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.