In 1969, Yale College opened its doors to female students for the first time. But when these women first walked onto campus, they were in the stark minority.
Two hundred and thirty women enrolled in the first-year class of 1973 and were joined by 151 sophomores and 194 juniors who transferred from 86 different institutions. Back then, these women made up less than 15 percent of the student body. Today, Yale College is more demographically diverse than ever and boasts a nearly 50 percent female student population. Looking back at their time in the Elm City, those first women celebrate their courage and resilience as well as the progress Yale has made over the past five decades.
“You had to have a little bit of a thick skin and a little bit of a spirit of adventure — or maybe just masochism — to put yourself in the position of being the first of anything,” Joan Winant ’73 said in an interview with the News. “The path is long, the path can be arduous, but great rewards follow from some level of hard work and sacrifice.”
The School of Art was the first to welcome a female student in 1869, followed soon after by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Medicine in 1892 and 1916, respectively. Forty years later, Dean of Admissions Arthur Howe Jr. ’47 reportedly mentioned the possibility of coeducation at Yale College in a private meeting. In response to the intense public debate that ensued, then-President A. Whitney Griswold said, “There is not the remotest possibility of [coeducation] taking place at Yale within the foreseeable future.”
And 13 years later he was proven wrong.
In 1963, Griswold left Yale’s top administrative office to be succeeded by President Kingman Brewster Jr., who began investigating the possibility of creating a coordinate women’s college in New Haven. Three years later, the University was in conversation with Vassar College, the most likely candidate for a sister school. A joint committee looked into the logistics of such a partnership, but Vassar’s Board of Trustees unanimously rejected the proposed merger to protect the school’s endowment and historical identity. It seemed, then, that Griswold may have been right.
The decision to coeducate came unexpectedly — Yale hosted a coeducation week in 1968 that culminated in a demonstration on Cross Campus advocating for the University to admit female students to the College. The next day, then-President Brewster announced that women would be admitted as undergraduates in the fall of 1969.
Kathryn Murphy ’71 attended Coeduation Week in 1968; she was one of 750 women from 22 institutions in the program. The event welcomed female students to participate in all aspects of University life, from attending classes to staying in residential colleges. Murphy began her college education in the fall of that year at Mount Holyoke, one of the “Seven Sisters” colleges named for their prestige and selectivity.
But when Murphy heard that Yale would accept women in the fall of 1969, she submitted her application for transfer. Murphy became one about 150 women to transfer from the Seven Sisters into the Yale classes of 1971 and 1972.
Transfer students were spread out across campus, with anywhere from 12 to 20 residing in each of the twelve colleges. In contrast, all 230 first-year women lived together in Vanderbilt Hall — an experience that Eve Rice ’73 remembers as building a strong sense of camaraderie.
“[It was a] whole hall full of women,” she said in an interview with the News. “It gave us an advantage of being able to meet other freshmen women that the transfers who were housed out in the individual colleges didn’t have.”
Women in the classes of 1971 and 1972 also shared another aspect of their experience — None of the male students in their graduating classes had enrolled in Yale knowing the University would be coeducational. In her time in New Haven, Rice perceived a slightly negative sense among upperclassmen men. According to Rice, older male students felt that they were being pushed out of spaces they “owned.” However, first-year men were prepared to share their classes and colleges with female students from the start of their Yale experience.
That sentiment was even more profound among Yale graduates. Many expressed concerns that female students would take places rightfully reserved for their children or for other men — it was this concern, in fact, that prompted discussions of the Vassar merger in 1966.
Winant remembers an graduate tell her that she became “one of those horrible women that changed Yale and made it worse” by enrolling.
Overall, however, the women interviewed by the News shared positive accounts of their time at Yale, recalling their experience in the Elm City as eye-opening and transformative.
“It was the first place I had ever been where a smart woman could be accepted,” said Rice. “It was not cool in my high school, and one of the things I have always loved about Yale was that it was the first time I felt that it was normal and it was okay to be smart. And I think that was a great gift.”
According to Murphy, Yale was a place that showcased students who were passionate about all sorts of different subjects. The art and culture surrounding Yale was “like going to a candy store.”
For Pam Huntington ’72, Yale was a unique space compared to most in the late 60s. Coming from a Catholic high school and Vassar, she enjoyed a sense of “complete freedom” in New Haven. Unlike her previous academic experiences, female students were allowed to wear what they wanted and to come and go from their dorms as they pleased at Yale.
Rice, who now co-chairs the Steering Committee for 50WomenAtYale150, noted that working on oral and written histories has highlighted the diversity of first female classes’ time in New Haven.
“A lot of observers have tried to make one history out of this, and my suggestion is that people think of it differently. There is no one history, that every single woman had a different experience at Yale and I think particularly in those days,” said Rice. “It’s really hard to group them, and would encourage people over time to try to find these other sources that we are creating and try to understand them in their fullness.”
Huntington had one female lecturer during her time at Yale. Today, 38 percent of tenured professors at Yale are women.
Mackenzie Hawkins | firstname.lastname@example.org
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