With the long, bruising battle to win control of her late husband’s estate finally concluded, an exhausted Jane Stanford was in need of an extended retreat in the spring of 1899. A four-month sojourn to Europe beckoned. But at 70, and well acquainted with death’s stealth, she first felt a “sacred duty” to put her affairs in order.
The university trustees arrived at her San Francisco mansion on the afternoon of May 31, the gilded setting at odds with recent reality. For years, Mrs. Stanford had sustained herself and the university on a $10,000 monthly allowance she received through the probate court, a relative pittance that at times barely kept the institution open.
That was about to change utterly. In a gesture of transformational generosity, Mrs. Stanford announced she was giving the university a blanket deed to more than $10 million in stock, bonds and property, the equivalent of a quarter billion dollars in today’s terms.
But Mrs. Stanford was giving away her fortune, not her power, which, because she was the university’s sole surviving founder, was near absolute. And her gift came attached to a series of dictates, delivered without debate or discussion — edicts that ranged from setting admission to the campus museum at 25 cents to reducing the number of trustees. And here, among these commands that now read mostly as curiosities, Mrs. Stanford did something far more radical to the very soul of her grand creation.
After nearly a decade of dedication to coeducation at the university, Mrs. Stanford had become alarmed. Women were a minority at Stanford, but their numbers were surging. If the trend continued, she feared, the university would soon be overwhelmingly female — the “Vassar of the Pacific Coast,” as one early observer put it. “This was not my husband’s wish, nor is it mine, nor would it have been my son’s,” she told the trustees.
She would avert the danger. From now on, she told the board, invoking her powers to amend the university’s founding grant, female enrollment would “at no time ever exceed five hundred.”
It was a stunning statement from a longtime champion of coeducation, one that blindsided administrators, warped the theoretically meritocratic admissions process, and took decades (and the worst depression in American history) to undo. But left to the later whim of the university’s matriarch, the restriction could have become far more severe.
“Maybe we should be happy that the 500 limit was all we got,” says historian and former university archivist Roxanne Nilan, MA ’92, PhD ’99.
A Coed Nation
By Stanford’s opening in 1891, there was nothing unusual about coeducation at American universities, at least outside of the tradition-bound East. Since 1837, when Oberlin College became the first American college to admit women, the arrangement had become commonplace, particularly in the West and Midwest, where some 86 percent of undergraduates attended dual-sex institutions in 1897. When Stanford welcomed its Pioneer Class in 1891, UC-Berkeley, Cornell, Northwestern, Michigan and MIT had all been coed for decades.
Still, there was something bold about the Stanfords’ full commitment to the cause. In its very first sentence, the founding grant called Stanford a “University for both sexes.” When construction lagged on Roble Hall, the women’s dormitory, the Stanfords refused to consider opening the university with just men, allowing women to follow later. Stanford was to belong to each from the very start.
“We deem it of the first importance that the education of both sexes shall be equally full and complete, varied only as nature dictates,” Leland Stanford had declared in his first address to university trustees in 1885.
But after his death in 1893, the steady increase in female enrollment changed his wife’s calculus. In 1891, women made up approximately 28 percent of the Stanford student body. By 1899, it was 40 percent.
Although she had not herself gone to college, Mrs. Stanford fancied herself a strong supporter of coeducation. Indeed, even years after announcing the cap, she claimed, “Nobody appreciates more than I do the advantages of an education to those of my own sex. Nor does anybody realize more than I do the effect on society of an educated and enlightened womanhood.” But Stanford University was an institution founded in memoriam to her dead child, a son, and she wouldn’t abide its feminization.
Her writings don’t much illuminate her stance, Nilan says. But from the start, the Stanfords had imagined their new university emerging as a rival to the likes of Harvard and Oxford, neither of which admitted women. And even as coeducation grew ever more common, even as she enjoyed having women on campus, Mrs. Stanford likely had plenty of voices in her ear warning that the university neared a tipping point, Nilan says. “I think she struggled with it.”
Of course, the trend was likely just reflecting the balance of humanity, and was far from unique. Berkeley went from 27 percent women to 44 percent in the same period, while the University of Chicago became majority female.
In these places too, the sharp growth of female enrollment provoked resistance. Benjamin Ide Wheeler, Berkeley’s president, began championing the building of new junior colleges, under the belief that women would be more likely to stay home to attend them. The University of Chicago, meanwhile, began segregating underclassmen by sex, an experiment that lasted five years before being dismissed as too officious and costly.
Mrs. Stanford drew her line in the sand expecting it to last in perpetuity. “I mean literally never in the future history of the Leland Stanford Jr. University can the number of female students at any one time exceed five hundred,” she wrote to President David Starr Jordan soon after the trustee meeting, quashing his search for wiggle room.
News of the cap on female enrollment was dwarfed by the magnitude of her gift. And typical of the cursory journalism of the day, reporters made little effort to reach out to students, alums or other “real people” affected by the limit.
The San Francisco Chronicle did find one joyous (albeit anonymous) alum. The preceding fall, Stanford had lost Big Game for the first time, and to him, the culprit was obvious. Too much “queening” — slang for flirting and pursuing women — and too great a proportion of female students. “If the men are steadily reduced to smaller and smaller percentages of the student body then must the Stanford spirit wane and the possible candidates for the varsity teams be limited to a little part of the student body,” he said.
Others, though, were appalled. Susan B. Anthony, the famous women’s rights activist whose long correspondence with Jane Stanford began with the latter’s $200 contribution to the suffrage cause, essentially accused her of betrayal. “This sends a chill over me — that this limitation should come through a woman,” she wrote. “You have done as much as any other human being to educate men to respect women and I cannot bear to have you destroy this work.”
University administrators took pains to stress that the move was not a rebuke to Stanford women or to coeducation in general, but their disappointment seeped through. “In this matter of equal education for both sexes the University may voluntarily withdraw from its proud and honorable leadership to tag on the tail of the process,” Orrin Elliott, the university registrar, wrote in the debut issue of the Stanford Alumnus. “But the procession will go on just the same.”
Letters flooded in to Mrs. Stanford from around the world, but she was unmoved. She had done her duty. Indeed, she would soon raise the possibility of snuffing out coeducation at Stanford altogether.
In 1903, she again summoned the trustees to Nob Hill, this time to surrender her absolute powers. At 74, she was beginning to fear that with advancing age she might be led into poor decisions, and she wanted her successors to take the reins in her lifetime. Henceforth, she’d be a trustee herself.
The historic moment seemed to be going according to script as Mrs. Stanford read from an address she’d shared with her legal adviser George Crothers, a member of the Pioneer Class, sitting beside her in the mansion’s library. But after concluding the first speech, she picked up another document unseen by him and shocked the room.
In this second address, she reminded the audience it was she who had been the one to persuade her husband to provide equal advantages for women at the university and the one to cap their enrollment at 500. Now, apparently distressed at rumors of couples promenading after dark and other morality issues, she was opening the door for the trustees to one day turn her quota into an outright ban, expressing “the hopes that if the Trustees should ever conclude that co-education was a failure they should abolish it.”
Astonished, Crothers asked for a five-minute recess. If she really desired trustees to have the power to eliminate women from the student body, he told her, she’d need to amend the charter before reading the resignation letter in front of her. At the same time, Crothers — who found interactions between the sexes close to ideal in his own student days and who was skeptical about rumors of problems — questioned the wisdom of such a radical last-minute use of her power.
“She thereupon said that she would allow the trusts to stand as they were in that regard, and took up her resignation and read it to the Trustees,” Crothers wrote three decades later.
Hitting the Cap
When the quota was instituted, women accounted for 463 students at Stanford, men for 690. Women would first bump against the limit in 1902, but Jane Stanford’s mysterious death three years later meant she never saw the more peculiar consequences of her actions, which became more onerous as the university’s lopsided growth gained speed.
Part of the problem was that administrators never knew exactly how many women would matriculate and hence how many they should admit. To add a margin for error, a presidential ruling allowed a small number of women to attend classes without registering until vacancies opened.
Still, that hardly solved the growing embarrassment of saying no to increasing numbers of female applicants. For years, any qualified male was assured entrance to Stanford, but women were soon facing steep odds. Beginning in 1906, the university began to keep a first-come, first-served waiting list for admittance, which soon gave way to an idiosyncratic two-pronged approach.
About 100 undergrad women were admitted each year, along with 40 female grad students. After 1914, roughly half of the undergrads were selected from the waiting list, the other half from a “preferred list” that included students chosen for outstanding academic performance. In both cases, the results were perverse. The university was regularly turning down women who had outperformed admitted men, and welcoming others solely for having signed up years in advance.
In October 1920 — two months after the passage of the 19th Amendment gave American women the right to vote — Stanford began fall quarter with its gendered restrictions firmly intact. The last of the women admitted to the Class of 1924 from the waiting list had signed up in August four years prior. More than 2,400 pending applications were already on file for the next four years. By some accounts, parents were putting their daughters on the list at birth.
A year later, the university stopped taking additions to the waiting list, though it took years to work through its existing commitments. New applications would be judged on merit. Not surprisingly, the women who made it into Stanford excelled once there, even amid concerns that their often superior preparation led them to complacency. “The academic work of the women has been well above the average of the university,” Dean of Women Mary Yost wrote in 1923, adding that their second-best effort was sufficient to keep them there.
Despite the women’s excellence, some men, their chutzpah apparently fed by their ever-growing proportion of the student body, questioned female students’ very presence. “Five hundred women have no place in the midst of 2000 men,” a sophomore named Leon David wrote in a student publication in 1922, his ire fueled by a blame-the-victim logic that damned the women for acting like a chosen few. Successful female entrants, he complained, felt themselves part of an “elect” club, their rarity on campus feeding an atmosphere of “false pride, independence, snobbery and exclusiveness.”
“Throw them out,” he urged.
That wasn’t going to happen, but what was? The quota system had its fans, even among women, some of whom did relish the prestige of being among “the Five Hundred.” And though it may have been unloved — a 1929 Stanford Daily story quotes registrar J. Pearce Mitchell calling the cap “unjust” — the limit seems to have been largely accepted as a permanent fixture of Stanford life.
Sylva Weaver was an exception. A half-century before her niece Sigourney, ’72, grew famous for kicking ass in Alien, Sylva, ’30, was herself ready to rumble. After four years at Stanford, she had detected a common connection among various ills afflicting the female student body — the officious curfews, the long neglect to build a new women’s gym, the dismissive attitudes of male students. It was their enforced minority status. (By this time, women were down to 11 percent of the population.) “The source of all the evil is the 500 limit,” Weaver wrote in a special 1930 women’s issue of the Daily.
A Silver Lining
Money, mountains of it, offered the most obvious escape. If Mrs. Stanford’s decree was ironclad, those who opposed the limit could still raise enough to endow a second university, separate in name only, essentially overlaying a women’s college on top of a de facto men’s. “Stanford women need a savior with about ten million dollars . . . who will prove the godmother of the Five Hundred,” Weaver wrote. “Until that day Stanford women will fight against inequality and the ancient prejudice of Stanford men.”
Her editorial was widely circulated, gaining the attention of newspapers including the New York World, which asked her to wire them a story on the subject. Weaver donated her $20 writer’s fee to the cause. But in the tightening Depression, no such savior was forthcoming to make up the difference. Yet it was the direness of the economy that ultimately gave opponents of the Rule of 500 their way out.
“Universities make their greatest advances when they have new money or no money,” President Ray Lyman Wilbur would write in his 1933 annual report, after the trustees had found a way past the cap.
By 1933, Stanford was suffering the full bite of the Depression. Return on investments had vanished, and attendance had dropped nearly 18 percent in four years, a dismal trend that was only gathering momentum as students found options closer to home or dropped their studies altogether.
In response, university salaries were cut 10 percent across the board, pension plans were reduced and the budget was cut by $300,000 compared with 1930. And yet even as the vise tightened, the cash-strapped university was turning away vast numbers of women — and their tuition.
The state of affairs was absurd on its face, but the university was trapped. It needed a legal way to slip the 500 leash. The crisis would give administrators the motivation to find it hiding in plain sight.
The solution proved to come from the same place as the problem itself — the words of Jane Stanford. The founder had issued the 500 cap in no uncertain terms. But in her valedictory address as the singular leader of the university, she directed that the paramount purpose of the trustees was to “maintain a University of high degree.” Anything in conflict with this prime directive was “incidental and subordinate.”
Amid the university’s deteriorating financial health, survival clearly trumped keeping the cap. The matter was brought to the trustees on May 11, 1933, with neither fanfare nor pretense that the urgency was anything but mercenary.
“For over thirty years the most outstanding handicap in the operation of Stanford University had been the limitation of women to 500,” Wilbur wrote in his annual report. “The financial emergency now faced by the University brought into clear perspective the folly of continuing with the limitation of 500.”
Still, the trustees didn’t seek to revert to the university’s original commitment to give equal advantage to both sexes. Instead, they resolved to maintain the same proportions between men and woman as existed on May 31, 1899, when Mrs. Stanford made her declaration. This would allow women to account for about 40 percent of the student body. In the decades that followed, the university did not pay strict heed to the cap, particularly when many students took leave of the campus to serve in the armed forces during World War II. In 1973, Stanford petitioned the Santa Clara County Superior Court to formally remove sex-based limits from its governing documents.
The 1933 decision to eliminate the Rule of 500 came as a total surprise to campus. The Daily announced the news in a banner headline and reported that students were far from overjoyed. When dinner was interrupted to announce the outcome at all-female Roble Hall, there was a collective gasp — followed by long, hearty booing. “News that the bars were down spread rapidly about the campus yesterday afternoon and evening and the majority opinion appeared to be unfavorable,” the Daily wrote.
The Daily’s editorial writers, though, were delighted at the “depression-born blessing,” as were local papers. “It has been an embarrassment to trustees, faculty and student bodies for years,” the Chronicle wrote. “The depression, whatever evils it has done, has brought this one benefit to Stanford.”
In the fall of the following year, female enrollment more than doubled.
Sam Scott is a senior writer at Stanford.