Forty years ago, freshman move-in day at Yale was a little different.
As usual, a thousand new students and their families descended on Old Campus, as had been the case for decades. There was the expected gridlock on local streets, the clamor of packing and unpacking, stair-climbing and box shuffling; and, perhaps above all else, the excitement of a new class of Elis embarking upon their bright college years.
But there was one thing that was very much unusual: For the first time ever, women — some 300 of them — were among the eager arrivals.
This was, understandably, something of a shock to a college that had been men-only for 268 years. Administrators quickly spent $150,000 to redecorate Vanderbilt Hall; its tile-clad hallways “looked like a men’s gymnasium,” as one official put it, and that could not stand. Meanwhile, male upperclassmen loitered around Old Campus; a freshman counselor at the time recalled male students rushing to the most attractive female arrivals and fighting to carry their bags.
Coeducation did not come easily. But as Yale’s president, Kingman Brewster, said as he announced plans for it, admitting women would “[put] Yale in a position to enhance greatly its contribution to the generations ahead.”
But first the women in the class of 1973 had to unpack their things, learn an unfamiliar campus and adjust to college life.
That was not exactly easy. Many local shopkeepers at first declined to stock clothes and other products for women, suggesting they weren’t so sure this whole coeducation business was really going to work out. And while the University tried to be accommodating — on the advice of one administrator’s sister, who said women preferred baths to showers, contractors installed tubs in their bathrooms — an article in this newspaper 40 years ago described the first female Eli undergraduates as “curiosities,” and it is doubtless that they felt like that at times.
Much will be written this fall about the 40th anniversary of coeducation, and for good reason. It is a reminder about Brewster’s fight — against the wishes of many alumni — to open Yale’s doors to the best and the brightest, not merely the most well-connected.
It is also a reminder about Yale’s raison d’etre: for the “cultivation of citizens with a rich awareness of our heritage to lead and serve in every sphere of human activity,” as President Levin put it last year when he announced plans to expand Yale College.
This is why, after all, 1,300 new freshmen will move into their dormitories today. Pick the cliche of your choice: You (and almost Emma Watson) are the chosen ones. You have been passed the torch.
So do not fret that Yale lost a few billion dollars in the last year, or that Harkness Tower is now a construction site, or that you might not be able to get a job in four years. (The class of 2010 will be fretting enough for all of us.)
Rather, revel in the Freshman Bazaar on Sunday, and in shopping period, and in Tom Williams’ Twitter feed, and in everything the next four years will bring you.
But first, it is worth thinking back to move-in day in 1969. In this space 40 years ago, a group of editors mused that that day could go down as the most notable day in the history of the University. It surely ranks among them.