Anne Coffin Hanson, the first woman to be hired as a full tenured professor at Yale and former chairwoman of the History of Art Department, died Friday at her home in New Haven. She was 82.
The first female department head in the University’s history, Hanson taught at Yale from 1971 until her retirement in 1992. The award-winning author of “Manet and the Modern Tradition,” she also lent her talents to the cataloguing of futurist art while serving as head of the Yale University Art Gallery.
One of the many barriers Hanson broke in her tenure occurred when she served as plaintiff in a successful suit against Mory’s, which had a male-only policy when she arrived. The eating club opened its doors to women in 1974 as a result.
But Anne Blaine Garson, her daughter, said her humble mother considered her students’ accomplishments to be her greatest achievement.
“My mother was never one to stand up and say, ‘I was the first,’ even though she was,” Garson said. “I think what she was most proud of was helping to launch the careers of many fine art historians, many of them young women, who might not have had that opportunity otherwise.”
Hanson’s son James said his mother’s determination to create opportunities for young women stemmed from the difficulties she had faced earlier in her career, as a divorcee with three children.
“I remember as a child, she was hunting for a job and trying to support us with very little money,” he said. “In the fifties, women — regardless of their job — were paid less than men, and she really had to battle that — She was very determined that that shouldn’t be true for [future generations of women].”
While Garson broke barriers for women, it was her warmth and excitement that truly defined her, history of art professor Judith Colton said.
“She was a trailblazer, yes, but what was just as important was the grace, charm and humor with which she made it all take place,” Colton said. “With Anne, there was always this amazing love expressed in a very casual way. She was a good friend of many students.”
Colton, who said Hanson was her best friend in the department, said Hanson showed her passion, enthusiasm and humor by continuing to teach an undergraduate art history survey course, hosting an annual champagne party for graduate students, and using her costume-making skills for comic effect at retirement parties. She said Hanson’s true strength lay in judging whether or not to take things seriously.
“She didn’t do what she did for the feminist movement,” Colton said. “She didn’t live that way. Students called her ‘the Silver Fox’ for her distinctive hair, and she was featured in Vogue Patterns Magazine. But she fought hard for our department and for her students. It was fun to watch her in action.”
Bernard Hanson, Anne’s companion and former husband, said the professor’s life was a testament to the value of hard work.
“I’ve spent my life teaching, and I’ve never seen anyone else who worked as hard grading exams or term papers,” he said. “She showed us that it’s possible for a woman to get ahead in the world on her own merits.”
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