A 20-Year Process: Welcoming Women to Lawrenceville
In 1985, the Lawrenceville Board of Trustees voted to make the School co-educational.
In 1985, the Lawrenceville Board of Trustees voted to make the School co-educational. However, the transition to co-education began in 1967, when Headmasters of four prominent all-male independent schools, Phillips Academy Andover, Phillips Exeter Academy, The Hill School, and The Lawrenceville School, decided to undertake a study that sought to determine whether, as stated in the July 1985 issue of The Lawrentian, “their inherited institutions… may well no longer serve some students.” The study found that co-education would, in fact, be desirable. Around the same time, The Lawrenceville Turning Point Committee on Social Concern, one of four committees set up in 1968 with trustee, faculty, and student members, believed that “co-education provides an open and natural environment in which to learn and that co-education has a positive effect on the intellectual tone and competitiveness in the classroom.” Still, on November 6, 1970, the School decided to remain all-male but also “alert to the widespread interest in co-education.” In the May 18, 1973 issue of The Lawrence, the editorial asked to “appeal to [the Trustees’] sense of reason and intelligence” in hopes that they would vote in favor of co-education. Polls from that time show that faculty and trustee opinions were mixed, but students were generally in favor of co-education. Co-education’s main issue for many faculty members was the financial burden it would place. Nevertheless, in May 1976, Head Master Bruce McClellan announced that a study would be undertaken in summer to measure the effects of co-education.
In the October 15, 1976 issue of The Lawrence, faculty opinions were about half in favor and half opposed to co-education. One stated, “I am 100 percent in favor of co-education in principle... anything less than full co-education shortchanges young people and equips them ill for contemporary society. But try telling that to our current Board of Trustees.” Others said “girls are an inevitable part of today's business and professional world” couldn’t find a financially feasible way to begin the transition to co-education. One faculty member stated, “The cost is prohibitive, and that is the big objection.”
In the November 12, 1977 issue of The Lawrence, Larry Quinn ’79, a student at Lawrenceville, wrote that in theory, there were benefits of going co-educational, but Lawrenceville would have to make drastic changes to its athletic program and House traditions, which ultimately left him undecided on the issue. In 1978, following the completion of McClellan’s study, the Instruction and Discipline Committee met and voted 14-11, in favor of remaining all-male. While co-education was not implemented, according to Jeff Levy ’81 “there was very much an active push by the students” towards co-education, which was one of McClellan’s “biggest visions for the School.”
Seven years passed with no activity regarding the topic. The process picked back up again in the 1980s. As was reported in the July 1985 issue of The Lawrentian, 95 percent of faculty members voted in favor of making the school co-educational. The movement was also strongly supported by the students, as shown by a poll from The Lawrence. Junior Dean of Faculty W. Graham Cole H’87 P’91 ’95, made the point that “education ought to prepare people intellectually, socially, and psychologically for the world in which they will live and work…[including] providing an education for both sexes, which is relevant to our society.”
Another reason the School opted to move towards co-education, as stated by Frederick W. Gerstell H’77 of the English Department, was that the “10-year rise in total applications, though gratifying, had not paralleled similar rises at peer schools which ha[d] gone co-educational.” The November 1985 issue of The Lawrentian provides more on the reasoning behind moving to co-education, including the notion that female students would allow the School to remain in the mainstream of American education.
Thus, Lawrenceville released its plans to admit female students in the fall of 1987, stating that it would include separate and unique facilities for girls, build new housing for girls, and promote female athletics while maintaining the size of the student body. From 1987 to 1988, 178 out of 725 students were women. This momentous change to the School made way for a series of firsts for women at Lawrenceville: the first female student body president, Alexandra Petrone, was elected in 1999, and the first female Head Master Elizabeth Duffy was named in 2003.
Jenny Savino ’88, a member of Lawrenceville’s first class with female students, recounted her experiences entering what was then a traditional all-boys school. She was a member of the McClellan House, which at the time, was comprised of 29 V Form and PG girls.
While Savino initially intended to pursue a college education, she ultimately decided to complete a Post Graduate (PG) year at Lawrenceville. Upon first entering Lawrenceville, she expected the boys in her class to have mixed feelings about the transition to co-education since they had originally applied for an all-boys school. However, she said that she felt “very welcomed in the classroom” and “always had a voice at the Harkness table,” despite often being the only girl in her class. In addition, Savino believes that at Lawrenceville, “The pivot to co-education was thorough… The offerings were bountiful for women and they were not necessarily joining the male version of everything.”
The transition to co-education took almost 20 years, but the strides that have been made in those two decades have continued to inspire students today. While the Board of Trustees, administration, and faculty all contributed to the implementation of co-education, it was the students that tirelessly advocated for and achieved this monumental goal. Thirty-three years ago, the idea of co-education was nascent. Now, the Lawrenceville community has achieved close to a 50-50 balance of males and females. As Lawrentians, we should use this as an example of not accepting traditional norms, but rather, striving to enact positive change. Ultimately, it’s this change that can have far-reaching effects for our community.