Yale celebrates coeducation

When Yale College Dean Mary Miller applied to college in the early seventies, the application fee for Yale was $20, compared with $15 for Princeton. Her father said she could only apply to Princeton. But until 40 years ago, more than $20 used to stand between women and Yale — a ban on admitting women at all.

“I do realize that I am the first woman to be dean of Yale College,” Miller said Saturday. At a forum about the challenges of coeducation, Miller spoke about how far she, and other women, have come in advancing their status at top academic institutions.

The Yale Women’s Faculty Forum organized a series of events Saturday as part of Yale’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of coeducation. The day-long series of events kicked off with a walking tour of Yale highlighting women’s history on campus, as well as a screening of “Boola Boola … Yale Goes Co-ed,” a documentary produced by two Yale alumni. The forum culminated in two panels, one focusing on the alumni perspective on coeducation and the other examining how administrators facilitated coeducation, in addition to the challenges that still remain for women at Yale. About 100 members of the Yale community, including alumni from the early 1970s, attended the forums.

Laura Wexler, Women Faculty Forum co-chair and professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Yale, moderated the first panel, which included Michael Kane ’70, Laurie Stevens ’75 and Margaret Homans ’74 GRD ’78.

“Forty years ago, women were first admitted to Yale. At the same time, the African American House was also founded — it was a time of intense social change,” Wexler said. “Today there are two things we need to consider: one, celebrating this and two, thinking about what hasn’t been accomplished yet.”

Kane described his and several other students’ attempt to organize a “Co-ed Week” in 1968, before Yale decided to admit women, by inviting 700 women to Yale to stay at the dorms, go to classes, eat at the dining halls and lead the life every male Yalie did for a week. Kane said that at the time he hoped to prove to the administration that coeducation was plausible. The organizers went door to door to convince existing male students to give up their dorms to the female students for a week, and 70 percent agreed, he said. Demonstrations were held at a Yale Corporation meeting after the administration rejected the plan. The events made the administration apprehensive, Kane said, and that week Yale announced it was going coed.

“It was a movement from below — that’sthe way social changes happen,” Kane said, “If you want something, you have to organize it and fight for it.”

After Kane spoke, Stevens shared some of her memories of Yale in the early years of coeducation. During a conversation with an alumnus while on campus, Stevens recalled that she asked him for his view on the admission of women to Yale. The alumnus responded that he thought Yale would graduate not just the “1,000 male leaders” then-University President Kingman Brewster said Yale would continue to graduate with coeducation, but also “300 prostitutes.”

“In my freshman calculus class at Yale, I was the only female student, and my professor asked me, ‘Well, what’s your perspective on the chain rule, the female perspective?’ ” she said. “I said, ‘It’s a math class, there is no female perspective.’ ”

As one of the few female students majoring in the sciences in her time, Stevens said that when she wanted to apply to medical school, her academic advisor suggested she apply to nursing school instead. Stevens went ahead and applied to 40 medical schools and was accepted to two, she said.

But this hostility allowed Yale’s first women to develop deep and meaningful relationships and support networks, Stevens added.

Homans, a professor of English and WGSS, added to Stevens’s testimony of male dominance in the early years. Homans said she was one of the three women in her English class and that two or three “ferocious” boys dominated the discussion.

“It was still the era of the ‘1,000 male leaders,’ and at that time I did not have a feminine vocabulary to express my unease,” she said.

The second panel was moderated by Paula Kavathas, professor of laboratory medicine, genetics and immunobiology.

John Wilkinson ’60, the first panelist, talked about Yale’s inhospitable atmosphere just before coeducation, while he served as an associate dean. Wilkinson pointed to leaders like fellow panelist Elga Wasserman LAW ’76, a former special assistant to the University president, for their contributions to the movement.

Wasserman said she came to Yale in 1948 as a faculty wife.

“I was expected to call on people with white gloves,” she said. “I was happy to be a change agent.”

She said the freshman handbook in 1969, the year women were first admitted to Yale, read: “Treat Yale as a good woman; congratulate yourself on the possession of her.” She said when she approached the male student body about relocating in order to accommodate the incoming female students, they said, “We’ll move over, but you have to admit good looking ones.” Wasserman said she replied, “Alright, I’ll admit males by the size of their biceps then.”

Kai Erikson, master of Trumbull College from 1969 to 1973, applauded the pioneers in the administration and students like Kane for creating a new community that made coeducation possible.

Miller concluded the panel noting that today there are 50,000 living Yale female alumnae. But the absence of female students before 1969 held Yale back from becoming a major international player, she said.

“You can all be visionaries,” she said to the audience. “We need leaders in all arenas, and those who are here can make the 21st century a really different era.”

Roxann Callander-Bradshaw ’00,who attended the forum, said the event was a great get-together for alumni and was truly enriching. She said it would be helpful to have more such forums, and to talk about Yale alumnae’s experiences in corporate America.

Davenport College Master Richard Schottenfeld said the improvements of the past few decades are “wonderful,” but that there are still areas of disparity — many departments do not have enough female faculty members, he said.

The event concluded with a reception for all the guests at the Yale University Art Gallery lobby.

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