In 1905, Florence Bingham Kinne became the first woman to teach at Yale when, 304 years after the University’s founding, she joined the pathology department. More than 100 years later, female professors at Yale continue to blaze a path in academia and advocate for more gender inclusivity.
March is Women’s History Month, and several campus groups, including the Yale Women’s Center, have planned events to celebrate intersectional gender accomplishments. In interviews with the News, female students and professors across campus reflected on women’s contributions to the University and the current circumstances of women in academia and beyond.
“Beyond being role models, professors inform students’ worldview and intellectual development, which is why it is critical for students to have access to faculty with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and voices,” said Ruiyan Wang ’21, public relations coordinator for the Yale Women’s Center and a staff reporter for the News. “Hiring female professors is part of this; it is a step towards equity in higher education and academic thought.”
Priyamvada Natarajan, a professor in the astronomy and physics department who was previously the chair of the Women’s Faculty Forum at Yale, explained that having a diverse staff of women — and especially women of color — helps to dismantle stereotypes of what an authority figure might resemble.
“Having a diverse faculty that thinks, looks and approaches things in a very different way … breaks those kinds of stereotypes,” Natarajan said in an interview with the News. “It encourages the women students, and for all the male students in the class, it’s an eye-opening experience.”
The Women’s Faculty Forum commissions portraits of women associated with Yale to ensure that the visible iconography on campus reflects the University’s diversity and history. In 2016, the group revealed a portrait in Sterling Library of the first seven women to earn doctorate degrees, and last month Kenturah Davis ART ’18 revealed her portrait of Otelia Cromwell, the first African-American to earn a doctorate degree at Yale in 1926.
“We have too many portraits of dead white men,” Natarajan said. “We need more portraits of women.”
Sofía Campoamor ’19, who last month became the first woman picked for the previously all-male a cappella group the Whiffenpoofs, agreed that having female professors often encouraged and inspired her, especially in the small music major, where she would look around classes of about 20 students and see only two or three female classmates. Campoamor stressed the importance of visible representation, saying that the group is in a position to promote a model of intersectional gender equality.
“One thing that was important to me, in wanting to join, was thinking about the audiences that we’ll be performing for, and this is important not just in terms of gender but in terms of race and other backgrounds,” she said. “I think it’s important to have all kinds of people in a group like that that has such international reach and is sort of representing Yale across the world and across the country.”
Professors interviewed emphasized the importance for the University employing professors to whom students can relate and also of mentoring and supporting female professors.
“Yale makes a good effort in hiring women [and] there’s a lot of pressure and advocacy from Women’s Faculty Forum and other groups to increase the diversity of the faculty,” Natarajan said. “However, the key problem has always been for us retaining these very very talented women and women of color, and that’s the reason why I’m really supportive of new innovative mentoring opportunities.”
Mentoring programs have become popular and successful methods that support female faculty. In 2012, when Natarajan was chair of the Women’s Faculty Forum, she piloted a mentorship program, which she called a “roaring success” and which the Women’s Faculty Forum is still directing this year.
Mary Lui, the first female Asian-American to serve as a head of a Yale residential college and the first tenured Asian-American studies professor at Yale, chaired the history department’s mentoring program during the 2013–14 academic year.
“Having senior women who’ve gone through many of those experiences was super helpful [for me], but all of that was very informal, none of it was a formalized process,” Lui told the News. “I am glad now that we do have more of that [formalized mentorship process] in place.”
Heather Gerken, the first female dean of Yale Law School, also highlighted the importance of female role models who “smoothed the path” for her.
Gerken is interested in promoting women in leadership through her position at the law school but also hopes that, in the future, Yale will continue to support gender equality by hiring a faculty that is diverse, both in terms of gender and other underrepresented groups.
“I always tell my female students that some of my most important mentors were men,” Gerken said in an email to the News. “But still, it made a huge difference to see women on the path ahead.”
Chloe Glass | email@example.com