Through the Glass
For decades, women at Yale have lived in a fishbowl. Could I escape it by ignoring it?
I have an adversarial relationship with clothes. My reactions to “What Not to Wear” and “American Ninja Warrior” are the same — “I could never do that.” My off-mannequin forays at the mall frequently end as misadventures; even when an outfit checks all the stylistic boxes, I’m consumed by tucking and untucking, pulling up and pulling down, because it somehow never feels just right. Besides, I’ve decided with some post hoc rationalization magic: I don’t want to care about clothes. That would be a waste of my very precious time. So, it’s with a manufactured pride that I raid my father’s closet for his oldest sweatshirts with the least shape, turn my mother down every time she asks to go shopping for nice shoes and stubbornly avoid any events that require dressing up. In high school, my deliberate nonchalance slowly baked into the morning routine of throwing fabric onto my body until the absence of effort and action became inexorable. It was rote, part of who I was.
Coming to Yale I expected more of the same. No need to fish for validation through hair futzing and clothes fidgeting rituals because I already had it — I’d made it to the top. Then I looked up and saw that the real top, made of impressively grand buildings and statues, was firmly colonized by men. Between 1968 and 1969, the number of women students at Yale went from zero to 500, but the campus remained static. Gently pushed into the Sterling Memorial Library manuscript reading room by a class, I wanted to put this turning point under a microscope, to watch it happen in slow motion. Piecing together fragile newspaper clippings, monochrome photographs, poems and dozens more yellowing documents, I saw a Yale emerge that was at once thankfully alien and yet terrifyingly familiar: Speaking as someone who lives on the first floor, I can testify that Yale no longer sequesters women in the upper floors of colleges for their own safety, but I received roughly the same pamphlet as the one released by the first Women’s Center detailing all the ways I can prevent my own sexual assault.
I pictured the women taking their first steps onto Old Campus, 50 years ago now. They pass under Phelps Gate, looking up at the banner painted “Yale University Police Welcomes Guys & Dolls of ’73,” before being swarmed by the notebooks and cameras of national news outlets. Journalists and photographers from the likes of Newsweek and Life magazine had descended upon New Haven to pepper, pry and prod the coeds for sensational, fit-to-print quotes. When the women were asked about their thoughts about being on the vanguard of modernity and postcollegiate ambitions, I wonder if they knew The New York Times would color in their answers with details of the hair dryers they brought, the length of their skirts and the shyness of their laughter. Women described an existence as “exotic” and “curiosit[ies]” in the minds of their male peers. Under the gaze of all Yale men, the University administration and now the whole country, they were destined for a fishbowl existence.
Between the male students’ attitude of “a child who finally gained a long-desired toy,” as the Yale Undergraduate Women’s Caucus of 1975 put it, and the horde of lenses pointed at the women’s lives, perhaps it was inevitable that an assault would end up on a roll of film. In the black and white photograph, a man in a suit pulls up the hem of a girl’s plaid skirt as she walks away. Her face is hidden; to the cameraperson, to the man with his hand on her, she is only the skirt. I hoped she was not the same skirt-clad woman the Times had ogled earlier. I think she’d hate that skirt, blame it, maybe even burn it for becoming the only thing people see about her.
But maybe I’m projecting. Because that’s what I would do. My clothes put up walls because I don’t want people to look at me. I want them to listen to me and looking too long makes it hard to hear.
I could barely put words to the feeling until I read professor Margaret Homans ’74 describe in the book “Reflections on Coeducation: A Critical History of Women at Yale” how as a student she wore a “baggy brown woolen jumper” to feel “ungendered in a space that often felt toxically gendered and sexualized.” The relief that comes from a new kind of solidarity — the kind where finally you know you’re neither crazy nor alone — is immense. I don’t fear for myself the fate of the plaid-skirted girl in the photo the way Homans probably did, but I dress defensively all the same. If I make a mistake at the board in calculus while wearing my blue jeans and an extra large sweater, maybe I can spare my fellow women from an ugly, persistent stereotype about our mathematical abilities. Maybe I can close my eyes and put my fingers in my ears and believe the glass above me is gone.
Pants were supposed to be the great equalizer. Yale men interviewed about the new addition to campus repeatedly spoke of how the freshwomen’s jeans and slacks made them equals on the quad and in the classroom. Yet even their comfort was politicized, imbued with an imaginary agenda. Dresses and skirts made them a “dumb broad,” and pants made them “over-intelligent” and “boring.” When will the double bind no longer bind femininity into a universal experience?
Constant commentary on their appearance must have been obnoxious but eventually numbing — easier to tune out after four years. Truly chilling is the experience of listening to others speak about you as if you weren’t there. I pressed play on an audiotape of Yale President Kingman Brewster Jr. debating students in Trumbull College on coeducation’s implementation. A boy analogizes the addition of women as being “tossed a piece of meat” because “these girls who will be in Trumbull will be sort of our domain, we have first shot at them.” My stomach turned, and goose bumps rippled up my arm. The fate of Yale’s first women was put completely at the mercy of rooms just like these, where they had no presence and no personhood.
When the tension broke and the whole room laughed, the men unleashed an uproar composed entirely of bass. In her testimony, Christine Blasey Ford told Congress that “indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter.” At the time, I didn’t understand how that could be her singular memory, but I do now. Laughter is so primeval and revealing. I had been party to a conversation I was never meant to hear.
The tape clicked off after the static ended, and I was left with a disgust and regret I’d felt only one time before. During a long bus ride with the boys’ tennis team in high school, the upperclassmen surrounded a sophomore and began spitting out the names of girls in his class. I listened to him systematically rate each with a number between one and ten or discard them with a simple “ew.” Did they forget I was there? Had I ever come up in one of their lists? How could they tap on the fishbowl, point and jeer, believing it was soundproof?
In 1969, chair of the University Committee on Coeducation Elga Wasserman laid out a vision for the inaugural class of women: “I would like to see you here as Yale students rather than as Yale women.” Decades later, my reality finally fulfills her wish. It’s so rare that I’m subjected to the condescension and dismissal the first freshwomen endured daily that I can easily convince myself of sexism’s obsolescence. After all, a world that isn’t working against you is a far easier one to live in.
But the archives have shaken me a little. Pouring over records of Yale women’s pasts forced me into an uncomfortable confrontation with my present. The laughter of the Trumbull men will forever be fused with the laughter of the bus ride, planting a seed of distrust. The faint outline of glass surrounding me has started to come into view, so perhaps I’d rather take off these lenses, make it disappear and agree to never ask again.
I could try to fight the vestiges of injustice that remain. But to pound against the fishbowl until it shatters, I must acknowledge it exists. And then wouldn’t that simply place me back within its walls? The 588 women who came to Yale to break open a man’s world did not have this choice. Their discomfort wasn’t optional, but it drove them to persist so that mine eventually could be. I don’t think one option is better — this is part of the freedom the class of 1973 and its successors earned — but I do think one is braver. I’m not sure I’ve chosen it.