In a speech yesterday marking the 35th anniversary of Yale’s first female class’ senior year, Vera Wells ’71 said she and several other female students had to recruit a professor for the residential college seminar “On Black Women,” just to have a class about women taught by a woman.
Wells, the director of the Sylvia Ardyn Boone Memorial Project, and Bobbi Mark ’76, the managing director of the Yale Alumni Fund, shared similar anecdotes about their experiences as students during the first years after Yale became coeducational at the discussion, named “A Conversation About Yale: From Coeducation of the 1970’s to Raising Funds for Yale in the 21st Century.” The talk, sponsored by Saybrook College and the Yale Women Faculty Forum, also focused on how their pioneering experiences inspired both women to actively raise funds for and support Yale.
Though both women are actively involved in supporting funding for the University, they followed very different paths to Yale. Wells said she began her college career at Howard University, before she moved with her husband to New Haven.
“When Yale opened up for undergraduate women, my husband stood over me as I filled out my application,” Wells said. “He wanted to support his wife and didn’t want me to have to work.”
When the two divorced a year later, Wells said, she chose to remain at Yale and moved on campus.
Wells said she quickly embraced the challenges that came with being a black woman in a predominately white male school and found a mentor in Sylvia Boone, whom she had recruited to teach “On Black Women.”
Mark said she followed a somewhat different path to Yale, as she entered the University after high school.
Attracted to the opportunity for an educational experience that had not been an option for her a few years earlier, Mark said, she entered Yale and immediately noticed some tensions between male and female students. She said fellow students would too often ask for the “female perspective” on a range of issues, with little recognition of the diversity of female views.
“What’s the female point of view on the French Revolution?” Mark said her male peers would ask her in class. “What’s the female point of view of a fraction? I mean, sometimes it was ridiculous.”
Wells said the attention could become uncomfortable.
“They were almost too welcoming, always looking to me,” she said.
Both women said their difficulties achieving acceptance into the Yale community were manifold: on one hand was the busing in of weekend “imports,” or students from all-women’s schools who came to vie for the attentions of male students, and on the other was a lack of respect from “old blue” alumni, some of whom were reluctant to accept the growing body of women and minorities on campus.
But the two women said their experiences, both positive and negative, motivated them to actively seek funds for Yale, because they hoped to promote continued University efforts to become more diverse in addition to promoting general educational goals.
Because of the differences between male and female alumni’s donation tendencies, Mark and Wells said they have had to diversify their alumni outreach methods, a task complicated by the differences in men and women’s incomes. Mark said the same percentage of women give as men, and among men and women with the same careers amounts donated are about equal, but more men than women have high-paying jobs.
Sara Jones ’91, who has been researching the oral history of coeducation at Yale, said the talk addressed important ongoing women’s issues.
“It’s the little anecdotes of the life of Yale students that endear a student to Yale, whether it’s a tough one or an enlightening one,” she said.
Cindy Tobery, the director of WFF programs and projects, said the early history of women at Yale is important even today.
“Primarily, the purpose of the talks is just to understand the experiences of the early women at Yale,” she said, “and see how they’ve changed or haven’t changed.”
The WFF is currently scheduling two more talks on the history of women at Yale for the spring.
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”15572″ ]