For current faculty members and students who attend this coming weekend’s celebration of coeducation in Yale College, the name Elga Wasserman LAW ’76 will be heard often but not universally recognized.
Elga, her parents and her brother had to leave Nazi Germany in the face of anti-Semitism. They eventually settled on Long Island, and Elga attended Smith College and earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Harvard. She was married to a fellow graduate student, Harry Wasserman, and they settled in New Haven when Harry joined the Chemistry Department as a ladder faculty member. According to the times, the most Elga could expect was to be named a research assistant in chemistry. After the birth of her three children, Elga returned to Yale and became an assistant dean of the Graduate School. She was in that position when then-President Kingman Brewster chose her to lead the effort to bring about the coeducation of Yale College in 1968.
The decision for Yale College to admit women was made by the president and fellows of the Yale Corporation, but in many ways, that was the easy decision. It was followed by the need to implement the decision in a very short period of time — less than one year — and Elga was put in charge.
Given her background, it should be no surprise that Elga developed a true “vision” of what coeducation meant. To her, admitting the women and seeing them safely settled at Yale was, of course, a pressing obligation. But it was only part of her vision. She believed that real coeducation meant not just admitting undergraduate women. It also meant there should be equal numbers of men and women students in all of Yale; it meant there should be equal numbers of women and men in the faculty and senior administration. Also part of her vision was that Yale’s identity had to change. Yale was a masculine institution. One need only read “Stover at Yale” or an issue of the News in the early 1960s to know that the atmosphere in the institution was profoundly masculine. There were few women’s bathrooms; the Yale College faculty was almost 100 percent male; the Yale Club of New York made women guests (women could not be members) enter through a back door; Mory’s refused to have female members and the senior societies initially declined to admit women students. We often forget that institutions, like individuals, have identities, and those identities often are reluctant to change.
It is hardly a surprise that Elga’s vision went far beyond just the admission of 500 women to Yale College. As she led those who worked with her to accomplish the administrative details of this effort, she never neglected to remind the institution, its president, trustees and faculty members — all who worked here — that there was a higher goal: making all of Yale coeducational in every sense of the word. And like all great crusaders, she was not content to work for the present and pray for the future. She wanted it all to happen now. Alas, like so many crusaders, she was unable to move some of the obstacles out of her way. She left Yale proud of her accomplishments, but sad that her great vision had not been achieved. Undeterred, she went to Yale Law School in her late 40s, became a fine lawyer and national proponent of education for women. Elga was above all, kind, decent, ethically motivated and determined. She died in 2014 at the age of 90.
Universities are quick to name buildings and major programs after wealthy donors and people who have become nationally and internationally famous, but they are quick to forget the lower-level faculty and staff members who have labored to make the institution great from the inside.
Elga Wasserman’s name should be carved prominently somewhere at Yale — perhaps in the Schwarzman Center where students and faculty members from all schools will congregate, perhaps on the newly renovated Hall of Graduate Studies where Elga began her administrative career. We must not be allowed to forget that she started an effort that is ours to complete.
Sam Chauncey was special assistant to the president of Yale at the time of coeducation’s start. He is retired and lives in New Haven. Contact him at email@example.com .