In the summer of 1969, an air of expectancy permeated every corner of Yale College. Mirrors and shelves appeared in the bathrooms of Vanderbilt Hall. Six hundred new student files materialized in the Office of Admissions. Buildings received fresh coats of paint; extra security measures were installed; all loose ends were tied neatly in bows. A sense of seismic change informed each of these seemingly superficial improvements. These changes marked Yale’s feverish preparations for one of the most significant changes to campus life since the university’s founding in 1701: the arrival of the first class of women in the fall of 1969.
In a mere two months, 576 women would join the four thousand men already enrolled at Yale College: nearly 250 in the junior class, 150 in the sophomore class, and 250 in the first-year class.
Entering Yale at a ratio of nearly 8 to 1, these women were first-year journalists, high school sports captains and outspoken student activists. Some arrived from public high schools and preparatory academies; others transferred as upperclassmen from the Seven Sisters and other women’s colleges. While some arrived on campus with the goal of thoroughly transforming student life at Yale and others simply wished to pursue a single academic or extracurricular interest, Caroline Jackson-Smith ’74 recalled a shared sense of confidence among the first classes of female graduates: “We felt that if we were bold enough to get there, we were bold enough to be there.”
The media’s fascination with Yale’s first coed class did not stop once the women arrived on campus. The arrival of women was viewed as both a spectacle and an indicator of revolutionary change; each moment marked a university “first,” sparking celebration and fanfare. In an interview for “Women at Yale: A Tour,” Amy Solomon ’73 recalled that, on her first day, reporters approached her to find out more about the “first woman to ever register for Yale College.” When interviewed, though, Solomon was forced to admit that she had mistakenly entered through the wrong door of Connecticut Hall and missed registration. Despite this blip, Solomon famously posed for a staged photograph as she re-registered, so that photographers could ensure the occasion would not go undocumented. And thus, with the advent of integrated classes, coed Yale was born.
Within the first few weeks of classes, then-first year Lawrie Mifflin ’73 felt an urge to get back on the field. A field hockey player throughout high school, Mifflin entered the Payne Whitney Gym with a simple request: to sign up for the Yale Women’s Field Hockey team. Met with blank stares, Mifflin was informed that not only was there no women’s field hockey team at Yale, but no competitive sports team for women whatsoever.
“They hadn’t anticipated that women might want to play competitive sports,” Mifflin explained. “They had provisions for us to get into the gym … use the swimming pool, and the running track. Some of these things had previously been all male. They made provisions for us to have physical activity, but none to have organized competitive sports.”
And thus, the next and more prolonged stage of integration began, following the symbolic month of August 1969. Women were on campus and ready to learn, but what did Yale offer them when they decided to step outside the classroom?
Lawrie Mifflin would eventually find her way onto the field, as co-captain of the Yale Women’s Field Hockey team, the first women’s varsity sports team on campus. The theme of carving out one’s own space, however, extended beyond athletics. Female students across campus sought ways to engage their extracurricular interests, forming their own independent organizations or alternatively integrating into pre-existing, male-dominated groups.
For female students who, like Mifflin, founded entirely new clubs and teams, the absence of clear guidelines placed the burden of organizing these activities on women. In order to receive recognition from Yale as a varsity sport, Mifflin spent her first year writing letters to colleges and high schools around New Haven trying to find teams to scrimmage. By Mifflin’s junior year, women’s field hockey became a club sport with its own equipment and volunteer coach. A year later, with guidance from the newly named Associate Athletic Director for women, Joni Barnett, women’s field hockey was named Yale’s first varsity women’s sport teams and became an official part of the Ivy League schedule. The same year, women’s squash and tennis joined field hockey, as the founding members of each team prepared to graduate.
Once the team was formed, Mifflin faced a new challenge: the Yale Daily News. According to Mifflin, the News refused to cover field hockey games during her junior year because the sport was still club-level. When the team became varsity her senior year, she remembers that instead of sending a sports reporter, the News sent a woman with no knowledge of sports. In response, Mifflin “went back to the News office and said … ‘I don’t think it’s fair that you are not covering the women’s team the way you cover the men’s team. If you are going to cover them, you should cover them seriously and with someone knowledgeable and excited to do it.’” She then agreed to review the games of many women’s sports teams at Yale for the remainder of the year. Mifflin relates this incident to a similar experience she had as a sports writer at the New York Daily News, when she was able to attend the Montreal Olympics because no male reporters would cover women’s basketball, gymnastics or track and field.
Despite her now-famed status as a trailblazer for women’s sports at Yale, Mifflin said that all she wanted was a fair and accepting environment to do what she loves: “I didn’t want to become a pioneer for an activity at Yale, I just wanted to play.”
Ellen Marshall ’71 encountered the same lack of resources in her pursuit of extracurricular singing opportunities that Mifflin did in athletics. “When I arrived on campus as a transfer student from Smith in fall of 1969, there was nothing for women to sing in. Period,” Marshall said. “The impression that we women got as new students was that no one had really thought about that. They thought about how to integrate a sociology department, but they didn’t think about singing.”
Accompanied by a small cohort of female singers, Marshall approached then-Glee Club conductor Fenno Heath about starting a group for women. Within weeks, Marshall was a founding member of the Yale Women’s Chorus, a subsidiary of the Yale Glee Club, as well as the Freshman Glee Club, the Apollo Glee Club and Yale’s first female a cappella group, New Blue.
Drawing from a relatively small female student body, Marshall reflected that in its first year, New Blue had “twelve women audition for twelve spots.” Even with their limited numbers, Marshall remembers the group’s commitment to creating a community and repertoire from nothing, rehearsing six days a week, composing all their own arrangements and recording a vinyl at the end of the first year, despite the difficulties they faced finding performance venues.
The integration of the Glee Club was a more unexpected victory. Toward the end of the school year, two tour organizers from the all-male Glee Club approached Marshall about recruiting the Women’s Chorus for the Glee Club’s summer tour as a means of ensuring funding for the trip.
“They thought, ‘Let’s see if we can make this mixed chorus work,’ Marshall said. “And so, we did. I was game for it and said why not.” The group began the tour as two separate choirs, but the following fall, then-Glee Club President Robert Bonds ’71 offered her a role as co-president. “It was a happy ending,” Marshall recalled.
In contrast to the experiences of Mifflin and Marshall, many women interested in activities that already had strong male traditions at Yale, like the Yale Daily News, Yale Radio and the Yale Afro-African American Cultural Center, entered these activities either on their own or as one of only a few women.
Caroline Jackson Smith ’74, one of the first female members of the Black Student Alliance (BSAY) and the Afro-American Cultural Center, remembers that though some women had secured leadership positions, “it was still a pretty new thing for us to be part of the leadership.” Despite the relatively nurturing environment within BSAY, Smith acknowledged, “I feel like we kind of had to prove ourselves in the beginning.”
Mally Cox-Chapman ’73 also recalls the nerves associated with joining the News her sophomore year: “I didn’t go through the [heeling] process. That I was intimidated by the idea of joining an all-male organization was pretty clearly why I didn’t try out for it freshman year. I just couldn’t see it going well.”
Instead, in the spring of her sophomore year, Cox-Chapman entered the News building with four articles ready for publication, entitled “Women at Yale: a 2-Year Perspective.” One article, entitled, “Five Sexists Lament,” detailed Cox-Chapman’s experience interviewing five “self-avowed sexists” about their thoughts on women’s presence at Yale. The interview gives insights into some of the residual resentment toward the concept of the Yale “superwoman” and the perceived attention the first classes of woman received from the media and from the University. In the published version of her May 1971 article, Cox-Chapman wrote, “They complained that the women ‘had all these articles written about them like they were goddamn superwomen. Hell, it’s just college. They all think they’re such hotshots.’” Despite her initial anxieties, the editorial board welcomed Cox-Chapman with open arms, and she joined the board the following year.
Elaine David ’71, the first female member of WYBC Yale Radio, also recalls hostile sentiments when looking back on her early years at Yale. “The first semester was kind of a process of tiptoeing into the water, and I say that for both men and the women,” she said. “Some of that had to do with the residual unhappiness that women were there at all. It was certainly an adjustment to seeing women every single day around the clock, as opposed to the occasional mixers or on the weekends.”
The arrival of the first female classes at the University marked a significant change in the fabric of life on campus, as the broader political and social context of the late 1960s and early 1970s seeped through Yale’s iron gates. This period of radical change not only influenced the way women were perceived in certain student groups but also informed the activities and attitudes of the organizations in which they participated. In an era of protest, integration, and rock’n’roll, women at Yale forged their paths ahead.
The Decade of Non-Conformists
Though the arrival of female students marked a major shift in Yale campus life, the changes occurring within Yale were at times overshadowed by the political and social turbulence of the outside world. “The fact that there was so much social turmoil going on outside of campus made the integration of the women into the academic or social aspects of campus sort of into a side note,” recalled Marshall, of the Yale Glee Club.
Contemporary national events — most notably the Vietnam War — contributed to a mood of political activism on campus. One particularly defining event in Marshall’s memory was the shooting of a group of unarmed college students at Kent State University in Ohio. She remembers the event leaving the Yale community shaken; all students were sent home without taking finals exams. The week of the shootings coincided with the Glee Club’s first ever coed rehearsals in preparation for their summer tour.
“It was a remarkable juxtaposition of the social justice stuff going all around us as we’re learning our music during a week of intensive rehearsals,” she recalled. It was the 70s, and past Yale traditions were under siege as never before.
The class of 1973 was momentous for a number of reasons: in addition to being the first class of four-year female graduates, it also boasted the highest number of black students and public school graduates in history. This demographic shift within the college, complemented by the ideological leanings of the era, defined the lives of Yale’s first generation of women. Jackson-Smith, in particular, remembers a highly political atmosphere at Yale both in the black community and the greater student body. She described how emerging from the civil rights movement and leading into black power and women’s liberation there was a sense that the United States was finally turning a corner: “I think we felt like we were on the upswing of history,” she said.
Many student groups harnessed the era’s progressive atmosphere to work on becoming more inclusive toward women. Within a few years, Jackson-Smith said, women had become confident enough to rise to leadership positions within BSAY and the Afro-American Cultural Center.
Cox-Chapman remembers fondly how, while working as the first woman on the News’ managing board, the gender dynamics would melt away as everyone in the building worked together into the late hours of the night. For Cox-Chapman, the environment at the News offered some respite from the gender politics of dining hall seating arrangements: “Are you going to go find the few women who are there? Are you going to go sit with the men? What is their reaction to having you sit with them? That’s a lot more fraught than going over and you’ve all got a clear deadline that needs to be met and needs to be met soon.”
Meanwhile, David was also forming friendships across gender lines while working at the radio station of WYBC. “By second semester I felt like a lot of the barriers and defensiveness and ambiguity had dissipated,” she said. “I felt more like I was part of the community than I had in my first semester.”
David spent Saturday nights with fellow WYBC members playing music on the closed circuit AM station and taking in calls from the campus community. Broadcasting on the closed circuit meant that they could be more liberal in selecting content. She remembers broadcasters asking listeners who called in to name a song, then appending the phrase “between the sheets” to the end of the sentence.
“It was a riot,” David said. “It was very funny, it was edgy, it was sexual content that everybody laughed at.” It was the time of San Francisco and progressive rock after all: “Sex, drugs and rock and roll, that’s not an exaggeration. There was just a lot of room for experimenting,” she added. Real sexism still existed around her, she said, but the radio community made her feel like part of the gang.
While women eventually managed to create a space on campus for themselves, the journey to becoming involved in different levels of campus culture was a long one that continued long after the graduation of Yale’s first women.
The 1980s: A 10-Year Perspective
By the end of the 1970s, female students had assumed a more established place on campus, as female enrollment increased and women began to gain power in many prominent on-campus organizations. However, the social environment still presented challenges to women seeking major leadership positions.
In 1985, Peggy Mann Berenblum ’88 founded Yale’s first sorority, Kappa Alpha Theta. She hoped to create a gathering space for women and maintain the female friendships she had formed freshmen year. As a student, Mann Berenblum felt a sense of inequality in the fact that fraternities existed on campus while sororities did not. While Mann Berenblum recalls encountering many levels of administrative bureaucracy in her mission to establish Theta on campus, her biggest hurdle for the first years of the organization was finding new members.
“It was really difficult to get women to join because they had no idea why to join except the idea of trying to keep women together and do fun activities together and meet women you wouldn’t necessarily meet,” Mann Berenblum said. The first pledge class had only 10 women, but, over the years, Mann Berenblum saw the group grow and change. It became not just a space for women to meet other women, but a center of community engagement and female leadership.
The following year, as Mann Berenblum continued to spearhead efforts to establish Theta on campus, the Yale College Council elected their second female chair, Mary Elizabeth Magill ’88. During the alumni weekend that she attended as a speaker during her term as the YCC chair, an alumnus asked about her thoughts on coeducation. She recalls feeling “extremely odd to be asked this question, since it didn’t feel like a recent change.”
Then Magill was tapped by a certain secret society that for years had been rumored to tap the chairs of the YCC. The supposed reason: That society, and two more of the most well-known ones, were still restricted to males. Magill said she had never been interested in joining a society. Still, she found it odd that single-gender societies continued to exist at Yale, especially after so many years of coeducation.
Despite Theta’s eventual success, the founding of the group was not enthusiastically welcomed by everyone on campus. Mann Berenblum specifically remembers the News’ publication of a series of comic strips mocking the women who joined Theta. “It was still a male-dominated university,” says Mann Berenblum. “So it was easy to make fun of women starting women’s groups.”
Fifteen years after integration, women continued to face some of the same institutional and social hurdles as the inaugural classes, yet they persisted in creating social spaces for themselves within the male-dominated extracurricular scene.
Upon graduation from Yale, these early generations of Yale women carried the pioneering spirit of their college years into their professional lives, breaking down institutional barriers and achieving many more “firsts” in their lives after college. Forty years later, the women with whom we spoke still keep their time and memories at Yale close to their hearts. Throughout our interviews, many expressed optimism that the organizations they helped to found and integrate continue to grow and embrace the opportunity of fostering the next generation of strong female leaders. In light of changes in gender demographics from the 1970s to the present-day — women now comprise nearly 50 percent of the student body — many of the women hope that this numerical parity brings with it equal representation and respect for women at Yale.
When reflecting on her time at the News, Cox-Chapman considers the prestige associated with a Yale Daily News editorial position. As an alumna, she hopes that the positions remain as prestigious now that women are receiving more recognition on the editorial board. To us, she remarked, “I hope it would be the same, I hope it would mean that women take that prestige with them, too.”
Magill also noted changes to the YCC election process since the time she served as a chair. In her time, there were no campus wide elections, so she did not have a formal campaign platform. Rather, council members elected her after she gave a speech. When informed about the lack of a female YCC president in the last nine years, Magill questioned whether the evolved structure of the election process may have affected the outcome: “It is such a different thing to be elected from a council of 23 other people who you’ve worked with for a year. I don’t think I would have wanted to run campuswide.”
Still, many are pleased to see that the organizations in which they were involved still exist at Yale and continue to attract women. David of the WYBC was quite happy to hear from her friends that many more women are now involved with radio than during her time. “It can’t be just a function of the fact that there are more women undergraduates now than when we were there,” she said. “It sounds like an activity that draws women and that’s great.”
Similarly, Berenblum remarks that she had never expected Theta to become as integral to the Yale community as it is now.
When looking back on the many of achievements of the first women of Yale College, it is imperative to acknowledge that the presence of women on campus has been a reality for only two generations. The vast majority of the 300-year history of Yale has been defined by male leadership inside and outside of the classroom. We should not view current dynamics on campus as a matter of coincidence. Instead, we must acknowledge the deep and persistent ties between Yale’s demographic history and its culture today.
Ryan Howzell | firstname.lastname@example.org
Eren Kafadar | email@example.com