In 1869, Elizabeth Cady Stanton became the first woman to testify in front of the Supreme Court, regarding the formation of a law that would prohibit disenfranchisement on the basis of sex. Later that year, she and Susan B. Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association in New York. That same year in New Haven, two women matriculated to the Yale School of Fine Arts, the school’s — and the University’s — first-ever female students.
One hundred years later, during the summer of 1969, while 500 million people tuned in to watch the first man walk on the moon, and another 350 thousand swayed to music at Woodstock, approximately 500 women were preparing to enter Yale College for the first time. These women, who came to the University as freshman, sophomores and juniors, represented the first classes of female undergraduates who would study at Yale alongside male classmates. Yale followed just behind Princeton, which went coed earlier that year.
To commemorate these two momentous anniversaries, University President Peter Salovey commissioned former trustee and former Vice President for Global and Strategic Initiatives at Yale Linda Lorimer LAW ’77 and current trustee and physician Eve Rice ’73 to chair the Steering Committee tasked with organizing the yearlong celebration of women at Yale.
“We have an amazing confluence. To have the 2019–20 academic year be simultaneously the 50th anniversary of coeducation of Yale College and 150th [anniversary] of admission in the University [at any of the graduate schools],” said Lorimer. “We have the opportunity to punctuate both contributions of women [while] being quite candid about some of the unfinished agenda [thinking about] gender parity.”
Since its inception, the Steering Committee has reached out to organizations and different graduate schools to encourage them to begin designing their own ways of celebrating women.
Lorimer explained that the structure of the 150th anniversary of women at the University will be modeled after Yale’s 300th anniversary in 2001. Specifically, graduate schools and other Yale entities will be allowed to celebrate in the manner that best fits with each institution’s tradition.
“The goal is not to impress some theme from on high,” she told the News. “But rather to have organizations organically bubble up what seems to be authentic for them. Evaluating the role of women, assessing progress, charting the agenda for women, celebrating alums, showcasing women’s work and accomplishments. We wanted to have it [be] pervasive.”
For example, Lorimer told the News that the Yale University Art Gallery, will, for the first time, have an exposition dedicated to showing the work of female Yalies from the College, Art and Architecture Schools. The Yale Symphony Orchestra will devote its entire season to showcasing works by female composers.
And at the Yale Law School, a conference will be held commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Passed in 1920, the 19th Amendment guarantees women the right to vote.
For more general projects, members of the first classes of women to matriculate at Yale are researching audio and written records of their time at the college to compile the information in an online Yale Library Subject Guide.
Events are already planned an academic year in advance and more are still in the making, Lorimer said.
50 Years of Women at Yale
Special attention is being paid to the 50th anniversary of undergraduate women at Yale College.
Rice, who entered Yale as a freshman in 1969, is also leading a smaller committee, called the 50th Anniversary Committee, in charge of organizing a weekend in September designed to “kick off” the yearlong celebration. The weekend, which will celebrate women who integrated the classes of 1971, 1972 and 1973, is scheduled to take place between Sept. 19 and Sept. 22, 2019. The committee for the 50th anniversary is made up of six volunteers — two women from each of the three classes which first coeducated the College.
“The 50th [anniversary of the coeducation of Yale College] deserves something quite special,” Lorimer told the News. “Fifty years of women at Yale College deserves some real time and attention. We wanted to give a spotlight on Yale College women [because they] were pioneers.”
Vera Wells ’71, who sits on both the Steering Committee and the 50th Anniversary Committee, told the News that she hopes this event will draw women who may not always attend class reunions.
“We want to let it be known that to every woman who showed up in 1969 … [that this event] will be interesting to everyone,” Wells said. “In fact, I’d rather it be repetitive for the women who always come back [to class reunions], than not get as many people as possible.”
President of the Yale College Council and member of the Steering Committee Saloni Rao ’20 told the News that she noticed that it seemed like a lot of the focus in planning the 50th anniversary was on alumnae, rather than on current undergraduates. She explained that there were only two current Yale students — she and Savannah Thais GRD ’20 — involved in planning the festivities. Through working with Lorimer, Rice and Dean of Student Affairs Camille Lizarríbar, Rao said she hopes to create “programing which [engages] current college students.”
“We are thinking about ways to creatively engage with women who attended Yale in the past and celebrate current students at the College,” said Rao. “We want to celebrate womanhood and women’s education at Yale for 50 years.”
While Rao’s term as YCC president will end after this spring semester — before the festivities kick off in the fall — she intends to lay the institutional framework to get students thinking about how they can contribute to next year’s celebrations in their own way.
For example, Lorimer explained that she hopes the Yale Debate Association and the Yale Political Union use the anniversaries to talk about women’s history and how it applies to the present and future, both at Yale and around the world.
“I’m really looking forward to having really critical conversations about how far [women] have come in such a short period of time,” said Rao. “Women have gone from not being able to study here, to holding some of the largest leadership positions on campus. That’s something to celebrate.”
Still, as the preparations continue, some have voiced concerns about the way the 50th anniversary is being handled.
One person who is familiar with the work of the committee, who spoke to the News on the condition of anonymity, said they fear there has not been enough institutional backing for the 50th anniversary of integrating Yale College.
They were unsatisfied with the volunteer model of the reunion and said that the committee has “tons of work,” while the Association of Yale Alumni “doesn’t do much.”
When asked to comment, Weili Cheng ’77, executive director of the AYA, said that her organization is “supporting the planning and execution of the events.”
“It is important to have alumnae participate in the planning of these milestone celebrations to ensure that the events reflect their interests and their thinking and have their support,” Cheng said. “While there have been various viewpoints on how best to celebrate these anniversaries, we are fortunate to have enthusiastic alumnae willing to come together in this effort.”
Wells described the relationship between the committee and the AYA as an “ongoing conversation.”
“My position is that the women who arrived in 1969 were courageously changing the course of Yale’s history with very small numbers [of fellow women] and with little structural support from the University,” the anonymous source told the News in a phone interview. “What this group of 500 women did was akin to racial desegregation. [This is] supposed to be a celebration of women. If the University wants to do this, it should be in a way that recognizes the bravery of what these women did.”
They say that their biggest gripe with how the University has handled planning the 50th anniversary celebration is that Yale has provided “meager” funding.
Several people familiar with the committee’s work have voiced displeasure with the fact that the “50th Anniversary of Women at Yale” event will require an attendance fee, although records indicate that Yale College class reunions abide by the same practice.
“I was shocked to hear that [members of the committee] are still planning to charge women to come to this,” said the anonymous source. “If the University is going to do this, and they are serious, why are they doing it like this? Yale seems more interested in the 150th. There seems to be a buy-in for that that there isn’t for the 50th. The 50th seems like a stepchild of the whole thing. It’d be like you throwing yourself a birthday party.”
In response to that sentiment, Rice told the News that “nothing could be further from the truth.” She said that from the beginning, the event “had to be really special” and a “truly memorable occasion.” She explained that the committee has a “superb lineup” and that the program elements are coming together “quite nicely.”
“The members of the 50th committee, the AYA staff and the many volunteers who have helped the committee have been working on the event for well over a year,” Rice said. “During this time, we have received generous University funding for the event itself and ancillary projects, abundant support from AYA — in staff time, communications, research, scheduling, booking, etc. — and access to individuals all over the University who have provided further help and support. … In other words, all doors have been open to us and people all over the University, from President Salovey on down, are excited by this anniversary and eager to participate.”
While Lorimer called the fee “modest,” the anonymous source explained that what bothered them was the principle of charging women to attend.
Cheng told the News that the registration fee “reduces the number of ‘no shows’” and helps organizers plan logistics and be fiscally responsible. She noted that the registration fee for the September event will only cover a “fraction of the full cost [of the 50th anniversary events].” Lorimer explained that what is not covered by the attendance fee will be provided by the University.
“I would also note that we are committed to ensuring that no one will be turned away from the 50th celebration because of an inability to pay the registration fee,” said Cheng.
Lorimer explained that by “highly subsidizing” this event, the University is departing from its normal practices.
Rice added that she “understands that some alumni may be upset,” but that “institutions need to make choices and Yale is making a very reasonable choice.”
Princeton, which also coeducated its undergraduate classes in 1969, held a free celebration of alumnae — called “She Roars: Celebrating Women at Princeton” — this past October. During that weekend, as part of the celebration, the university held a conversation between alumnae Supreme Court Associate Justices Sonia Sotomayor LAW ’79 and Elena Kagan, as well as a keynote address by comedian Ellie Kemper.
While Cheng declined to comment on the Princeton “She Roars,” she said that she is “very pleased that Yale has enthusiastically committed significant resources to the celebration, including funding and staffing.”
While the arrival of the first female undergraduates at Yale College disrupted campus status quo, the year 1969 ushered in a frenzy of activity to New Haven, which quickly brought conflict of other kinds to Yale’s gates.
That year, tensions were growing across the nation between government officials and the Black Panther Party, a group urging the self-defense of black communities against institutionalized racism. In the spring of 1969, the New Haven police uncovered the body of 19-year-old Black Panther party member Alex Rackley in a river. Rackley had been murdered by fellow members of the party because he had allegedly leaked information to law enforcement.
Charged with the murder were national Black Panther leader Bobby Seale and New Haven chapter leader Ericka Huggins, along with seven other party members. To protest the accusations, some 15,000 Black Panthers flooded the streets of New Haven on May 1, 1970, whom Yale invited to reside on campus under the direction of then-president Kingman Brewster Jr. ’41. According to Brewster’s 1988 New York Times obituary, Brewster allegedly shocked listeners by stating he was, “skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States.’’
The decision to admit female students was largely based on Brewster’s actions, whose policies were met with scorn by many alumni. Under Brewster, Yale relaxed its admissions guidelines, allowing in students of color as well as women while also putting more stock into applicants’ academic performance than legacy.
According to the New England Historical Society website, Yale officials and visiting Black Panther members struck a deal in the spring of 1970: Yale would do its best to keep members of law enforcement and the National Guard out of the New Haven Green, and the Panther party would preach an atypically nonviolent message as they protested the trials of their leaders
Peace continued throughout the trials, with the exception of a nonlethal bombing at Ingalls Rink on May 1, 1970. Tensions rose on campus as Yale students demanded that classes be suspended, but the situation stopped short of a riot as Kurt Schmoke ’71, a student leader involved in the Black Students Alliance at Yale and his class’s secretary, negotiated with school administrators to recategorize all spring classes as pass-fail.
The early 1970s were also a hotbed of student protests against the Vietnam War, from which the United States withdrew in 1973 after signing a peace agreement with North Vietnam. Alice Young ’71, who was among the first female cohort to attend Yale College and a junior during the protest, said that while the admission of women to Yale was certainly a newsworthy event, anti-war sentiment amid the Black Panther trials took some attention off the first female students.
“There was a lot that was happening in that period,” said Young. “Depending on what people cared about, the focus could have been in any number of directions.”
Despite the frenzy in New Haven, however, the first women at Yale still felt the spotlight in some aspects. According to several women in the first three classes to attend Yale, the school was lacking in necessary accommodations, such as gym locker rooms and bathrooms in Sterling Memorial Library. Young added that the bathroom mirrors were mounted so high above the sink that someone of her height had to jump in order to see herself.
The co-chair of the written history project for the 50th anniversary, Barbara Wagner ’73, explained in a phone interview with the News that she did not attribute these issues of accommodation to discrimination.
“They tried very hard to adjust and adapt,” Wagner said of Yale’s administration at the time. “The decision had been made fairly quickly, and partly they didn’t even know what the women were going to want, so they didn’t create a lot of things until we got to the campus.”
Wagner added that while Yale did not explicitly ask women for feedback, she felt perfectly comfortable going to her counselor or dean for help if she needed it. Joyce Majure ’73 described Yale’s effort to welcome women to campus as well-intentioned, if clumsy, noting that she thought many of her male classmates didn’t see their female counterparts as women, but rather as peers.
Wagner then explained the difference between Yale’s efforts to coeducate and those of the University of Virginia, which became coed due to a court order. She told the story of a friend whose professor claimed she had never turned in her lab reports when in fact she had, causing her to fail her biology lab.
“[People at Yale were] well-intentioned but just didn’t have a lot of experience with women in classes, or women in some different capacity, and they were trying very hard,” added Wagner. “And I think you can contrast it with UVA, where it was like, ‘We don’t want you here, we’re not going to do anything to help you,’ so begrudgingly, ‘Good luck and maybe you’ll make it.’”
Majure qualified her comments, admitting that some men at Yale had a certain opinion of women in college. Before Yale admitted female students, Majure said that women from neighboring colleges like Vassar and Albertus Magnus were “bused in” on weekends, providing a “convenient outlet for [men’s] energies.” Though Majure was annoyed by that particular fact of campus culture during her college years, she added that anyone’s freshman year of college is an adjustment, no matter the school. Many of the alumnae in the first female cohort who the News interviewed shared similar sentiments.
Andrea DaRif ’73 ART ’74 echoed Majure, explaining to the News that many freshmen women were nervous simply because they were beginning their college careers. And despite experiences that may have exacerbated freshmen fears — DaRif remembers a class of 50 men staring at her as she, the only woman, took her seat in a lecture — some women simply adapted.
“We learned we could go in and say, ‘No this isn’t right, we should have XYZ,’” said DaRif. “It gave us all a certain self-confidence. … We weren’t afraid of going to men and saying that, because that’s how you got along at Yale. And I think that really carried over into later life.”
According to many alumnae interviewed by the News, a major characteristic of the early classes was self-reliance, especially in sports. One of DaRif’s friends started the women’s field hockey team, while DaRif herself graduated as a member of the varsity squash team. Wagner captained the first Yale gymnastics team, while the women’s tennis team evolved quickly because of the small number of players required to form a team.
While the Yale administration faced opposition from alumni, faculty and students in their decision to admit women, some male students were delighted at the outcome and had lobbied for women’s admission prior to 1969. According a 2009 article in the Yale Alumni Magazine, undergraduates rallied both in person and on paper, even writing several “imperious” pieces for the News. Their efforts culminated in a “Coeducation Week” in which women from surrounding colleges spent a week on Yale’s campus in 1968.
Though Yale had originally planned a merger with Vassar College in which Vassar would become to Yale what the women’s college Radcliffe was to Harvard, the deal fell through. Faced with student pressure and the fear of losing new male students to the other coed Ivy League schools, in 1968, Yale’s board of trustees voted to admit women the following year.
As next September approaches and the Steering Committee grapples with how best to organize the ceremonies, preparations will continue towards a celebration that will commemorate a journey of coeducation 150 years in the making.
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