Writing the History of University Coeducation

by Emily Rutherford

When Yung In Chae told me that she was going to Nancy Malkiel’s book talk, I begged her to cover it for the blog. After all, my dissertation is a new, comprehensive history of coeducation in British universities, and as I was writing my prospectus Malkiel helped to put coeducation back into historians’ headlines. As Yung In’s account shows, Malkiel’s weighty tome restores some important things that have been missing in previous histories of university coeducation: attention to the intricacy of the politics through which institutions negotiated coeducation (and an emphasis on politics as a series of negotiations between individuals, often obeying only the logic of unintended consequences), and attention to the men who were already part of single-sex institutions and considered whether to admit women to them. Histories of coeducation usually focus on the ideas and experiences of women who sought access to the institutions, whether as teachers or as students. But that tends to imply a binary where women were progressives who supported coeducation and men were reactionaries who opposed it. As Malkiel shows—and as we might know from thinking about other questions of gender and politics like women’s suffrage—it just doesn’t work like that.

Malkiel’s book strikes me as a compelling history of gender relations at a specific set of universities at a particular moment—the 1960s and ’70s, which we all might point to as a key period in which gender norms and relations between men and women came under pressure on both sides of the Atlantic. But we should be wary, I think, of regarding it as the history of coeducation (Malkiel isn’t suggesting this, but I think that’s how some people might read it—not least when glancing at the book’s cover and seeing the subtitle, “The Struggle for Coeducation”). Malkiel’s story is an Ivy League one, and I’m not sure that it can help us to understand what coeducation looked like at less selective universities whose internal politics were less dominated by admissions policy; at universities in other countries (like the UK) which existed in nationally specific contexts for institutional structure and cultural norms surrounding gender; or in terms of questions other than the co-residence of students. Some of Malkiel’s cases are unusual universities like Princeton and Dartmouth which admitted women very late in the game, but others are about the problem of co-residency: merging men’s and women’s institutions like Harvard and Radcliffe that already essentially shared a campus and many resources and administrative structures, or gender-integrating the Oxford and Cambridge colleges, and thus meaning that men and women students would live alongside each other. But at these institutions, as at other, less elite universities, student life was already significantly coeducational: men and women had some, though not all, teaching in common; they joined mixed extracurricular organizations; they socialized together—though this was limited by curfews and parietal rules, which in 1960s style became the focus of student activism around gender relations. Women teachers and administrators faced other, historically specific challenges about how to be taken seriously, or how to balance a career and marriage. Those who opposed coeducation and sought to support single-sex institutions did so—as Malkiel shows—in ways specific to the political and social context of the 1960s.

But my dissertation research suggests that lasting arguments about co-residency that persisted into the 1960s—and ultimately resulted in the coeducation of hold-out institutions like Princeton and Dartmouth—were the product of an earlier series of conflicts in universities over coeducation and gender relations more broadly, whose unsatisfactory resolution in some institutions set up the conflicts Malkiel discusses. Let’s take the British case, which is not perfectly parallel to the US case but is the focus of my research. My dissertation starts in the 1860s, when there were nine universities in Great Britain but none admitted women. The university sector, like the middle class, exploded in the nineteenth century, and as this happened, the wives, sisters, and daughters of a newly professionalized class of university teachers campaigned for greater educational opportunities for middle-class women. In the late 1870s, Bristol and London became the first universities to admit women to degrees, and activists founded the first women’s colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, though they were not yet recognized by the universities. By 1930, there were seventeen universities in Britain as well as many colleges, all except Cambridge granting women degrees. Cambridge would not admit women to the BA until 1948, and as Malkiel shows the Oxford and Cambridge colleges wouldn’t coeducate until the 1970s. Indeed, higher education did not become a mass system as in the US until the period following the 1963 Robbins Report, and national numbers of women undergraduates did not equal men until the higher education system was restructured in 1992. But it’s already possible to see that a definition of coeducation focused not on co-residency but on women’s admission to the BA nationally, and on the first women on university campuses—as teachers, as students, and also as servants or as the family members or friends of men academics—changes the periodization of the story of coeducation, placing the focal point somewhere around the turn of the twentieth century and taking into account the social and cultural changes wrought by significant factors within British history such as massive urbanization or the First World War. Of course, it’s not just about the BA, and the cultural aspects of this shift in norms surrounding gender relations in Britain are an important part of the story—as middle-class men and women (particularly young men and women) found themselves confronting the new social experience of being friends with each other, an experience which many found perplexing and awkward, but which the more liberal sought out regardless of whether they were educated at the same institutions or whether there were curfews and other regulations governing the ways they could meet each other. University administrators had to confront the same questions among their own generation, while also making decisions about institutional priorities: should accommodation be built for women students? should it look different from the accommodation offered to men students? should women be allowed into the library or laboratory or student union? should they be renovated to include women’s restrooms? how would these projects be funded? would philanthropists disgruntled by change pull their donations? These were questions universities faced in the 1920s as much as in the 1960s—or today.

I’m still early in my research, but one focus of my inquiries is those who opposed coeducation. They haven’t been given as much attention as those who fought for it—but what did they perceive to be the stakes of the question? What did they think they stood to lose? Who were they, and how did they make their claims? I already know that they included both men and women, and that while many of them were garden-variety small-c conservatives, not all of them were. I also know that for many, homoeroticism played an important role in how they explained the distinctive value of single-sex education. By 1920, the battle over women being admitted to the BA was over at all British institutions except Cambridge, but these opponents put up a strong fight. They help to show that coeducation wasn’t foreordained in a teleology of progress, but was the outcome of certain compromises and negotiations between factions, whose precise workings varied institutionally. Yet the opponents also were in many respects successful. After their institutions admitted women to the BA, they carved out spaces in which particular forms of single-sex sociability could continue. The Oxbridge collegiate system enabled this, but it also happened through single-sex student organizations (and persists, it might be noted, in universities that today have vibrant fraternity and sorority cultures), many of which were sponsored and fostered by faculty, alumni, or donors who had a stake in the preservation of single-sex spaces. Coeducation is often viewed as a process that ended when women were admitted to the BA. But even after this formal constitutional change, single-sex spaces persisted: colleges, residence halls, extracurricular organizations, informal bars to women’s academic employment, and personal choices about whom teachers and students sought to work, study, and socialize alongside. Understanding how this happened in the period from, say, 1860 to 1945 helps to explain the causes and conditions of the period on which Malkiel’s work focuses, whose origins were as much in the unresolved conflicts of the earlier period of coeducation as they were in the gender and sexuality foment of the 1960s. I suspect, too, that there may be longer-lasting legacies, which continue to structure the politics and culture of gender in the universities in which we work today.

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