If asked when women first arrived on the Princeton campus, many knowledgeable people might think of 1969, the first year that women enrolled as full members of the undergraduate student body. Others might think of a date a few years earlier, when women enrolled in other schools began attending classes at Princeton as part of the Critical Language Program. Still others might recall that in 1961 Princeton admitted Sabra Follet Meservey, the first woman to study as a full-time graduate student.
However, women have been a part of Princeton life since the school's earliest days. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the wives, mothers and sisters of the faculty and students of the College of New Jersey played important roles supporting its operation and development. We know the identities of only a few, such as Mary Crane Dickinson, the wife of the first president of the College of New Jersey, in whose home the school's first students lived, ate and studied; and Annis Boudinot Stockton, a poet and the wife of a member of the Class of 1748, who is remembered for safeguarding the American Whig Society's treasured belongings during the Revolutionary War.
In the later 19th century, while still remaining within their strictly proscribed social spheres, women's contributions to Princeton life became more visible and well documented. Isabella Guthrie McCosh, wife of Princeton President James McCosh, was fondly and publicly remembered by many students for the caring role she played in their lives, particularly during illnesses. Josephine Thomson Swann, widow of a member of the Class of 1817, donated her personal attention and considerable wealth in support of many Princeton institutions, including the fledgling Ivy Club and the new Graduate School. Late in the century, young women began attending college in Princeton, though not at Princeton University — at Evelyn College, a "sister" institution, which from 1887 to 1897 educated primarily the daughters and sisters of Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary faculty and alumni.
It wasn't until several decades into the 20th century that women began to regularly participate in the core intellectual activities of Princeton University, at first in limited ways but gradually gaining parity with their male colleagues. The first women to be listed in the catalog among the faculty and staff of Princeton's academic departments in the late 1920s and early 1930s conducted research, published, and sometimes instructed graduate students and scholars on research methodology, but did not teach the all-male undergraduates. In 1948, one of these researchers, Helen Baker, was the first woman Princeton appointed to "faculty status with the rank of Associate Professor." However, another decade would pass before Hannah Arendt became the first woman to lecture to Princeton's undergraduates as a visiting professor in 1958–59, and yet another before Princeton appointed a woman as a true tenured professor, Suzanne Keller, in 1968. Since then, the selections of women to fill important roles on the Princeton campus have continued to mark one "first" after another, including, in 2001, the first woman to serve as president, Shirley M. Tilghman.
For more details, visit the Mudd Manuscript Library's FAQ on the History of Women at Princeton.