Courtesy of Mara Levitt
As part of the celebration of 50 years of coeducation at Yale College, members of the “first women at Yale” cohort — those who graduated in 1971, 1972 or 1973 — contributed to the Written History Project, which was meant to collect and preserve the history of coeducation at Yale College. But some alumnae were upset upon learning last month that their names would be removed from some of their testimony.
The project managers will publish the final book in two versions — a private one that included the names of contributors and an index of the writers, and a public one, which removed their names from their testimony.
Beginning in September 2019, when the project was first introduced, 141 women submitted testimony to the Written History Project. Two explicitly requested anonymity, and the rest submitted testimony using their names. Upon submission, the women signed a release — a copy of which was obtained by the News — which gave the University permission to edit their submissions. The release did not mention the right to anonymize the women’s accounts.
The News spoke with four members of the first women cohort who were involved in the project as contributors, all of whom expressed anger and disappointment at the anonymization of their submissions. And in emails obtained by the News, at least seven total women expressed surprise and frustration at the co-editors’ decision to anonymize their work.
“When you remove names from something that is a personal reflection, you in a way have diluted the power of that reflection,” said Dori Zaleznik ’71, one of the contributors to the project. “It feels like having proposed a really good project that could have power and potential historical interest to people looking at the beginning of coeducation — that they’ve weakened what they were attempting to do.”
Two versions of written history — one attributed, one anonymous
On Dec. 11, Barbara Wagner ’73 and Carol Whitehead ’72, the co-editors of the Written History Project, wrote an email to the first women cohort announcing the completion of the project. The email, which was obtained by the News, contained links to two versions of the book — one containing the names of the contributors and one without those names.
The email said that the version of the book with the names of the authors was meant for the first women cohort only, and not meant for further distribution. The anonymized version would be used for broader purposes.
“Given the personal nature of some submissions, a second version of the combined book that does not include the names of contributors, is also available,” the email read. “It is intended to be used more broadly in conjunction with Yale’s educational mission — primarily for Yale libraries, colleges, and academic departments, but it can also be shared with family and friends.”
The News obtained copies of both versions of the book. In the attributed version, two testimonies are marked with “requests anonymity” instead of the name of an author — these are the contributors who explicitly requested anonymity — and one is marked with only the contributor’s initials. The rest of the women did not wish to be anonymous, and have their testimony published under their own names. In the unattributed version of the book, all testimonies are listed under a residential college and class year. In both versions, submissions have been edited to remove most names mentioned in the testimonies.
In an email to the News, Wagner said that the Written History Project had two distinct goals. The first was to create a class book, which the women could use to look back on their time at Yale. The second was to create a historical account of coeducation that could be used by researchers and scholars. Wagner said that because she thought some of the women may have only intended their testimony to be used for the first purpose, she and Whitehead decided to anonymize the broadly distributed copy. Wagner added that she made this decision in consultation with “many of these women writers, as well as with experts within the Yale community.”
All of the contributors to the project with whom the News spoke said that they intended their submissions to be used for historical purposes. Wagner said that these women represented a minority of the class, and that most of the class did not express concern about the unattributed version of the book. When asked to provide names of the women who had expressed discomfort with their narratives being used for historical purposes, Wagner declined, citing privacy concerns.
Wagner also told the News that copies of the original unedited submissions with full attributions will be available upon request in the Manuscripts and Archives in Sterling Memorial Library, with the exception of the submissions of those who explicitly asked to remain anonymous. She added that the majority of the printed books, which will go to members of the cohort, will contain the writers’ names, and that the books without the names are meant to “allow the distribution of the essays more broadly.”
“This project has spanned years and required literally thousands of hours of volunteers’ time,” Wagner wrote to the News. “In any undertaking of this scope and complexity, there are bound to be individuals who would have done things differently or made other choices — and this project is no exception. However, over the 2½ years we have worked on this project, the women in the cohort who have contacted us or with whom we have spoken have been very supportive of this approach.”
‘It’s just not acceptable’: Reactions to anonymization
In email threads obtained by the News that circulated among the cohort following the Dec. 11 announcement, at least seven women expressed surprise and anger at the co-editors’ decision to anonymize their work.
Shelley Fisher Fishkin ’71 GRD ’74 GRD ’77, a contributor to the book and one of the women who spoke up following the Dec. 11 email, told the News that it had never occurred to her that her name would be removed from her testimony. Fishkin is an English and American Studies professor at Stanford University who has written, edited or co-edited 48 books and over 150 articles and essays. She said she has never encountered this.
“I’ve never heard of an editor viewing taking the author’s name off as part of the legitimate editorial process,” Fishkin said. “It’s just not acceptable.”
Fishkin told the News that the essay she submitted to the Written History Project was about how Yale shaped her future career as a writer and a scholar. Without her name, she said, the essay is “nonsensical,” because readers cannot understand her career since Yale.
Fishkin said that beyond removing her name, the co-editors did not make any major changes to her story, aside from removing any names she mentioned, including that of her husband. While she was confused by these changes, as she has used names in other autobiographical material she has published, she said that these changes did not offend her in the same way that the anonymization did, and that they seemed to be within the scope of the release she signed.
Fishkin recalled to the News how one of the first books she ever co-edited was about the erasure of women writers and how women were often not given credit for their work.
“I never dreamt that I would be subjected to silencing in an analogous way,” she said. “I thought, ‘We’ve changed things, I am empowered, I have my byline.’ Yale empowered me to literally make a name for myself as a scholar and a writer. Where’s that name? One of the great points of pride in Yale’s legacy should be that it’s produced all of these articulate women who have made names for themselves in the world.”
Zaleznik told the News that she was surprised that edits had not been checked with the original authors before publication. In her experience, she felt that even when one has the right to edit, they should still tell the authors about their edits.
Zaleznik said that in addition to editing out the names of anyone mentioned, the editors also “sanitized” her testimony so that readers could not identify anyone mentioned. She said that to her, her testimony seemed less powerful after editing.
“It felt odd that having asked for our personal memories, that they would feel the need to adjust, and then not have the courtesy to ask,” Zaleznik said. “To me, it made what I said a good deal less powerful, because it took it out of context.”
Lydia Temoshok ’72, a contributor to the book and the first to reach out to the co-editors about the anonymization, told the News that she was deeply concerned by the anonymization of her work. Like Fishkin, Temoshok has years of experience editing books, encyclopedias and journals, and said that it never occurred to her that an editor would edit out someone’s name from their writing.
In her written narrative, Temoshok wrote about an incident in which she was assaulted in a dorm shower. She told the News that she included the story partially because it had such a “good outcome,” as she believes that Yale responded exceedingly well to the incident — she said the University allowed her to take the lead in talking to the police and to sit on a committee that addressed the situation and came up with preventative measures. The co-editors of the Written History Project left the story intact, but Temoshok feels that by removing her name, they diluted the meaning behind it.
“It’s a good story,” Temoshok said. “It’s an important story. It shows my resilience. But [without my name] it just looks silly.”
Temoshok also found it offensive that the co-editors decided to remove the name of her roommate from Smith College, about whom she related an anecdote. Her roommate died in 2019, and in her narrative, Temoshok mentioned that she had died recently and “too soon.” She felt it was disrespectful and inconsistent that the co-editors had proceeded to remove her roommate’s name while leaving other names intact.
Temoshok was disturbed by the co-editors’ assertion that they were removing names “due to the personal nature” of some stories. To Temoshok, this felt “paternalistic,” as the women had the opportunity to decide for themselves if they wanted to submit their contributions anonymously — an opportunity that a handful of women took.
“The main problem is I wrote this narrative with an eye to history, as I imagine is the case for most of the women who wrote these,” Temoshok said. “I want my name included. I am proud of the fact that I was one of the first women in Yale College.”
Steps moving forward
In addition to reaching out to Wagner and Whitehead, a number of women reached out to Weili Cheng ’77, the executive director of the Yale Alumni Association. In an email to the News, Cheng reiterated that the unedited and attributed version of the written history would be available in the Manuscripts and Archives section in Sterling Memorial Library.
The two versions of the book are available digitally right now, and are in the process of being printed. A group of women, including Temoshok, Fishkin and Zaleznik had hoped to stop the production of the anonymized version. Zaleznik told the News that they have spoken to some lawyers in their cohort and people with editorial experience, who have said this could border on copyright infringement.
While the release gave Yale the right to edit any testimony, Zaleznik said, it did not explicitly mention the right to remove the authors’ names from their stories. Temoshok likened it to taking a song, editing the lyrics slightly, then removing the name of the artist and publishing it.
Wagner told the News that all decisions the co-editors made, including printing a version without the authors’ names, were covered by the release that the women signed. She added that the authors still have the rights to their own writing, and are free to distribute it as they see fit. If they would like to widely distribute an unedited, attributed version of their testimony, they are welcome to do so, Wagner said.
Zaleznik said that none of the women involved want to get into any legal dispute if it can be avoided. She did, however, ask to have her testimony removed, rather than be published anonymously. After corresponding at length with the co-editors, she decided not to remove her story entirely. But at the time, she still hoped that the co-editors could be convinced not to proceed with releasing the anonymized version.
Temoshok said that although she is trying to do this the “nice” way, she often asks herself what male alumni would do in their situation. She feels that the co-editors might be appealing to “women’s tendencies to be nice and polite” and hoping that the issue will blow over.
“People might just say to let it go,” Temoshok said. “But it’s not only a personal thing, it’s also for history. You want to talk about preserving history, you want to talk about how important it is to tell compelling stories, well, whoever heard of telling a compelling story without a name? … Names are critical to stories and critical to history. So it does a disservice to the first women at Yale, and it does a disservice to history to have this book for the general public, that will be used by scholars and students for years to come, without our names attached to our stories.”
Yale College first admitted women in 1969.
Amelia Davidson | firstname.lastname@example.org