Yale’s first classes of women look back

Thirty-one years ago the women of the class of 1971 became the first to graduate from Yale College.

Although Yale admitted women to its graduate schools starting in 1892, Yale College was strictly male until 1968 when, despite loud opposition from many alumni, Yale admitted a total of 588 women. For many women being admitted to Yale was, as Ruth Jarmul ’71 puts it, “like being given the keys to the castle.”

There was, not surprisingly, a great deal of hype over the “superwomen” who had been admitted to Yale’s first co-ed classes. Perhaps due in part to the extensive media attention they received as undergraduates, the women in those classes are the first to proclaim their humility.

Yet the fact remains that they came and they left as pioneers; many would go on to be among the first women in their professional fields and many of them would face decisions about being a woman in a previously male-dominated professional society with few examples to follow.

Although it is difficult for the women of the class of ’71 to generalize about the experience of entering into a mens’ college, one thing was for sure — they stood out.

According to Barbara Blaine ’71, a lawyer in Washington, D.C., such attention had its advantages and disadvantages: “We were on the spot all the time. But look at it the other way, we were invited to every party.”

Yale was more inviting for some of the women than for others. Christiane Sorel ’75 tells a story about her first day of introductory economics.

The professor made it clear that “he couldn’t imagine why we were there, and he couldn’t imagine that we had anything to contribute. So he wasn’t going to call on us. And he never did.”Ê

Francine Welty ’71, now a cardiologist at Harvard, remembers asking a professor for a medical school recommendation. “Do you want me to write about your long blond hair or your beautiful legs?” he replied.

Most, however, have no such stories to tell and only remember Yale as being a nurturing place, open to having women and deeply committed to coeducation. For many, being at Yale was an unexpected but highly welcome opportunity.

Vera Wells ’71 had left Howard University when she married her husband and moved to New Haven. Yale’s announcement that it was going to accept women came as the perfect opportunity to continue her education. She became the first in her family to attend college.

At Yale, Wells found herself in the minority both as a woman and as an African American. She found a mentor and later a friend in Professor Sylvia Ardyn Boone, who was at the time teaching a very popular college seminar on black women.

Boone advised her to chart her own professional course.

“I didn’t have to think only about law school or the traditional way of being successful coming out of Yale” she says.

Wells knew that there were three things she really liked — travelling, going to dance performances and concerts and watching television.

So after graduation Wells became the Associate Director of the international division of the National Council of Negro Women and traveled all over East and West Africa.

Later on she moved to NBC where, as one of the highest ranked women in the East coast branches, she became the Director of Corporate and Philanthropic Initiative.

Over the past six years, she has endowed a scholarship and a prize for Yale students and is now a fund-raiser for the Afro-American Cultural Center at Yale.

Of course, most of the graduates of the class of 1971 did not go on to work after college. In fact, according to the Yale Office of Public Affairs, only 21 percent went on to work after college — in comparison with the 65 percent who did in 1996.

Welty, who transferred to Yale as a junior, as did all of the women in the class of ’71, came from Muskingum, a small college in rural Ohio.

She described what it was like to come to Yale and, for the first time, realize that medicine was a profession for women. At Yale, she said, “I was surrounded by people in the profession and people who were applying to medical school.”

Another unusual trait of the women in the class of 1971 is the number who have gone on to start their own businesses.

Ruth Jarmul attributes the fact that so many women in her class have started their own businesses to their desire “to test themselves.”

Whether the women of ’71 were unusually ambitious or simply intelligent and well-educated people, is open to discussion. There is no doubt, however, that many of them faced considerable pressure to be successful.

Deborah Fennebresque ’71 attributes this pressure to the media, which portrayed the women as risk-takers and go-getters. Yet within the class, there was also, as Dr. Vivian Reznik ’71 puts it, “a feeling that these women were going to go on and do great things.”

Philip Howard ’70, a senior when the women of ’71 transferred to Yale, recalled that the women were not only “smart but they had also made the choice that they wanted to leave and go face the unknown at Yale.” They were, in his words, “self-starters, women who had an eye on where they were going.”

After graduation, many of them faced new challenges. Some found that it was difficult to leave Yale — an environment which most found to be very committed to accommodating women — and go into the outside world.

Barbara Blaine said that when she got to law school she found that people were less open to the presence of women, “in that sense it didn’t prepare you much.”

Jo Brooks ’71 who also attended law school after Yale, recalled her initial disappointment at learning that her law school class was 40 percent female and that she would no longer be considered “special.”

Some of the challenges ran deeper. When Welty began working in her cardiology lab, she was forced to wear a man’s lead apron since the lab wouldn’t buy her a woman’s version. She now suffers from back problems as a result of the weight of the apron.

Nearly all of the women have at some point faced a question of whether they were going to take time off from work for their families.

Even before she took time off to be with her children, Sorel was a highly respected lawyer. Yet she found it nearly “impossible to go back to work seven years later. I was viewed as a not-so serious housewife.” Sorel, like so many of the other women in the first co-ed classes at Yale, started her own practice.

Most of the women share a sense of concern over whether they have lived up to the Yale legacy bequeathed to them.

“The thing that bothers me from time to time is wondering, have I lived up to that? Have I really done everything with that that I can?” said Sorel. “It’s really a tribute to Yale. In a real sense you’ve been a beneficiary of something wonderful and special.”

Many of the Yale’s first females undergraduates also went on to be trailblazers in their professions.
Courtesy YaleBanner
Many of the Yale’s first females undergraduates also went on to be trailblazers in their professions.

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