In the first half of the 20th Century, if you were a bright and privileged young woman, you had options for where to go to college. You could go to an all-women’s college, perhaps one of the Seven Sisters; you could attend a private institution like Oberlin, which had been coeducational since its founding in 1833, or you could even get a degree from Stanford.

What you couldn’t do was graduate from Harvard. Or Yale. Or Princeton. Then, in the 1960s and 70s, these institutions finally started admitting women. According to Nancy Weiss Malkiel, author of Keep The Damned Women Out, this was a huge change with ramifications throughout society.

Malkiel, the former dean of Princeton, has looked at why exactly these elite institutions began to let women in. And the reason has little to do with college presidents deciding that equality was paramount. Instead, it was because admission patterns were shifting.

In the 1960s, Malkiel says, “the high school students [elite colleges] lovingly refer to as ‘the best boys’ are beginning to show in their application patterns and decisions … that they don’t want to go to school with all males anymore. They want to go to school with girls. That is what makes [the elite colleges] act.”

So, in order to remain attractive to prospective college men, some elite colleges started to admit women. Yale began in 1968, Princeton in 1969, and Dartmouth narrowly missed out on the 60s, finally admitting women in 1972.

This wasn’t without opposition, and many alumni voiced their outrage. The title of Malkiel’s book comes from a 1970 letter by a Dartmouth alumnus, which implored, “for God’s sake, for Dartmouth’s sake, and for everyone’s sake, keep the damned women out.” Some Princeton alums felt coeducation was a nutty idea, and one alumnus wrote, “it would be easier to establish an old fashioned whorehouse, and a lot less expensive.”

And when women arrived at these elite colleges, the transition wasn’t smooth. Male professors and male students sometimes wondered what to make of them.

“People would always ask the female students for the women’s point of view,” notes Malkiel. “And that made sense, perhaps, if it was a course in literature, or psychology, where a gendered point of view might be relevant. But math? Or physics?”  

Eventually, of course, it became routine for women to go to elite colleges. Harvard’s undergraduate class is now 47% women. But Malkiel says the move to admit women in the late 60s and early 70s is important because it, “open[ed] to talented women every educational opportunity historically available to talented men, Now, that doesn’t affect the broader population, except that people that were educated in these institutions hold a disproportionate share of the leadership positions in our society. It matters that those opportunities are available equally.”

Malkiel, by the way, started teaching history at Princeton in 1969, the first year that female students also arrived on campus. She went on to become Princeton’s longest-serving dean.