The Times They Were A’Changing: Charter First With Female Members

In September, 1970, the Princeton Charter Club became the first Princeton University Eating Club to welcome female members. Women joined the ranks of Princeton undergraduates for the first time the previous fall, September, 1969. With all female undergraduates still residing in Pyne Hall and many University departments and buildings still acclimating to a major female campus presence, Charter Club enthusiastically welcomed its first female members— Ellen Fineberg ’71 and Angenette Duffy ’72.

Former graduate Board Member Rod McNealy ’72 caught up with Ellen and Angie recently and asked them to share their remembrances of this unique moment in both Princeton and Charter Club history. Further, we wanted to both commemorate and celebrate these unique individuals who pioneered during a challenging and exciting period.

You began your college career at another college/university. What prompted you to consider applying to Princeton as part of its first “generation” of female undergraduates?

Ellen: I had actually attended two different Universities—the University of Rochester as a freshman, and Barnard College of Columbia University as a sophomore. So I was no stranger to transferring. I saw how co-education was handled at those two schools and disagreed with some of the policies. I was attracted to being able to co-create how co-education would be set up at a school that was just beginning that endeavor.

Agenette Duffy ’72

Angenette: I entered Smith College as a freshman (make that “first-year” in the new parlance) in September, 1968, following in my mother’s footsteps (Class of 1946).

Later that fall, I learned that both Yale and Princeton were considering coeducation. Being a Connecticut native, I had no interest in going to school in New Haven. However, I had never set eyes on Princeton so it had an appealing mystique. Also, as they were unsure about becoming coed, there was no application fee. Nothing to lose for applying. So I did and promptly forgot about it.

I was walking back to my Smith dorm after my last exam in May, 1969 and found a telegram awaiting me. I assumed someone had died. However, it was from John Osander, Princeton’s Director of Admissions stating “I am happy to inform you that Princeton has taken favorable action on your application for admission by transfer.” So off I went.

During the first years of Princeton “co-education”, all female students lived in Pyne Hall, as the University clearly did not know how to handle housing female students across campus. Do you have any unique, special, or colorful recollections of that housing experience, or of other campus experiences where Princeton had not quite caught up with a female presence on campus?

Ellen: The biggest way that I felt Princeton students had “not quite caught up with female presence on campus” was in the social and dating arenas. Most of the students at Princeton arrived there from all male prep schools, so they had not been in classes with a female since at least junior high, perhaps before puberty!

Ellen Fineberg ’71

Also, since I transferred in as a Junior, my classmates were males who had already spent two years developing contacts at various “girls’ schools” so they would have females to import in for social weekends. My experience was that they did not know how to relate to females in their classes and there were also so few of us (transferring in as juniors) that they ended up treating us like we were males. Despite projections by others, I actually had a terrible dating life at Princeton! I was mostly treated like “one of the guys.”

Angenette: Living in Pyne Hall that first year was not much of a change from my all-girls dorm at Smith. Male students tripped over each other trying to help us move in and there was lots of media fanfare. I lucked out and snagged a single next to the janitor’s room, which came in handy for repairs, not to mention gossip.

I recall our first school-wide gathering in Alexander Hall and looking around at this sea of men. Quite a change from Smith as well as my all-female high school! Each Princeton woman was presented with a long-stemmed rose from a diehard alumnus who had finally come around on coeducation. Thought I’d joined a classy outfit!

I remember my first English class in McCosh. I was the only female. I sat in the same place on one side of the room and all the guys sat on the other side. Just like 8th grade dancing school. It took me a while, but I eventually realized that no one was discriminating against me; they just didn’t know what to do with me. I wasn’t their sister, their mother or their girlfriend so I didn’t fit into any traditional female category.

What made you consider joining a “dining club” and Charter in particular? Clearly, some clubs were not open to female members and only became open after they were sued to do so. It appears the Charter Graduate Board was very open to female members, but what made you want to join?

Ellen: I had already become part of a small “crowd” of male students with whom I hung out and recreated. Several of them were Charter members and so I already had had meals there, played cards there, etc. I found everyone quite friendly and accepting. I wasn’t attracted to the non-Club dining options so it was natural for me to apply to join Charter.

Angenette: I worked at Commons and, like everyone, despised the food. A friend of my brother’s, John Gwynne, occasionally invited me to Charter Club for a meal and I learned about those nefarious eating clubs. Heavenly! When he told me that Charter would be opening to female members, I was thrilled. And I could also work in the club kitchen/dining room.

Classes of 1971 & 1972
Classes of 1971 & 1972

Do you have any special memories of your Charter Club experience? You were clearly “trail-blazers.” Was it a smooth transition, or were there “hiccups” in the process?

Ellen: What I had thought I had remembered at Charter was 100 males and me, so it is interesting to hear there were more female members the year I joined. Obviously we did not stick together only because we were the very few females. I felt that at Charter I was treated pretty much just like “one of the guys.” That allowed me the incredible experience of being like a “fly on the wall” in an all-male environment. Since Charter was not a particularly macho club, I did not really experience the negative side of “all male,” but its uniqueness. I mostly remember the spirit of congeniality.

The experience that stands out most to me, however, (other than very late night bridge games in the card room) was being in the Charter House living room during the draft lottery. There I was in a room of 100 men and me, and as numbers were called over the radio, every person there knew their life was on the line—except for me. (Oh yes, and a close friend who was Canadian.) It was a very strange and profound feeling.

Angenette: Charter Club was a wonderful haven for me. For the first time in my life, I had boys who were friends. I recall washing dishes with John Sethian ’72. Everything I know about physics (not much), I learned from John. Hopefully, some of my English literature knowledge rubbed off on him.

As you look back at your Charter Club experience—if you ever do—was it worthwhile, would you do it again? Do you stay in contact with any members from that time period?

Ellen: Sure, I would do it again. As for staying in touch, no—life has taken me in many other idiosyncratic directions as well as to life in S. California, N. California, Colorado, Oregon, Maui, Kauai, Australia & New Zealand. I have changed greatly since my Princeton days, and lost touch with those who were good friends at that time, though I will always be grateful for the egalitarian men with whom I shared that experience—and of course for the quality of education.

Angenette: Since their inception, the powers that be seem bent on “repurposing” Princeton’s eating clubs. However, for me, Charter Club was one of the best experiences I had at Princeton. It provided a comfortable oasis in a strange place and made me feel accepted and at home in the brave new world of coed Princeton.