IN THE INTENTIONAL COMMUNITY of Twin Oaks, Virginia, “co” is not merely a prefix for words like “coeducation” and “cooperative.” The hundred or so people who live in Twin Oaks, which has operated as an egalitarian commune since 1967, also use “co” as a pronoun. “Co” is both gender inclusive — used in situations applying to men and women and people who identify as neither — as well as gender neutral. As one member wrote, “Gender-neutral pronouns can help minimize […] gender assumptions and help others get to know people for other characteristics.”

In a community like Twin Oaks, where both work and rewards are shared equally by all, even subtly gendered stereotypes could prove corrosive to a strictly neutral division of labor. “Co,” then, is more than an artifact of speech. It is an elementary principle, as expressed in Twin Oaks’s creed: “From everyone according to cos abilities, to everyone according to cos needs.”

As Nancy Weiss Malkiel argues in “Keep the Damned Women Out”: The Struggle for Coeducation, the promise embodied in the “co” of “coeducation” was considerably more superficial for the elite universities that suddenly began admitting both men and women in the late 1960s and 1970s. Women who enrolled in previously all-male universities found that they were lucky to be given full-length mirrors and better lighting in their restrooms. Concessions to women’s preferences or needs in most other areas of life — from dining to the curriculum — were always begrudging and often elicited both disbelief and indignation. Men could treat almost any adjustment as an injustice, as women found out when a Yale faculty member harangued the new “co-eds” that they were responsible for the abolition of that most sacred male prerogative: to be able to stroll naked in the gym!

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When a reader picks up a book like Malkiel’s, they expect numerous such anecdotes, instances of entitlement that both disgust and titillate the reader. That is, in a sense, one of the genre conventions of the Ivy League history, although to be strictly accurate, “Keep the Damned Women Out” is not about “coeducation in the Ivies”: about 40 percent of its 609 pages (not counting index and notes) are about non-Ivy colleges, and Malkiel only discusses the experiences of four Ivies — Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Dartmouth — in any depth. (The other schools covered are Vassar, Smith, and Wellesley in the United States and, across the pond, Oxford and Cambridge.) But so strong is the Ivy undertow that most reviewers have treated the book as a de facto Ivy history, and I will follow suit.

That is just as well, for Malkiel has much to contribute to the ample — and sometimes distinguished — tradition of books that peel back the Ivy Curtain and reveal the pettiness of privilege. But “Keep the Damned Women Out” is very different in tone from the jaded memoir-cum-exposés of figures like Walter Kirn, Ross Douthat, William F. Buckley, Dinesh D’Souza, or William Deresiewicz. It is more comparable to Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton or Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, books that have nobly excavated histories of exclusion and exploitation in the nation’s elite colleges.

Like Karabel’s or Wilder’s books, “Keep the Damned Women Out” tells how gatekeepers addressed the question of who belonged in the Ivy League and who did not. But where those books focused primarily on the efforts of college officials to build up the ramparts of inequality, Malkiel gives us the story of the people who tried to break them down. Her book is, she writes, a case study in “leadership as a fundamental element in institutional change.” Malkiel, who was formerly a dean of the college at Princeton, bucks long popular and scholarly traditions of casting administrators in the role of reactive and reactionary stand-patters, always trying to slow down progress and outflank dissenters. There is no Dean Wormer from Animal House to be found here.

Malkiel builds her case for these administrators solidly in the endless paper trail of memos and minutes; she demonstrates considerable skill by interpreting much of the coded language and hidden pressures that lay beneath meetings of trustees, admissions staffs, or alumni donors. Malkiel’s method is exhaustive, tracking almost every movement of the principal administrative players as they debated, listened, cajoled, polled, and planned the issue of whether to go “co-ed.”

This approach yields an abundance of quotes and anecdotes like the one about Yale’s gym, but Malkiel is not out to shock the reader. Rather, she presents this evidence of male intransigence and masculine entitlement as proof of the agility of these schools’ leadership. For almost all these anecdotes are about people outside the administration: the opposition was almost wholly located among alumni, with pockets of students and faculty also acting obnoxiously. The threat of alumni revolts — conducted above all through the withholding of donations — is a persistent beat felt throughout the book. The question, then, which the book seeks to answer is how these presidents — Robert Goheen of Princeton, Nathan Pusey of Harvard, Kingman Brewster of Yale, and John Kemeny of Dartmouth — won the acquiescence if not the approval of their schools’ alumni.

Posed that way, the book’s ambitions seem rather special or at least specific, but in crediting the efforts of these figures, Malkiel hopes to make a subtler but also more far-reaching point. “This is not a story of women banding together to demand opportunity, to press for access, to win rights and privileges previously reserved for men,” she writes. “Coeducation resulted not from organized efforts by women activists but from strategic decisions taken by powerful men.”

Malkiel is not credulous about the motivations of these “powerful men.” She notes time and again that it was self-interest and pride that drove them first to consider and then implement coeducation. Certain that they were starting to lose some of the best (male) applicants to elite schools like Stanford that already were co-ed, Pusey, Brewster, and Goheen in particular felt obligated to move quickly to maintain their institutions’ national preeminence by removing that liability. They would add women to their campuses rather as a president today might add a climbing wall, or larger dorm rooms: it would look better in the brochures.

Malkiel doesn’t put the matter quite that brutally, but the implication is certainly there. And in that implication, her assertion about the responsibility of “powerful men” for the coming of coeducation seems to me to take on another meaning. For while — as Maggie Doherty has pointed out in The Chronicle of Higher Education — Malkiel tends to scant the power of student activism to get administrations to change their ways, her insistence on crediting the men who ran the Ivies with making coeducation happen leaves the responsibility for the shortcomings of coeducation at these universities firmly in the laps of those same “powerful men.”

Here is where Malkiel demonstrates the tragic and frustrating superficiality of the “struggle for coeducation” as it was waged and won by “powerful men.” Malkiel argues forcefully that the all-male schools of the Ivy League were frequently cavalier about undertaking the responsibilities entailed by educating both men and women. All too often, they asked what kind of effect the women might have on their male students, but to women the answer was always an avant la lettre, “lean in!”

“Our approach has not been, ‘Do women need Princeton?’ but rather, ‘Does the Princeton of the future need women?’” wrote the author of Princeton’s influential report on the feasibility of coeducation, Gardner Patterson. What the Patterson Report tried to answer, Malkiel highlights, is “whether the presence of women would heighten the value of the educational experience of the students,” where “students” quite obviously meant “male students.” Women were not equals; they were, at best, “honorary men,” as one student reminisced, and that honor could easily be rescinded. Women felt at all times that they were there on sufferance, and that they had to prove not just that they belonged but that they were doing something extra to compensate for taking the spot of a hypothetically deserving man. Malkiel’s sober awareness of the frequent failures of administrations to give equal weight to the pedagogical, emotional, and social needs of the newly admitted women extends to the ways that a lack of administrative resolve — of “leadership as a fundamental element in institutional change” — has abetted the persistence of quiet and not-so-quiet biases against women students in the formerly all-male institutions, from traditions of disproportionately rewarding men with the highest honors to the tenacious stereotypes keeping the number of women enrolled in STEM courses low.

But if Malkiel ends the book by considering the short- and long-term effects of coeducation — such as it was — on women and holds men accountable for not doing more to make the new arrangement work for its women students, the reader receives only tantalizing glimpses of how this “experiment” affected its female subjects. There are barely any exchanges — social or intellectual — between women. And while Malkiel does quote from a number of later reminiscences by these “pioneer” women, they mostly point to but do not really redress the lack of a substantial account of coeducation as a history of women, rather than as a history of institutions and transformative leadership.

To her credit, Malkiel clearly recognizes this paucity of women’s dialogues and reflections about coeducation within her book. She delicately allows her sources to address it rather than didactically disavowing responsibility for it — the conventional “beyond the scope of my study” disclaimer. But a passage like the following aches for further exploration, for a sort of historical reversal of its haunting solitude:

Women find no natural mechanisms for becoming close to one another. Perhaps the most important women’s complaint is that they spend so much time sorting out their activities with men that they lose a sense of their own directions; and further, when they do begin to move toward their own goals in some independent way, men feel abandoned and threatened.

The Ivy League’s first women, it turns out, were in need of more than full-length mirrors. Plus ça change.

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The desire to find out more about the women who first attended these schools leaves the reader feeling both somber and hopeful that another study as ample and ambitious as Malkiel’s will delve into the records of student organizations and perhaps student records (if they are open for research). But Malkiel makes other choices that left this reader wishing she had either spelled out her assumptions more clearly or taken note of the questions she did not wish to pursue. Three issues stood out to me as needing much more solid answers than the ones Malkiel gives. The first concerns the presumption that the Ivy League is the pacesetter of academic change. “Elite institutions,” Malkiel writes, “are not more important than other institutions, but what happens at elite institutions has an outsized influence on other institutions […] [They] set a tone and provide a model that profoundly influences other[s].”

Such a statement in the context of coeducation is curious, to say the least. Certainly, it is notable that so many universities — elite and not — moved in the late 1960s and early to mid-1970s to erase various forms of sex segregation in practices ranging from admission to housing assignments. Furthermore, Malkiel demonstrates clearly that research undertaken by the Ivies, particularly by Princeton, aided administrators at other universities who were trying to decrease forms of sex segregation. But when the history of mixed-gender higher education in the United States dates back to before the Civil War, does it make sense to call the Ivies leaders or laggards?

Moreover, while Malkiel addresses the broader social context that surrounded the debates over coeducation in a chapter named “Setting the Stage: The Turbulent 1960s,” her account is truncated. The unfinished assimilation of Jews and Catholics on these WASP campuses is apparent from allusions scattered through the book, and while Malkiel does not draw the threads into any kind of conclusion, an attentive reader will note how often (male) student leaders agitating for coeducation had typically Jewish names. The Yale Hillel, which was still fairly new in 1968, helped to welcome women during a sort of trial run for coeducation in that year by offering a bagel and lox breakfast.

Race was never disconnected from coeducation in the minds of many alumni who opposed changes to the student body, and Malkiel could have done more to connect the two in her account. “You can’t very well get rid of those already admitted,” wrote one Yale alumnus in 1970, “but for God’s sake don’t admit any more blacks or coeds.” While alumni saw these two forms of desegregation as two parts of one whole, Malkiel doesn’t inquire if that view was shared by anyone else. It would be especially interesting to know, for instance, if some of those “pioneer women” who broke the gender barrier at Yale or Dartmouth took for their own historical model not Mrs. Daniel Boone entering the Cumberland Gap but James Meredith enrolling at the University of Mississippi. Malkiel’s choice to treat coeducation as a discrete development in higher education concentrated among elite schools at the end of the 1960s is particularly frustrating at this point: as soon as we see coeducation as, instead, part of a broader and longer movement toward desegregation starting with the racial integration of the military in 1948, new vistas open and the Ivy League once again looks like a latecomer, not an innovator.

While Harvard might quiver in irritation at thinking that it was, in some way, responding to changes originating in the Deep South or the outer boroughs, it is more accurate to see the Ivies’ decision to go co-ed as nearing the end of desegregation than as leading a new venture in diversity. That is not to say that the question of why so many elite institutions were simultaneously wrestling with the issue of coeducation — and why so many decided in favor — isn’t important on its own. But the narrative is shaped differently if we imagine Brewster, Goheen, and others belatedly giving in to a broad consensus that coeducation was normal rather than forging a new ideal that coeducation was the future.

The second issue that needed more consideration was the place of queerness on these campuses both before and after coeducation. While Malkiel makes an effort to acknowledge the impact of the Civil Rights movement on student consciousness, there is no real presence in the book for the percolating gay rights movement of that historical moment, or, indeed, for queer life at all. With so many lines redrawn and roles destabilized, the latent queerness of the process of gender desegregation would seem to be at least a necessary subtext. Many people would have identified with the sentiments of either of the two cartoons Malkiel includes in the book. “CONFUSED — of course, I’m confused!” a father shouts in the first. “I have a son at Vassar and a daughter at Yale!” In the second cartoon, we find two women chatting (or flirting?) at a cocktail party: “Princeton, did you say? How interesting. I’m a Yale man myself.”

The situations entailed by the novelty of coeducation were quite obviously ripe for such gender confusion. But one also wonders if some of the anger and resentment at the intrusion of “co-eds” into what Dartmouth men called the “masculine heaven” of Hanover was due to the changes it forced upon the casual homoeroticism of the locker room and fraternity. Even the small number of women who were admitted to these previously all-male institutions necessitated the rewriting of formal rules governing interactions between men. They must certainly have rewritten less formal ones as well.

From time to time, Malkiel provides evidence that administrators did see coeducation as an opportunity to redraft the sexual codes of their campus, although she appears reluctant to parse what mostly appears to be coded language. Much of the administrators’ concerns, however, seem to have been not about homoerotic play but rather about sexual assault and date rape. The “debauchery” of the weekends when Ivy League men brought girls back to their campuses was legendary: one thinks of Dorothy Parker’s quip about the Yale prom that “if all the girls attending it were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.” But other artifacts of this culture of weekend revelry luxuriated in the element of coercion which accompanied these dates: “Dartmouth’s in town again / Run, girls, run” went one well-known drinking song.

Given the different standards he would have had regarding consensual sex, it is difficult to know for sure what Yale’s Kingman Brewster had in mind when he made the following comment:

The social and moral value of having two thousand college girls of outstanding intellectual and personal qualifications resident in New Haven is apparent […] The crash week-end, the degrading form of social activity known as the Mixer, have been […] a most unhealthy and unnatural part of the four Yale undergraduate years. Such an environment is not conducive to the development of a considerate, mature, and normal relationship among the sexes.

Less ambiguous, however, was the fact that one of the changes made to the physical plant to adjust to the arrival of women undergraduates was to “augment campus lighting and install locks on doors.”

But it was the crass opposition to coeducation at Princeton that reveals how much sex was on people’s minds when it came to coeducation. One Princeton alumnus wrote (in a letter that actually appeared in the Princeton Alumni Weekly), “a good old-fashioned whorehouse would be considerably more efficient and much, much cheaper.” Such a remark, while crude, was representative of one objection to coeducation: having sex — or scheming to have it — would consume the whole attention of Princeton men once they had access to women at all hours. The Patterson report addressed this belief head on. It was not true, the report read, that men would use the women undergraduates for their “social and sexual convenience.” Instead, the only reason Princeton men seemed so priapic was because of the unnaturalness of the weekend hunt for dates. The presence of women would stabilize rather than inflame their libidos.

Men at both Princeton and Yale believed that the presence of women would civilize men. When Princeton repeated Yale’s experiment with hosting women for one week as a trial run for coeducation, The Daily Princetonian wrote that “For one week Princeton was a more humane place to go to school […] The whole campus seemed more natural.” Men on their own — or with limited access to women — were animals; with women, they were “humane.”

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Making humans more humane is not the particular responsibility of anyone, or of any gender, because it is — or should be — the mission of everyone, of all gender identities. It has often, however, been a role taken on energetically if not always consistently by higher education: the humanities, after all, is generally one of the divisions of a university for a reason.

And that is where we might return to the example of Twin Oaks, Virginia, and its experiments in equality in language and in everyday life, in making humaneness or mere humanity the responsibility of “everyco.”

Twin Oaks is known as an intentional community because it is a place where people voluntarily come together to live according to a shared set of principles. But we might equally acknowledge that universities are intentional communities as much as communes are. Universities are, from one point of view, the most successful utopian projects ever created, even if they do not feel like utopias much of the time. Much as has been the case for other utopian communities from Brook Farm to the Soviet Union, the failures which we find difficult to explain are often chalked up to human nature — that’s just the way people are: acquisitive, lustful, cruel, or fearful. 

“Keep the Damned Women Out” is clear in laying the blame for coeducation’s limited progress toward true equality at the doors of the men who never fully committed to remaking their institutions into schools and homes for women as well as men. But in some ways, it accepts that failure as a product of the nature of these schools and perhaps even a product of the nature of men. “It could hardly have been otherwise,” Malkiel seems to say, “you can see what they were working with.”

And perhaps that is true; perhaps it is even fair. But the purpose of critique is not just to weigh what was plausible but to project back into the past the seeds of a better present, to imagine what would have been necessary then to make a better now. To do that, we cannot lean on clichés about human nature or about the characters of particular institutions: the limits our subjects believed in for their own actions cannot be our limits for the imagination of what could have been.

Coeducation at the Ivies, Malkiel demonstrates, was not a utopian project but a pragmatic acquiescence to necessity and self-interest. Yet that does not mean that further work in the name of coeducation must be pragmatic, that the “co” in coeducation must mean only “with a few (more) women” or “with a few trans* or genderqueer persons now added.” Bare inclusion — not equality — was the paltry goal of the administrators whose story Malkiel tells. It need not be ours as well.

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Andrew Seal received his PhD from Yale University in 2017. He is a regular blogger at the Society for US Intellectual History and his work has appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Educationn+1, Dissent, and In These Times.