On Oct. 30 of this year, The New York Times published an article by Claire Cain Miller with the headline “‘A Very Unwelcome Feeling’: the First Women at Yale Look Back,” which described some of the difficulties faced by the women who began attending Yale College in the fall of 1969. The article was accompanied by a 1970 photograph showing several Yale students sitting in a seminar room. In the center of the picture is a female student writing in a notebook. She is surrounded by three male classmates: one on the left with impressive sideburns looking ahead attentively, one in the background looking bored and me.
I am the 18-year-old freshman with dark-rimmed glasses and a buttoned-down shirt of the style I still favor today, half a century later. I graduated from Yale in 1974 but returned in 1983 to join the School of Medicine faculty, where I remain. During my 36 years on the faculty, I have taught and mentored many undergraduate Yale women in the classroom and in my laboratory. I have thus directly observed and participated in almost the entire history of coeducation of Yale College.
By recounting my experience, I hope to alert the Yale community to obstacles that persist despite the incredible progress that has been made since 1970. Understanding these obstacles will help us identify steps we must take to eliminate them.
My unexpected appearance in the Times brought back memories of the early days of coeducation. Although I was pleased that Yale had admitted women and I did not knowingly contribute to the unwelcoming culture described in the article, in some ways I unwittingly reinforced it.
In the photograph, we were in a Directed Studies literature seminar in Connecticut Hall. After seeing the picture, I went down to the rusty file cabinet in the basement and retrieved the papers I wrote for this class. Yes, I admit, I saved my papers (I could not bring myself to read them, though). I used these papers to reconstruct the syllabus of my course. We read and discussed works by Virgil, William Shakespeare, John Milton, Edgar Allen Poe, Franz Kafka, Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, James Joyce, W.H. Auden and Samuel Beckett. All men. No Jane Austen, Mary Shelley or Virginia Woolfe. The professor was a man. All my professors were men.
The Times article makes clear that the implementation of coeducation at Yale was flawed: Yale did a poor job preparing for the admission of women, welcoming them when they appeared on campus and supporting them once they arrived. These institutional failures spawned a multitude of insults, large and small. The reading list for my literature course is just one example why many of the early women felt unwelcome in Yale College.
Perhaps as pernicious as the insults themselves was the fact that many of the men at Yale did not even notice them. In 1970, did the absence of female authors and female professors strike me as being unusual or unfair? No. Did I even notice it? Not that I recall.
I did think the mantra of “1000 male leaders a year” was silly, but I did not know at the time how difficult it was for the women in my class. Perhaps, we should have read Harper Lee in our literature class. In her masterpiece, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch tells his daughter Scout, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” I did not appreciate what the pioneering women in Yale College went through because I did not really try to understand them.
Fortunately, the generation time in Yale College is short. Turnover is complete in four years. What was unthinkable to the Class of 1968 was the new normal for the Class of 1973. The Class of 1974, my class, had a different experience than students who arrived the year before, because by the time we arrived, the first women had already begun paving the way.
Today, by many measures, coeducation is a great success. The goal of educating 1000 male leaders a year was abandoned long ago, women now make up half of the Yale College class and there are many distinguished women on the faculty. Portraits of women are finally appearing on the halls of Yale and there are residential colleges named for women, honoring them and teaching us about their accomplishments. When the new dean of the School of Medicine arrives next year, most of the schools at Yale will be headed by women.
Despite this progress, too many women at Yale are treated poorly or worse by some of their fellow students, staff or faculty and the hiring and promotion of women on the faculty is still a work in progress. The Yale administration is well aware of these issues and the power imbalance that enables them.
I believe Yale is committed to finding solutions. However, my reflection on my own experience 50 years ago suggests that in addition to these overt problems, women at Yale still face obstacles and injustices that are simply invisible to the men here, however well-intentioned we may be. As the legacy beneficiaries of 270 years of Yale as an all-male institution, we need to learn from the women what barriers remain and then work together with them to understand and dismantle these barriers.
DANIEL DIMAIO ’74, MD, PhD is the Waldemar Von Zedtwitz Professor of Genetics at Yale School of Medicine. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.