“There is a giant snowball rolling down the hill right in your direction, and you have a choice: You can either come out in favor of coeducation and step aside, and it won’t hit you, or you can be buried under it. But we are going to coeducate.” So former University Secretary Sam Chauncey ’57 told University President Kingman Brewster ’41 in 1969. This is the story of that snowball.
Most students today take coeducation for granted, but gender equality in admissions was not always destined. Founded as an all-male school, Yale existed for 268 years before women could enroll as undergraduates. That is not to say that bright young women had no opportunity to learn. In 1861, a women’s college of equal dedication to academics opened on the banks of the Hudson River. This school, Vassar College, was an important counterpart to Yale though isolated by geography and societal norms, as men and women learning together was not an established practice. When modernity pushed the two schools to admit the opposite sex, it was no surprise that they turned to one another — just as they had for the first 100 years of their relationship.
Rumors of coeducation first started in New Haven. No one cause, individual or moment led Yale to open its doors to women in 1969. Rather, the culmination of more than a decade’s spirited debate and activism pried them open. Many people — all men — discussed whether women were a fit addition to Yale’s sacrosanct halls. As early as 1891, a young woman named Irene Coit passed the College’s entrance exam and technically qualified for admission. The New York Times even ran a story with the provocative headline “Yale may admit women,” but it was not to be.
Of course, women had been welcome to take graduate courses at the Yale School of Art since 1869, but women enrolling in the College, the heart of the University, seemed little more than fun thought tossed around at dinner tables for the sons of Eli.
Discussed sporadically through the years, coeducation sat low on the list of the school’s priorities until well after World War II. It was not until the 1960s that the administration had to face the issue head on, and this time change started from within. The faculty placed coeducation on the table in 1962 after a meeting on the freshman social experience on campus. In a move that surprised some alumni, then University President Alfred Whitney Griswold ’29 did not reject the idea outright.
No, he was far too coy for that. Instead, Griswold placed a price tag on the cost of women at Yale: $55 million. In 2017 dollars, that sum amounts to $403,316,225.17 — no small request, even from Yale’s donor pool. Perhaps Griswold, a former member of the Yale Record, did not want to admit women. Though we may never know the true reason women were not admitted under Griswold, his humorous poetry offers some small insights into the mind of this top American educator:
“By keeping in step with the male,/
we proceed at the pace of the snail./
Said the Dean of Admission,/
‘Let’s switch our position/
and get some fast women at Yale!’”
To be fair, Griswold had other things on his plate: He expanded the University’s fledgling endowment, built 26 buildings, found a place for the sciences both in the curriculum and on campus. He was also at the helm of the University during the rise of McCarthyism, one of America’s tensest political moments.
So, with Griswold preoccupied, the lot would ultimately fall to his successor: Brewster, a onetime chairman of the News who took over as University president in 1963. Brewster was a “Yale man” through and through. No self-respecting alumnus of the College could accuse him of being anything other. The son of Amherst and Wellesley graduates and a descendent from Mayflower pilgrims, Brewster represented Old America and Old Yale. He was from a generation that — without animus — simply could not conceive of a coeducated Yale.
However, despite the weight of tradition, Brewster and his administration realized that the fight to bring women to New Haven did not end with Griswold. Brewster turned to fellow members of the Ivy League and saw that they had found a simple answer: a coordinate all-female college located nearby with access to Yale’s faculty, classes and facilities. Harvard and Columbia stumbled upon this convenient solution because neighboring women’s colleges already existed — Radcliffe in Cambridge and Barnard in Morningside Heights. But Brewster seemed out of luck as New Haven lacked a conveniently situated dance partner.
Still, no physical obstacle would get in the way of Brewster’s determination. He had set his eye on the great prize of coordination and he would get it. To do so, he would need the help of a college in upstate New York: Vassar.
PARTNERS IN POUGHKEEPSIE
As a women’s college, Vassar was a natural collaborator for Yale in many respects. The school had a reputation for academic seriousness. It was the first women’s college to establish a chapter of the national academic fraternity Phi Beta Kappa. It also shared Yale’s deep respect for the arts and, according to the Vassar website, was the first college to include a museum on its campus.
The affinity between Vassar and Yale, and the fact that Vassar was one of the nearest women’s colleges to Yale, led to friendship — and sometimes a little more.
This reputation for kinship developed slowly but surely. By the middle of the 20th century, the Yale-Vassar couple was an item of New England and collegiate renown. The “Yale man,” a jock with a boarding school education and a wardrobe that inspired the invention of the term “preppy,” went hand-in-hand with the bright-eyed “Vassar girl” — note: girl, not woman. A Vassar girl was a beguiling creature. One musing published in The Harvard Crimson in 1884 wrote of Vassar girls that “in addition to the ordinary slang of girlhood, their vocabulary is still further extended.” She was an educated, creative and independent spirit in the face of a deeply limiting landscape for women, and she was a match for the boys in blue.
By the time the end of World War II rolled around, New Haven’s young men and Poughkeepsie’s young women had grown closer than ever before. The early 1950s saw a boom of interaction between the two schools. Yale men played in football games, and Vassar women shipped out by the busload on the weekends to cheer them on.
The opening of J.D. Salinger’s novel, “Franny and Zooey,” describes a group of college men waiting at an unnamed train station to collect their dates for the “Yale game.” It would not be unrealistic to imagine such a scene between the Vassar and Yale student bodies.
The young women from Vassar were viewed as dates and future wives — a pool of classy, well-bred “broads.” It was a natural match made in upper-class, educated, Northeastern heaven.
Though both schools had relationships with other single-sex colleges, the Vassar-Yale bond was the strongest. Vassar women in “Yale blue” scarves crowded into the stands for football games, flags in hand. They would often stay the weekend at the Taft Hotel on the corner of Chapel and College streets, perhaps even sneaking into Yale dorms after hours. A Vassar president even spoke to a crowd of students in front of a “Beat Harvard” banner once.
But the road from Poughkeepsie to New Haven goes in both directions. In addition to the regular weekend trips to Yale for sporting events, the two schools participated in some wild traditions. Among the more absurd of these was the Yale-Vassar bike race, showing just how quirky, endearing and properly chivalrous the relationship between the schools was. The race, which happened on at least five occasions, promised fame and lovely dates to the Yalies who could leave Yale at sunrise and bike to Vassar before sunset.
The race first came about as a bet placed by members of the Trumbull Beer and Bike Society. The idea sparked a great deal of excitement on Yale’s campus and eventually led to several teams of Yalies wheeling out of New Haven en masse. Each team, competing with suggestive names like the “Maidenform Five,” rushed to Vassar’s Taylor Gate in hope of winning flower crowns and parades across campus.
The schools were a natural pair, and, by the late 1960s, it was on Yale to turn this long-distance flirtation into something more serious. Brewster did not hesitate to make the first move.
THE ROYAL MARRIAGE
Brewster and his wife Mary Louise Phillips, a Vassar woman herself, first broached the topic of bringing women to Yale in 1966. Mrs. Brewster was a key actor, working with her husband to find the best path forward. The couple reached out to their dear friends Alan Simpson, the president of Vassar College at the time, and his wife Mary McQueen McEldowney to envision the future for their two schools.
As former University Secretary Chauncey remembers it, the Brewsters invited the Simpsons to their regular vacation spot in New York state. That vacation spot, the Old Drovers Inn, out-dates the town in which it sits and occupies more than one notable role in American history.
The bed and breakfast’s site proudly advertises that it once served as a “romantic hideaway for Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton after the filming of ‘Cleopatra.’” The descriptions adds, “Taylor was still married to Eddie Fisher at the time, so the couple needed a romantic hideaway. They rented all the rooms at the Old Drovers Inn. It offered an idyllic and secret haven for the duo, who later married.”
Like Burton and Taylor, the Brewsters and Simpsons had an orthodox union in mind when they convened at Dover Plains, New York. Perhaps they would finally formalize the famous Yale-Vassar relationship by closing the distance between them.
The first move, as in any properly organized bureaucratic process, was to form a committee. In this case, the two schools tasked a group of administrators with producing a study on the feasibility of a merger that would make the Vassar’s “weekend exodus” permanent — the school would move its campus to Prospect Street. Officially formed on Dec. 14, 1966, the Yale-Vassar Study committee would focus on three distinct areas of research: similar coordinate universities, the relevant information for each school and a fixed plan for how they would come together.
Two young administrators were chosen to lead the study: Chauncey would represent Yale and George Langdon, professor of history and Simpson’s assistant, would speak for Vassar.
The study stirred up great excitement when The New York Times broke the story before the schools had the chance to announce the study themselves. Vassar’s student publication, the Vassar Miscellany News, ran a piece under the headline “For God, For Country, For Yale and Vassar” on Dec. 19, 1966, in which Simpson noted that “‘Yale needs Vassar every bit as much as Vassar needs Yale.’”
The paper also published an editorial in the same issue that served as a call to arms: “An alignment of the educational, cultural and social resources of Vassar and Yale has been proposed. It is incumbent upon students to react positively now. Vassar’s initial display of enthusiasm was rewarding. How about a march on New Haven next?”
New Haven echoed the enthusiasm. The Yale Daily News published an editorial called “Girl and Man at Yale.” In it, the News heralded the Yale-Vassar Study: “We congratulate Vassar and Yale for taking this revolutionary step forward in seeking to better the educational and social environments of their students.”
Chauncey and Langdon proceeded with their task as the chorus of supporters sang out in unison. Their task was often a serious one, dealing with questions of cost, integration of faculties and the difference in the academic orientations of the two colleges. Other times, it was more trivial, answering questions such as: Could Yale’s population of trees sufficiently represent Vassar given the school’s close association with its arboretum in Poughkeepsie?
“We concluded it was feasible,” Chauncey said in an interview in March. “But we had a couple of grave doubts, which we had to express and which the two presidents didn’t want to hear.”
At the time of the proposed merger, as it remains the case today, Yale was a research university and Vassar was a liberal arts college. This difference manifested most plainly in the makeup of the faculty. At Yale, professors had obligations outside the classroom and were expected to be on the cutting edge of research, producing books, articles and the like. At Vassar, professors were teachers first and foremost. Their talents lay in inspiring undergraduates. When combining the two disparate groups, the schools would have to redefine the standards by which they evaluate faculty members, Chauncey explained.
Academic focus and course listings posed another challenge. What Vassar lacked in sciences and engineering, Yale similarly lacked in modern languages and arts. The transfer of credits, the programs set for degrees, the material covered in various classes differed widely at the two schools. Making sure that students had the appropriate number of credits and degree of acceleration to graduate would be a complicated equation with many variables. The coordination had the potential to set students at both schools back.
These issues represented real dangers to Brewster and Simpson’s great dream, but trustees at both schools voted to proceed to the final stage in the merger process regardless. This last step was scheduled in the fall of 1967.
As Chauncey told it, things looked hopeful. Just before consummating their “royal marriage,” the trustees from both schools met for a dinner party at Brewster’s home on Hillhouse Avenue.
Toward the end of the evening, Mary St. John Villard, chairwoman of the Vassar Board of Trustees, reached into her purse and retrieved a bejewelled pipe. She stuffed it with tobacco and began to smoke as Yale Corporation member Edwin Foster Blair watched in horror and turned a vivid shade of red.
The next month, Vassar voted to reject the merger and the grand engagement came to a screeching halt.
Though he can’t prove it, Chauncey pointed to the moment of tension between Villard and Blair as the core reason for the merger’s failure. Vassar was an independent spirit. It had its own identity and would not give up its bejeweled pipe for even the most esteemed academic partner. Vassar saw that, despite the outward pleasantries and commitment, Yale was trying to sweep its female counterpart under the rug. Vassar would not join with a school on unequal footing — it simply would not be in the spirit of coeducation.
A NEW BLUE
Nineteen sixty-nine was a brave new world for both schools as they struck out on their own. Less than a month after the failed merger, they decided to coeducate independently.
At Yale, President Brewster once again tasked Chauncey to ensure a smooth transition away from the single-sex campus and traditions of Old Yale. His responsibilities included both academic and social coeducation, and he soon found that certain pressure points would cause the University trouble.
According to Chauncey, “parasite organizations” — legally independent groups around Yale that would not exist if not for the University — posed the greatest threat to Yale’s coeducation. Mory’s Temple Bar, the Yale Club of New York and several of Yale’s oldest landed secret societies were eventually corralled into allowing women, but not without immense pressure from Chauncey and the University administration.
Chauncey recalled that Wolf’s Head, one of Yale’s secret societies with a clubhouse, revoked his membership in response to his support for the addition of women. But Chauncey soldiered on.
After brow-beating the societies, clubs and off-campus affiliates, Chauncey turned his attention to Yale’s famous singing groups. After consulting with then-Yale Glee Club Director Fenno Heath ’50 MUS ’52, Chauncey decided not to force the singing groups to admit women. According to Heath, music demanded equal opportunity, and he saw the creation of single-sex groups as a more logical solution than forced integration.
Nearly 50 years later, Yale’s a cappella scene still struggles with Chauncey’s decision, Heath’s logic and the imperfect resolution. Groups such as The New Blue, Yale’s oldest all-female a cappella group never reached the all-male Whiffenpoofs’ level of international prominence.
“The issues you are hearing today are issues we faced at that time, some of which we solved — we won the Mory’s case, we won the Yale Club case, we got the senior societies to integrate — but I have to say that what has not happened is that the inherent masculinity of Yale has not adjusted,” Chauncey noted of the current campus issues. “Yale is still a little bit hostile to women.”
At Vassar, progress was more natural. Catharine Hill GRD ’85, Vassar’s 10th president, sees the school’s adaptive spirit and flexible attitude as innate. If Yale’s identity was built upon its famed tradition, then Vassar’s centered on its insistent flouting of expectation. Vassar operated — and still operates — with independence and spirit.
Although Vassar and Yale shared a common history up until 1969, their paths diverged dramatically at that key moment. Hill offered Williams College, her own alma mater, as a better comparison to Vassar: Williams was an equally isolated liberal arts college with an all-male student body.
“I think some of the discussions at both Williams and Vassar were recognizing that the world had changed for both of those institutions and that students wanted to be at institutions where there were both men and women.” Hill said. “The [women’s] schools that stayed — Smith, Holyoke, Barnard, Wellesley, Bryn Mawr — were all in situations where students could have social lives outside that involved men [and women] from local colleges. Williams and Vassar didn’t have those options.”
Vassar and Williams did not struggle with the injustices of inequality as much in part because the schools did not face the same degree of institutional resistance as Yale. Hill noted that any attempt to create all-male groups on Vassar’s campus would be met with a great deal of opposition from the forward-thinking student body.
While there are some all-female groups, such as the singing group The Night Owls, Vassar’s campus does not sit in the shadow of a male-dominated past filled with patriarchal traditions. This is not to say that formerly all-male college cannot successfully welcome women. In fact, Williams dealt away with much of potential drama by banning all fraternities in light of the impending coeducation.
Since its own coeducation, Yale has seen several new all-male organizations join campus life in addition to the older clubs of the college’s past. Fraternities, such as Yale’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, are currently dealing with pressure from Engender and other student groups to allow all Yalies, not just “Yale men,” to pledge and join. At the same time, Yale may welcome yet another fraternity to campus in the next school year.
Head of Branford College Elizabeth Bradley, who will serve as Vassar’s next president starting in the fall, noted that Vassar’s unique progressive culture inspired her to pursue and accept the position.
“Right now, they are really open about gender, about understanding gender differences, [and they are] really thinking hard about … relationships between men and women and people who identify different ways.” Bradley noted. “[Vassar is] really progressive in this area. It’s just a progressive place.”
Chauncey pointed to the moment of coeducation as the source for many of the issues still at Yale, but Bradley found that Vassar’s forward-thinking coeducation created a healthy environment.
“My sense is the way they coeducated was very much on an equal footing.” Bradley said. “I think with [Vassar] being female to begin with, there was very much a sense that women would be on equal footing with men. I think there is also a freedom for men to express themselves they way they wanted and in the kinds of activities they wanted, rather than having started from an all-male place. It is definitely different.”
The saying goes, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” But in coeducation, Vassar has yet to call itself beat.
THE HEART OF THE MATTER
In addition to the bright-eyed freshmen arriving at Phelps Gate for their first year at Yale in 1969, a small but significant cohort of female transfer students also joined the school’s ranks.
For Carolyn Ziegler ’71, the decision to transfer was more personal than political. She spent her first year of college at the University of Chicago and enjoyed the experience, but Yale represented an opportunity to return home to the east coast without compromising the quality of her education.
“I thought: ‘Oh, that might be fun.’ It was really an impulse decision in that it wasn’t related to feminism or political issues.” Ziegler recalled when she first heard about the opportunity to study at Yale. “It was a personal decision. I was in a very good university, and I was not unhappy there, but I could come back East and share the excitement of being among the first women to attend a great institution.”
Unlike those young women at Vassar who had pointedly chosen a small and intimate liberal arts college, Ziegler spent her first year at a research university of Yale’s style. It was a logical choice, not driven by social pressures or political decisions playing out across state lines, but rather by the simple and real desire to get an education of her own choosing.
Yale and Vassar were established for different reasons and each built its own path to education. In the end, it was up to the students to find their way.
And that’s the heart of coeducation.