The Fight for Co-Ed Ivy League Schools

by Genevieve Carlton
• 6 min read
TheBestSchools.org

In 1940, fewer than 4% of American women had a college degree. By 2019, that number jumped to over 36% — outpacing American men.

Women have made up a larger share of college students than men since 1981. But even though 93% of college students attended a coed institution in 1966, a majority of Ivy League colleges dragged their feet when it came to welcoming women to campus.

At Dartmouth, for example, undergraduates in the 1970s unfurled banners from their dorm windows that read "No Coeds" and "Better Dead Than Coed."

Why did the Ivies remain male-only schools for so long, and what finally convinced them to change?

Resistance on Campus

By the 1960s, most other colleges were already coed, but only two Ivy League institutions admitted women: Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania.

Instead of admitting women, Ivy League administrators made smaller changes, like allowing women at sister schools to attend their lectures. For example, Harvard and Brown allowed female undergraduates from their sister schools to take classes, but they did not admit women.

Some resistance to going coed came from undergraduates, but the strongest voices were often alumni, who threatened to withhold donations. As Ivy League administrators debated whether to admit women, alumni expressed strong feelings about the idea — often in starkly misogynistic terms.

"What is all this nonsense about admitting women to Princeton?" wrote one alumnus. "A good old-fashioned whore-house would be considerably more efficient, and much, much cheaper."

Some resistance to going coed came from undergraduates, but the strongest voices were often alumni, who threatened to withhold donations.

In 1970, when Dartmouth's board of trustees was considering a coed proposal, an alumnus expressed a similar disgust: "For God's sake, for Dartmouth's sake, and for everyone's sake, keep the damned women out."

So, too, did a Yale alumnus: "Gentlemen — let's face it — charming as women are — they get to be a drag if you are forced to associate with them each and every day." He worried that male undergraduates focused on their studies would find themselves buried in the "idiotic trivia all women try to impose on men."

Educating women was a waste, these critics agreed — and admitting women took valuable spots away from men. A member of Princeton's class of 1955 shared that sentiment when he complained that "for every woman admitted to Princeton," a man who would put an Ivy League education to better use "would be denied that opportunity."

These opposition arguments shared a common thread: They only considered the perceived harm to the institution and its male scholars. These voices rarely acknowledge any benefits of going coed, both for women and for the institution as a whole.

The administrators who ultimately shifted the Ivies to a coed model were also more concerned about male students than they were about the other half of society excluded from their institutions.

The Motives for Becoming Coed

"Why did so many very traditional, very conservative, very elite, very old colleges and universities decide to embark on such a fundamental change?" asked Princeton historian Nancy Weiss Malkiel.

It wasn't benevolence or a concern for women's education that drove administrators, Malkiel argues. Nor was it female activists demanding access. Instead, "it was in the strategic self-interest of all-male institutions like Princeton and Yale to admit women."

The vast majority of college students — 93% in 1966 — attended coed institutions. Suddenly, in the late 1960s, the Ivies realized they could no longer attract the "best boys" to their schools. Young men admitted to the Ivies would rather choose a coed school.

Like new dorms or a lazy river, women were an amenity that strengthened recruiting efforts.

Malkiel concludes, "Coeducation resulted not from organized efforts by women activists but from strategic decisions taken by powerful men."

Princeton President Robert F. Goheen was one of those men. In 1967, he lamented to the university board that Princeton was "beginning to become comparatively less attractive to some applicants whom we would like to have because of lack of girls here."

That same year, Yale President Kingman Brewster Jr. admitted to alumni, "our concern is not so much what Yale can do for women but what can women do for Yale." Like new dorms or a lazy river, women were an amenity that strengthened recruiting efforts.

Princeton and Yale began admitting women in 1969, and Brown followed in 1971. Dartmouth held out until 1972. After that, only a single Ivy League school maintained its men-only admission policy: Columbia.

Columbia, the Last Holdout

In 1980, Columbia was the only Ivy League school that still did not admit women, and its sister institution, Barnard, voted against merging in 1982.

Throughout the 1970s, a majority of faculty and students at Columbia wanted to admit women. Chemistry professor Ronald Breslow chaired a committee focused on the issue in 1980. "Everyone had a feeling the only choice was to fuse with Barnard, and Barnard would be swallowed. It was sort of a stalemate," Breslow recalled. "From Barnard's point of view, there was no advantage to going coed."

Roger Lehecka, dean of students from 1979-1998, said, "In the end, what many of us failed to understand is that Barnard wanted to be what it was, a women's college, and Columbia didn't want to be what it was, a men's college."

Columbia decided to admit women in 1983. That year, the number of applications shot up 55%. The quality of applicants also increased, meaning the college could be more selective. In 1982, 60% of admitted students graduated in the top 10% of their class; in 1983, that number rose to 75%.

Compared to the other Ivies, which went coed in the 1960s and 1970s, Columbia admitted a higher percentage of women in its first coed class: Of the 800 students in the first-year cohort in 1983, 45% were women.

Twins Diane and Ralph Stone enrolled at Columbia together in the fall of 1983. When asked about going coed, Ralph told the New York Times, "Sure, it's a good thing," adding, ''It will increase the caliber of the students. It will also increase the caliber of my social life.''

The move wasn't without opposition. One alumnus worried, "Will coeducation hurt football?" Proponents noted that in its last 44 games, Columbia's football team had only won 4, dispelling worries that its quality of men's athletics could be any worse.

However, Barnard's concerns over Columbia going coed proved correct. In 1983, 126 women received an admission offer from both Columbia and Barnard. Only eight chose Barnard.

The First Women Undergrads at the Ivies

When Ivy League schools went coed, women submitted applications in droves. Yale was inundated, with over 2,800 applications competing for 230 spots for women in its 1969 class.

But what was life like on campus for the first women admitted to Ivy League schools? Many faced scrutiny and derision. One Princeton undergrad compared the experience to when she'd been an exchange student in India. "I felt I was in a foreign country," she said. "I had never before felt so alone as a girl."

At Yale, professors and male students pestered the new admits to offer a "women's point of view" in math classes. The university posted guards in front of the women's dorm. Linda Bunch was one of only 26 Black women at Yale in 1969. As she recalled, "I didn't feel like these people wanted me in the class."

And when a female undergraduate at Yale asked if the history department would offer a course on women's history, the chair of the department said, "That would be like teaching the history of dogs."

Women in the Ivies Today

Ivy League schools have come a long way since the fight over whether to admit women. In 1969, when Yale admitted its first 230 women and the traditional 1,000 men — part of Kingston Brewster's commitment to creating 1,000 leaders each year — male students on campus joked that Yale would graduate 1,000 leaders and 250 housewives in the first coed class.

But that impression quickly changed as women became stand-out students and leaders in the Ivy League. These days, the data is clear: At six of the eight Ivies, women outnumbered men in the class of 2024, and only Dartmouth and Yale enrolled a slightly higher number of men than women.

Most Common Majors for Women, 1970

  • Health professions, including nursing
  • Education
  • Foreign languages
  • Public administration, including social work
  • English

Most Common Majors for Women, 2019


Source: National Center for Education Statistics, 2013 and 2019

Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University. After earning her doctorate in early modern European history, Carlton worked as an assistant professor of history at the University of Louisville, where she developed new courses on the history of science, Renaissance Italy, and the witch trials. Carlton has published five peer-reviewed articles in top presses and a monograph with the University of Chicago Press. She also earned tenure with a unanimous vote before relocating to Seattle. Learn more about Carlton's work at genevievecarlton.com.

Header Image Credit: Rob Culpepper, DenisTangneyJr | Getty Images

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