feedback on practice lectures. As a result, women considered their husbands’ work their own. “Faculty wives, meeting for the first time, have been heard to ask each other, ‘What department are YOU in?’”
Despite this labor, Princeton still did not allow women to audit courses, and very rarely would allow them to teach prior to the late 1960s. Sykes wrote that this was difficult for many, especially those who had their own advanced degrees. They hoped Princeton might someday finally admit female graduate students and that this would open doors for them, too. Still, they had full use of the library and could attend public lectures, and they felt Princeton as a town was far more intellectually stimulating than many communities would have been. While the new suburbia was homogenizing American life in the 1950s, Princeton had diversity, both of cultural background and the age of its residents, and Sykes considered this a positive thing.
In 1968, Corrine M. Black and Martha L. Lamar offered their perspective. In “The New Faculty Wife,” published in the PAW when Princeton had begun to admit female graduate students but did not yet have female undergraduate degree candidates, Black and Lamar wrote, “The whiff of revolution in the air stirred a thousand repressed feelings.” Faculty wives were throwing off the limitations of being unpaid assistants to their husbands, doing volunteer work in town, or fighting to be recognized as scholars without any institutional support. Both middle-aged and young women were seeking new horizons, taking jobs in Trenton or auditing graduate seminars—or even enrolling as graduate students themselves. The first female graduate student at Princeton, Sabra Meservey, was also a faculty wife when she was admitted in 1961 and, true to an earlier generation’s hopes, this opened new possibilities for other women. “In my family,” one woman told Black and Lamar, “there’s a complete reversal of roles. He types my papers.”
The University League began to broaden its scope, too. It took on the function of an employment agency with its “Job Roster” matching employers with members looking for work and ran a nursery school/day care center for the children of working parents. Coeducation was part of broader social changes that transformed the lives of all of Princeton’s women. Black and Lamar saw room for improvement, but also the signs that improvement was coming, and it was perhaps reasonable to “look forward to a more relaxed, natural atmosphere in which they will be routinely regarded as persons rather than as ‘females’ in academic matters.”
Graduate Alumni Records (AC105)
Hedges Family Papers (AC370)
Historical Subject Files (AC109)
Honorary Degree Records (AC106)
Office of Communications Records (AC168)
Office of the President Records (AC117)
For further reading:
Armstrong, April C. “‘The End of the Monastery’: Princeton’s First Female Graduate Students.”
Armstrong, April C. “Ivy Hall Library and Higher Education for Princeton Women in the 1870s.”
Armstrong, April C. “‘Womanhood on Tiger Territory’: The First Women to Live in Princeton University Dormitories.”
Snowden, Vanessa. “History of Women at Princeton University.”