Melanie Stengel

The 2019-20 academic year marked a half-century since Yale College’s first female students broke through the glass ceiling and opened the iron Phelps Gate.

In 1869, the Yale School of Fine Arts admitted the University’s first two female students. It would take 100 years for Yale College to follow. When it did, in 1969, 575 women entered the college as first years, sophomores and juniors. During the first year of coeducation, women comprised less than 15 percent of the student body. Now females make up nearly 50 percent of the student population. To commemorate the pioneering women who brought about the change, the University hosted a series of celebrations throughout the year.

“From a contemporary standpoint, the 50th anniversary of coeducation, while it seems like it was a long time ago, there are hundreds of women alums from that time,” University Archivist Michael Lotstein said. “This is a history of something where people who are still alive, that lived it, are reminiscing about.”

University President Peter Salovey asked Linda Lorimer LAW ’77, former trustee and former vice president for global and strategic initiatives at Yale, and Eve Rice ’73, current trustee and physician, to chair a steering committee to organize celebrations throughout the 2019-20 academic year to honor coeducation at Yale.

The year kicked off with a celebration entitled “50 Fest: Celebrating a Half-Century of Coeducation in Yale College.” On Sept. 21, attendees — alumni, students and faculty members — gathered on Old Campus for a soiree that featured ’70s hits and an opportunity to catch up with old friends and meet current students.

Along with the celebration, the committee undertook oral and written history projects on coeducation to offer a fuller picture of Yale’s past. The oral history project features the testimony of more than 100 women, many of them interviewed by former ABC News producer Kyle Gibson ’78.

The commemoration stretched beyond the committee’s efforts. University athletes wore game jerseys emblazoned with “Lux et Femina” — a play on Yale’s motto of “Lux et Veritas.” The Athletics Department is one of 34 campus partners that assisted the Steering Committee with planning the celebration.

To offer a concrete commemoration of the first women who attended Yale, in late September the University placed a stone plaque at the base of Phelps Gate. The engraved stone acknowledges that many alumnae from the classes of 1971, 1972 and 1973 enrolled at the College the same year, correcting a misconception that members of the class of 1971 arrived at Yale first. The ground the stone marks is hallowed with the footprints of every incoming and graduating Yalie.

It is where, half a century earlier, the first female Yale College students stood. Reflecting on their experience, some of these women described Yale as a welcoming environment, while others noted the challenge of breaking into the male-dominated student body.

In researching coeducation at Yale, Lotstein said he was surprised to discover how eager administrators were to welcome women to the college. Administrators at the time felt that by excluding women Yale was missing out on an opportunity to attract the best students.

“It was the first place I had ever been where a smart woman could be accepted,” Rice said. “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.”

But the first women at Yale College faced resistance on a campus built for men both physically, with bathroom mirrors mounted too tall for some female students, and metaphorically, with numerous clubs and fraternities closed to women.

Lotstein said that his research showed that the first women at Yale faced daily adversity in the form of intolerance, poor health services and too few women’s restrooms.

“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. “The path is long, the path can be arduous, but great rewards follow from some level of hard work and sacrifice.

Lorimer said that the steering committee would recognize these more serious aspects of the start of coeducation in addition to hosting festivities to mark the anniversary. The year is an opportunity for people to examine both how far the University has come and reflect on additional steps necessary for full gender equality, Lorimer said.

To commemorate the anniversary, the Yale University Art Gallery hosted its first-ever exposition dedicated to the work of female members of the College and the Art and Architecture Schools.

Rose Horowitch |