In 2013, 26,642 people applied to the Princeton University Class of 2018. Princeton made offers of admission to 1,983 of these applicants, an acceptance rate of 7.4%. Though many find this competitiveness discouraging, clearly a significant number choose to try their odds anyway. Yet how many applications can one imagine Princeton would get if the school announced that they might end up rejecting all of those who applied? This was the dilemma faced by female students in the winter of 1969: whether to apply to a university unsure if it would admit a single woman.
Bruce Wright applied for admission to Princeton University in the 1930s, having spent some of his childhood living in its shadow in Princeton, New Jersey. He was excited to be awarded a scholarship, and showed up in the fall ready to start as a freshman. So far as the Dean of Admissions was concerned, however, there was just one problem: Wright was black, and the Admissions Office hadn’t known that when they offered him a place among white Princetonians. Though many students who stood in line to register with Wright were not at all resistant to having him there, Dean Radcliffe Heermance (Graduate Class of 1909) decided that Princeton would not accept him as one of its own. In a later interview, Wright recalled, Heermance had told him: “If you’re trying to come here, you’re going someplace where you’re not wanted.” With no other recourse he could see, Wright went outside, sat down on his suitcase, and waited for his father to drive down from New York to pick him up.
The words lingered in Wright’s mind. “I was shattered, and I became more so as time went on,” Wright said. “For some reason I persisted in writing to Heermance to demand to know why. Was I a danger, a menace to a great university?”
This was Heermance’s answer:
“Yesterday, December 7th, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the empire of Japan”: so began Franklin Delano Roosevelt on December 8, in a speech asking the United States Congress for a declaration of war. Princeton University didn’t wait until Roosevelt’s speech; instead, the Princeton Senate declared war on Japan immediately following the attack. The Daily Princetonian reported on this story and others under the banner headline, “PRINCETON PRESENTS UNITED FRONT AS UNITED STATES FACES TOTAL WAR.”
It would be difficult to overstate the transformations that World War II brought to the United States at large and to Princeton University in particular in a nearly immediate and all-consuming way in the wake of the Japanese strikes on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. A stunned administration under the leadership of University President Harold Willis Dodds (Graduate Class of 1914), who had only six weeks before asserted that the threat of war “will call for minor adjustments in the curriculum” (“Some Thoughts on Universities and National Defense,” October 31, 1941), suddenly and drastically revised its approach. Rather than minor adjustments, Princeton instead embraced major upheavals to nearly all of its traditions.
On December 15, Dodds presented the rough outlines of a changed Princeton curriculum to a mass meeting of students in Alexander Hall. A Princeton A.B., typically a four-year degree, would have an accelerated option with year-round classes, so that it could be completed in three. Additional “emergency courses” would be added to teach skills deemed useful for war. Princeton would yield itself to the needs of the U.S. Army and Navy, whatever those needs happened to be. All of these anticipated changes quickly went into effect. Here, we highlight how the war effort brought one other dramatic change to the campus: for the first time, women enrolled in classes.
Photogrammetry, or making maps from aerial photographs, was among many emergency courses added for the Summer 1942 term. Tuition was not charged for the class, taught by engineering professor Philip R. Kissam, but admission was competitive, as applications poured in from across the nation.
The class of 45 ultimately included 23 women, most from the East Coast region between New London and Philadelphia, and one from Royal Oak, Michigan. The Prince marveled, “One of the few remaining strongholds of the male, the classrooms of Princeton University, have been opened by the war to women students for the first time in the 196 years of its existence.” This was a bit of an exaggeration, however, as only a few classrooms were actually open to women, and the photogrammetry class was the only one taken by American women. Three female members of the British military also attended classes here during the war (Princeton Alumni Weekly, December 10, 1943), but afterward, coeducation at Princeton became nothing more than a memory until the 1960s. For more on the history of women at the University, see our previous blog post.
For further reading on World War II’s impact on Princeton University, see our previous blog posts about the bronze memorial stars that adorn some dormitory windows and the wartime love letters of alumnus Peter Page ’41.
Board of Trustees Records (AC120)
The Princeton Tiger
Root, Robert K. The Princeton Campus in World War II. Princeton: Self-published, 1978.
Written by Vanessa Snowden
For much of its history, Princeton University had the reputation of being an “old-boys’ school.” Starting in the fall of 1969, Princeton became co-educational, and nine women transferred into the Class of 1970, with slightly greater numbers in the two subsequent classes. Women who matriculated as freshmen in 1969 graduated in the Class of 1973, the first undergraduate class that included women for all four undergraduate years. However, the first steps towards co-education came as early as 1887, with the founding of Evelyn College. From its inception, this women’s institution was associated with Princeton University, and it was hoped that the link would be similar to the Radcliffe and Harvard University relationship. Unfortunately, Evelyn College closed in 1897, due to financial problems and a lack of support from Princeton.
For the next half-century, women instead made their presence known in unofficial positions. Wives and daughters of Princeton faculty and administrators succeeded in exerting significant influence on campus life as advocates for students as well as assistants in research. Isabella Guthrie McCosh, wife of James McCosh, the 11th president of Princeton, was deeply involved in protecting the health and welfare of Princeton students. As a result of her unflagging dedication, the campus infirmary was built and named in her honor.
Women were also important forces in the academic world. Margaret Farrand Thorp, wife of English professor, Willard Thorp, often assisted with her husband’s research while simultaneously producing her own independent work. Fittingly, she wrote a book entitled Female Persuasion: Six Strong-Minded Women, which was published in 1949. Speaking of her lot as a female at Princeton, Thorp once quipped, “We who practice the pleasant profession of faculty wife are often amused by Princeton University’s apparent hostility to the feminine sex. Hostility is probably too strong a word. The situation is, rather, that for the University, the feminine sex does not exist.” (See William K. Selden, Women of Princeton, p. 33.)
The motion was passed that the following resolutions of the Council be printed in the Princetonian issue of October 16th:
(1) That all undergraduates shall not enter any moving picture theatre in Princeton.
(2) That all undergraduates shall stay within the University limits, avoiding Witherspoon street and other congested districts unless there is an urgent need to the contrary.
(3) That all undergraduates eat only at the Clubs or the University Dining Halls.
(4) That all undergraduates refrain from leaving town and thereby exposing themselves and the rest of the student body to unnecessary danger.
On October 14, 1916, Princeton University president John Grier Hibben asked the Senior Council to adopt the resolution quoted above. He had already taken the unprecedented step of delaying the start of classes from the usual mid-September until October 10. The faculty had decided, in light of the shortened academic year, to reduce the length of the usual breaks students would otherwise have received.