Forty years of women at Yale

The Yale–Dartmouth football game fell on Parents’ Weekend in the fall of 1969, the first year of coeducation at Old Blue. During the halftime show, the Yale Precision Marching Band decided to poke fun at their all-male-school opponent, marching into the formation of a certain sexual organ on the 50-yard line while blaring the tune “Yes! We Have No Bananas.”

It was a bold statement, but one that echoed the sentiment of most Eli men. They were proud of the newest students on campus — the “Yale Superwomen,” as coined by The New York Times that fall.

Women moved into Yale for the first time in 1969. They were housed in Vanderbilt Hall on Old Campus.
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Women moved into Yale for the first time in 1969. They were housed in Vanderbilt Hall on Old Campus.

“I wouldn’t have gone to Yale if it wasn’t coed,” said Edward “Wigs” Frank ’73, who attended an all-boys high school and was a member of the first Yale class to experience coeducation for all four years. “Nobody really thought that it made sense to stay separated,” he added.

The women came in September of 1969 — nearly 600 of them, half of them freshman admits, half sophomore and junior transfers — and the time was ripe for a radical change in social norms.

It was the age of Woodstock. The war in Vietnam was highly unpopular, and the fight for civil rights would soon manifest itself on campus with the New Haven Black Panther riots later that school year. Institutions such as secret societies — which at the time clung to the “old boys network” mentality — had little impact on campus life. Although some alumni and upperclassmen opposed the decision of then-University President Kingman Brewster ’41 to admit women to Yale College, the change, it seems, was inevitable.

GOING COED

Mary Posses ’72 MUS ’82, who transferred to Yale in the fall of 1969 after her freshman year at Wellesley College, said her first impression was that Yale had undergone a big change.

“I felt very appreciated that first year,” Posses said.

According to a News article in September 1969, the lights, mirrors and paint in Vanderbilt Hall, which housed the freshman women on Old Campus, were improved for the new arrivals. Another News article that month stated that coeducation cost the University $500,000, with $150,000 of that amount used to renovate freshman women’s housing. Upperclassman women were housed in single-sex entryways in their respective residential colleges. Men had to leave by midnight, a rule enforced by a round-the-clock security guard.

But despite the close proximity, alumni interviewed said there was a large disparity in the 8:1 ratio of men to women, leaving some female students feeling disconnected to one another.

“There were so few women you couldn’t really find a community of women,” Francine Welty ’71 said.

The way in which the University introduced female students — gradually accepting higher numbers of women every academic year — made it difficult for women in the early years to form friendships with one another. More often than not, Frank said, you found a group of nine guys and one girl.

“It was the stupidest idea in the world to go coed that way,” Sally Birdsall ’72 said.

But Brewster, while admitting to “imperfections of the plan” in a Nov. 15, 1968, article in the News, said the lessons from the coed experimentation in 1969 would “evolve a pattern for learning and for living which is more in tune with the needs of tomorrow’s students.”

POPULAR GIRLS

The Old Campus facebook in 1969 published the name, high school, interests and picture of every incoming freshman. Male students interviewed said the blurbs about the new female students were particularly well-read. “I think every man at Yale memorized the info in that book,” Jay Meizlish ’73 said.

Meizlish eventually married one of the women pictured in that paperback directory, Darcy Lowell ’73, whom he met in a residential college seminar his junior year.

“From Tuesday to Thursday, she would get 15 calls for dinner or a movie on Saturday,” Meizlish said of Lowell’s popularity.

Yale women were the stars of the show even in the classroom, often being called on by professors to make broad statements about how “women feel about such things,” as Lowell put it. She added that she and her fellow classmates were “pretty assertive” in the classroom, not intimidated by their male colleagues.

“It was very obvious that there were girls who [were] just as smart if not smarter than us,” Frank said.

But not everyone recognized the women for their intelligence. Lowell recalled an office hour meeting when a professor attempted to kiss her.

“I never went back,” she said.

Some professors were as unaccustomed to interacting with females in the academic setting as their male students were, and Frank said some girls in his class asked him to accompany them to professors’ office hours.

One professor voiced his disapproval of coeducational changes in a Yale Daily News article dated Nov. 8, 1968: “As a professor I feel a greater sense of accomplishment when I direct towards those who will one day have a greater role in society — men.”

But History of Art professor Vincent Scully was quoted saying, “Having undergraduate women in classes would make Yale better — better in that there would be a greater sense of wholeness and completeness in the human reactions to what is going on.”

‘BIGGEST CHANGE’

No one interviewed said they recalled any incidents in opposition to the implementation of coeducation.

Still, some men, particularly upperclassmen, were downright upset with the new female presence on campus. Birdsall, who was a transfer from Mount Holyoke College placed in Jonathan Edwards College, said a group of senior men in her college was obviously unhappy with the situation, though the men never did anything overtly sexist.

“It was like we’d ruined their senior year,” she said.

But John Diamond ’72, whose sister was also admitted in the first class of female students, said women naturally integrated into the Yale environment, for the most part.

“It was a happy change. People wanted it,” he said.

Brewster still had his “1,000 male leaders” — and, for the first time, he had nearly 600 female leaders, as well.

Even today, 40 years later, the women in the inaugural coeducation class are “trailblazers in their respective fields,” Lowell said. Just as they entered into an all-male Yale, many of their professional aspirations pushed them into male-dominated career fields.

“We had that in common,” she said. “We liked to push the envelope.”

Margy Slattery and Esther Zuckerman contributed reporting.

Comments

  • Old Blue ’73

    The men out by midnight rule was just for the freshmen women’s dorm at Vanderbilt. But that wasn’t enforced beyond the first month or so, as I recall. Putting the upperclass women in their own entryways became a bit of a problem since the colleges’ gates were not secured back then and they became targets. One friend looked up from the shower one day and saw a ten year old boy’s face peeking over the top. Mixing the women’s rooms randomly made more sense.

    The ratio of men to women in Yale College as a whole the first year was 7:1. Freshmen men, the lowest in the pecking order, were pretty lonely that year. Still, in order to get it done at all in the face of strong male alum opposition, it had to be done at the beginning without significant reductions in male admittees.

  • no spades

    imagine what an epic place this would be if it were still all male

  • J

    There are still universities out there with a ratio around 5:1.