Gents, start your engines: Yale goes coed

From Midwestern high schools and dorm rooms at Smith, Oberlin, Wellesley and Vassar, they packed their bags for a move to ivy-covered towers that were previously off limits. Pegged by The New York Times as “the Yale Superwomen,” the freshmen and transfer students who would make up Yale’s first coeducated classes arrived on campus to excitement and a media explosion. This was history in the making: Coeducation at Yale had begun.

And the men on campus were excited.

In September 1969, the Yale Daily News reported on the feeding frenzy of freshmen move-in, and men rushed to meet their new female counterparts.

“The freshman males, like freshman males anywhere, are talking about the freshman girls,” wrote Paul Taylor for the News.

But for the first class of Yale women, living and working alongside men did not easily translate to romantic relationships. And a “seven-men-for-one-woman” ratio did not always work in their favor when it came to dating.

Breaking Down Barriers

Jay Gitlin ’71, a Yale professor of history, remembers the general buzz about coeducation. Most young men were in favor of the change, Gitlin said, but “the people who were most actively pushing it … were the ones who couldn’t get dates.”

But once the women had arrived, the system did not work as planned.

“The joke was that the first weekend, all the women were sitting around waiting to get asked out on dates, and no one asked us,” Ruth Jarmul ’71 said.

The Friday night “busloads” of women from neighboring single-sex schools that had provided a social outlet when Yale was all male did not end with the arrival of women on Yale’s campus. If anything, they made the contrast between “dates” and “coeds” that much more apparent. “Coeds” ate, lived and worked alongside the Yale men, while “dates” arrived perfumed and elegant for Saturday football games and disappeared on Sunday nights.

According to Glenn Murphy ’71, as women attempted to prove their merit on campus, their social lives were limited.

“[Our dates] parachuted in and then left again, and then we were in our T-shirts and jeans back in class and all equals,” Murphy said. “It was particularly difficult when women were trying to establish themselves as serious students and Yalies while evaluating the presence of the traditional, important date on the weekends.”

James Kaplan defended this dichotomized dating in a column (“Dates vs. Friends”) published in the News in the fall of 1969.

“I just didn’t want to have to hassle being involved with some girl at Yale who I might have to see all the time,” Kaplan wrote in defense of his policy against dating Yale women. Regarding a woman who complained about the dating ritual, Kaplan wrote, “I don’t know quite what this girl expected. After all, she came to a school where she knew she was going to be outnumbered eight to one.”

With women and men coexisting for the first time within Yale’s hallowed halls, the system of dating had to be reevaluated. “It’s much easier to break up with someone from Connecticut College because you don’t have to face them at breakfast,” said Kathryn Murphy ’71, the wife of Glenn Murphy. “It was a whole new concept that Yale men didn’t have to face — facing someone they’d dated for nine months at breakfast.”

Under a Microscope

In a widely read News column called “Bulltalk,” Gary Trudeau ’71 described the media presence that existed during the first year of coeducation.

“‘Har, har,’ said the expectant sociologists and the Time Magazine correspondents,” Trudeau wrote. “’What do you think of that? Pretty freaky, huh, having all those chicks, pretty strange huh? Tell us how you feel about it and we’ll write it up and make good reading out of it. This is going to be some story, right?”

But according to Trudeau, the students were only passively involved in this administration-centered media frenzy. Trudeau reminded his readers, “We were not the ones who were changing: It wasn’t we who were trying to restructure our thinking.”

For the women, being a visible campus minority in the midst of such publicity was difficult.

“It was like living in a goldfish bowl,” Kathryn Murphy said. “We were an oddity, and we were so few, and people kept track of everything we did.”

Elga Wasserman, who was in charge of administering coeducation, ascribes many of the difficulties to the small women-to-men ratio, which placed only 25 women in a single entryway per college.

“People were happy to be at Yale, and there were always people who had problems dating, but from my perspective, it was always very difficult to have that unbalanced number ratio,” Wasserman said.

Despite expectations, the small number of women compared to men actually made finding dates more difficult. “The fact that there were only a few women in each college made it feel even more like they were your sisters — and not potential dates,” Gitlin said. “It seem[ed] a little too incestuous to go out with them.”

The ratio of women to men was determined by precedent: The University had promised the alumni that 1,000 Yale men would graduate each year. So instead of reducing the number of male students, the University simply added women — sometimes two or three to a single room.

“It was incredibly crowded,” Sally Birdsall ’72 remembers. “Instead of crowding the men, they just added us to spare rooms.”

Coming Together

Against the backdrop of coeducation were changes along with the times. Rev. Stephen Wolf, a former Lutheran chaplain, offered a new course that dealt with homosexuality, which attracted 600 students. In May 1970, the Black Panther trials and riots would unite the Yale student body in a web of confusion and fear.

For Glenn Murphy, who began his relationship with his current wife during this period of turmoil, the sense of confusion among the students helped to build bonds and bridges where they were previously lacking. By September 1970, things had changed, Murphy recalls. “The women were out of their entryways and onto floors scattered throughout the colleges. A lot of the defensiveness had worn away, and it was much more relaxed,” he explained.

But the transition period was not instantaneous.

“I think it was hard all around to go coed. They didn’t think ahead that there [were] too few women for us to feel empowered,” Birdsall said. “The woman of ’72 get together a couple times a year. There’s a nice feeling of, ‘Hey, we did this, we got through this.’”

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