Coeducation as Radical Reform and Perfectly Normal Reality

by Neil H. Buchanan

The push toward greater empowerment of women is one of the most exciting political and social changes of the past few years (and, viewed from different perspectives, of the past few decades and centuries).  In a time when a knuckle-dragging caricature of the most vulgar kind of sexist became President of the United States -- and did so by running an openly sexist campaign ("Trump that B*tch!") against the first female major party presidential nominee -- one of the most positive developments in our political culture has been the mobilization of outraged women.

From pussy hats to suffragettes' white frocks to six (and counting) women running for president, we are seeing what one hopes is the permanent flowering of a more inclusive politics.  We are still gingerly figuring out the contours of the #MeToo awakening, but as frustratingly slow as the pace of change has been, it seems to have accelerated recently, and it is at least possible to imagine that there will be little to no backsliding -- although Susan Faludi's classic Backlash still serves as an important reminder of the power of regressive forces.

I mentioned in a recent column that I am currently enjoying the honor of being a visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge in England.  One of my affiliations here is with Christ's College, one of the 31 colleges within the university that are essential parts of undergraduates' (and, to a somewhat lesser extent) graduate students' educations.  This year, Christ's is celebrating the fortieth anniversary of coeducation within the college, "40 Years of Christ's Women," which is now noted in a logo on the college's website.

This is, by any measure, an important celebration. As I understand it, 1979 was the year when not just Christ's but nearly all of the university (and other universities here) became almost fully coeducational.  Seeing the college's efforts to note this anniversary has led me to think about how strange it is that it was only forty years ago that this was a radical -- if by then inevitable -- move.  I hereby offer a few thoughts about how that radicalism became so utterly unremarkable within only a few short years.

This is an especially personal matter for me, in large part because I graduated from Vassar College.  I had first heard the word feminism probably when I was thirteen or fourteen years old, and when I learned the basic ideas behind the concept, it simply seemed impossible that anyone could be opposed to feminism.  When I ended up going to Vassar as a heterosexual male, people made well meaning (I presume) but deeply wrongheaded comments, such as "Isn't that a girls' school?" and "Wow, you know how to set yourself up for a great sex life in college!"  For me, the point was that Vassar was first and foremost a feminist place.

Vassar was, however, in the early stages of coeducation, and although I had always believed in the core ideas of feminism, it also became clear that there were profound differences of opinion among feminists about whether a place like Vassar should admit men at all.  Vassar actually refused an invitation to shut down its beautiful campus and move to Yale, whose leaders thought that Harvard's assimilation (and ultimately annihilation) of Radcliffe was a useful model.  Vassar went coed instead, even though the other Seven Sisters did not (although each of them affiliated in various ways with nearby colleges: Bryn Mawr with Haverford, Smith and Mount Holyoke with Amherst, Barnard with Columbia, Wellesley somewhat fitfully with MIT).

There were, as I noted, fierce arguments about whether a school like Vassar should abandon its century-plus-long commitment to educating only women.  From what I understand, however, the financial realities of the time made the ultimate difference.  When I arrived, men had been officially enrolling for eight years, but in very small numbers.  Mine was only the second entering class with something close to gender balance, with 43 percent of my class being men.  This meant that my Freshman class and the class ahead of me were close to being balanced (or at least the imbalance was not obvious simply by looking at the Freshman register), whereas the Junior and Senior classes were something like 90 percent women.

Did that matter?  Yes, it did.  Especially because the upperclasswomen were keenly aware of the changing gender balance at Vassar, they were absolutely committed to preventing mansplaining (although that term had not yet been coined) from becoming the norm in classrooms.  When I moved to graduate school at Harvard, the passivity of even some of the most intelligent and accomplished female undergraduates in the world was striking, and it seemed to be because they had been integrated into a male-dominated system rather than having Vassar's experience of seeing women vigilantly monitor the introduction of men into a recently all-female learning environment.

I entered Vassar in 1977 and graduated in 1981.  This means that Cambridge's decision to admit women into its formerly all-male colleges happened exactly at the mid-point of my college career, and it also lagged the coeducation of America's all-male institutions by about ten years.  To be clear, Cambridge itself included colleges that had been founded as all-female, three of which continue to be all-women to this day, somewhat along the lines (as far as I can tell) of the Barnard/Columbia approach.

But leaving all of those granular details aside, what struck me most when I first noticed the "40 Years of Christ's Women" logo and saw that the college is actively celebrating this anniversary is that 1979 seems so late in the game.  What, I wondered, took them until 1979 when Vassar had done it in 1969 (and even Yale had begun its phase-in in 1969 as well)?  My immediate reaction was: "What the hell took them another ten years?"

In the grand sweep of history -- certainly including the relatively short history of the United States and even its oldest universities (compared to Cambridge's founding date in 1209 and Oxford's in the late eleventh century) -- ten years is not much.  But because I was actually alive then and living the results of "women's lib," those ten years seem like an eternity.

As it happens, Cambridge had always been a bit backward, because even though it had been educating women (in a segregated fashion) for decades, it was not until after World War II that women were actually allowed to graduate with degrees.  I have been told that even Oxford had modernized at least that much after World War I, but Cambridge delayed.  In any case, only in 1979 did they make the final formal steps toward what we now think of as the unremarkable norm.

A new film is being released soon (and might already have been released in various countries) about the early life of now-Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  Titled "On the Basis of Sex," it appears (based on viewing the trailer) to be a glamorized account of Ginsburg's rough treatment early in her career in the 1950's and 60's, including being openly asked by one professor at Harvard Law School why she had taken a space that could have gone to a man instead.  She graduated from Columbia in 1959, ten years before Vassar and Yale coeducated at the undergraduate level and twenty years before Cambridge roused itself from slumber. [Note: The movie trailer indicates that the exchange with the condescending, sexist professor was at Harvard Law.  Given that Ginsburg's J.D. is from Columbia, I am not sure whether that was artistic license or instead is based on some facts of which I am not aware.  Update on 2/26/19: Having now seen the movie, yes, there is a reason -- a very bad reason -- that Ginsburg did not receive her J.D. from Harvard, even though she was first in her class at the end of her second year.]

Again, what is striking is how radically different life was for women only two (or three, depending on how one counts) generations ago.  From 1959 to 1969 to 1979, we went from women being told by professors as well as the rest of society that they were lesser beings to being included as a matter of course in higher education in the US and UK.  I do not mean to overstate the progress, especially given how much sexism still persists in colleges even to this day, but when one considers how completely shocking it is to a current audience to watch a movie trailer in which talented women are mockingly dismissed as inferior, the enormity of the change in attitudes in only decades is astonishing.

We are currently being told that liberals and progressives are being "radical," from demanding support for child care (another arena in which the notable improvements over recent generations only highlight how gender-unbalanced things remain) to increasing women's representation in Congress.  And the now-all-but-permanent gender gap between the parties means that it is women who form the majorities demanding more progressive taxation, higher minimum wages and rejuvenation of labor unions, improved environmental policies, and all of the rest of the center-left agenda that Democrats support and that Republicans dismiss with jeers of "Socialism!" and "They just want free stuff."

Change is slow, except when it happens quickly.  Even with backlash, some changes are so sensible that it becomes impossible to imagine that they will ever be reversed.  When "Mary Tyler Moore" premiered in 1970, the main character actually had to have an argument with her boss about her salary being lower than those of men, with the boss saying that men needed higher salaries because they had families to support, whereas Mary was merely a single gal.  Although the gender pay gap stubbornly persists, even most Republicans today who likely hesitate to make the breadwinner argument, at least explicitly.

Radical change sometimes happens because the status quo at long last no longer makes sense, and then the new reality quickly feels right.  We have seen that dynamic play out most recently with same-sex marriage, which went from radical to perfectly normal in the U.S. in the blink of an eye.  Thinking about the fact that Cambridge's male colleges admitted women only in 1979 reminds us that much of what we take for granted today is surprisingly recent, and we should be happy that those changes now seem absolutely inevitable and right.