“Something beyond a celebration”: Yale College honors 50th anniversary of coeducation
The 2019-2020 academic year featured a series of commemorative events celebrating the 50th anniversary of Yale College’s move to coeducation and the 150th anniversary of the first matriculation of women into the University’s graduate schools.
In 1869, Yale University admitted its first two female students to the School of Fine Arts. One hundred years later, Yale College welcomed its first cohort of female undergraduate students.
Throughout the 2019-2020 academic year, Yale hosted a series of commemorative events celebrating 50 years of Yale College’s coeducation and 150 years of female enrollment in Yale’s graduate schools. The commemoration — titled 50WomenAtYale150 — was arranged by a steering committee led by former trustee and physician Eve Rice ’73. The year-long celebration included a soiree, conferences, film screenings, oral history projects and more.
“[Yale] was the first place I had ever been where a smart woman could be accepted,” Rice said in a 2019 interview with the News. “[Being smart] 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.”
50WomenAtYale150 kicked off on Sept. 21, 2019, with a festive soiree. The event was called “50 Fest: Celebrating a Half-Century of Coeducation in Yale College” and was open to current students, alumni and faculty.
Attendees gathered under a large tent on Old Campus, where they shared stories and danced to ’70s pop hits.
Current students who attended the event were struck by the recency of Yale’s coeducation. Being able to speak with some of the first women to matriculate at the College, students said, emphasized just how short the history of women at Yale is.
“With less history comes less funding, less generational privilege and fewer alumni networks,” said Lillian Wenker ’23.
The University also unveiled a commemorative stone honoring the 50th year of the matriculation of women to Yale College. The stone was organized by the 50WomenAtYale150 Steering Committee and is located at Phelps Gate.
The stone was designed to emphasize the shared beginning of Yale College’s first 575 women, members of the classes of 1971, 1972 and 1973. According to committee members, Phelps Gate was the perfect location for the stone because it greets both incoming first-year students and outgoing seniors.
“There were 268 years of Yale being an all-male institution, and something changed radically, even though I realize for today’s students, it seems like a very long time ago,” Rice noted at the time. “We wanted two things, both to remember when it happened and also to remember something else which people have a lot of trouble wrapping their minds around. It wasn’t one class that “coeducated” Yale. It was three classes, and the stone states that very explicitly.”
The 50WomenAtYale150 Steering Committee also took on a project to capture both written and oral histories of Yale’s coeducation.
The oral history initiative was funded by the Office of Public Affairs and Communications. It was produced and anchored by former ABC News producer Kyle Gibson ’78.
The committee captured the voices and stories of over 100 alumnae, many of whom hailed from the first cohorts of female students at the College. The hope, Rice explained, was to amplify the unique stories of as many individual women as possible.
“[The history of coeducation at Yale] got to be told in a certain way, but if you actually look at it, people tended to go back to the same ten people time after time after time,” she said. “So it ended up being Yale’s history according to ten people, not according to the 575 women who came. We wanted to broaden that narrative.”
The chronicling of Yale’s coeducation was also undertaken by members outside of the steering committee. Michael Lotstein, the University archivist for manuscripts and archives, oversaw the creation of a library subject guide compiling sources on women in various positions across Yale’s history.
According to retired Yale vice president and former trustee Linda Koch Lorimer LAW ’77, who is a co-chair of the steering committee, the subject guide is the first comprehensive effort to consolidate the history of female students at the University.
“This is not a year solely of celebration,” Lorimer said. “It’s a year of reflection and taking a look at the serious parts of our history… It’s an exciting project that we hope will be a lasting legacy of this year for future scholars but also for future students doing papers and what not to take advantage of.”
The Yale Film Study Center also honored the anniversary of coeducation. As a part of their free public screening series “Treasures from the Yale Film Archive,” the Center highlighted films by female directors throughout the 2019-2020 school year.
As a part of the event, Sandra Luckow ’87, an instructor at the Yale School of Art, hosted a series of screenings and discussions of films by Yale alumnae.
“There is a sort of parallel between women at Yale and filmmaking, of years of struggling for legitimacy and respect,” Luckow said.
The year-long initiative came to a close in September of 2020, with a series of historic webcasts highlighting the accomplishments of outstanding Yale alumnae.
The webcasts — originally intended to be held in the Schwarzman Center but moved online due to COVID-19 restrictions — featured a variety of esteemed female graduates. Speakers included former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton LAW ’73, Academy Award winner Jodie Foster ’85 and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Goodwill Ambassador and poet Emi Mahmoud ’16.
The virtual event featured a series of panels and conferences, inviting prominent female voices to discuss contemporary social injustices.
The first panel, titled “The Quest for a Just World,” discussed the need for systemic reforms to address racial injustice. “Art Now,” the second panel, highlighted Yale women in the arts and facilitated discussions on disability and equity at Yale. A third session, titled “Saving Democracy,” featured Clinton and Senator Amy Klobuchar ’82 and explored the obstacles facing women in positions of political leadership.
“You can’t ever lose hope,” Clinton said in the session. “You have to be willing to keep going, despite the setbacks, and you have to be willing to participate in our democracy to literally save it, and [to vote] for people who will agree with you to make the changes that are so long overdue and necessary.”
The final session offered an overview of the 50 year history of women at Yale College. Alumnae who went on to teach at the University facilitated the conversation, reflecting on changes they have witnessed throughout their time at Yale.
“This history of coeducation is a continuing challenge. Make this anniversary mean something beyond a celebration,” said Yale Women Faculty Forum Chair Claire Bowern. “So that in 2020 and 2021 and beyond, the work will still be going on.”
By the time Yale College coeducated in 1969, 75 percent of other American colleges and universities were already coeducational.