‘Brilliant rebels’: Portrait of Yale’s first women Ph.D.’s to be unveiled

By the year 1894, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had been campaigning for the vote for American women for 25 years (a battle that would not be won until 1920).

It was also in 1894 that the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences presented its first Ph.D. to a woman (seven of them, actually). That was two years after women were first admitted as graduate students in full standing, more than 30 years after Yale had awarded the nation’s first Ph.D. degrees (1861), and almost a half-century after Yale became the first the school in North America to offer graduate education (1847).

The Yale Women Faculty Forum (WFF) will unveil a portrait of those seven trailblazing scholars and scientists on Tuesday, April 5 in Sterling Memorial Library, 120 High St. Brenda Zlamany, the Brooklyn-based artist who created the work, and Yale chief research archivist Judith Schiff will speak in the Sterling Memorial Lecture Room at 3:30 p.m., while President Peter Salovey and members of the faculty will speak at 4:45 p.m. in the nave, where the painting will be displayed. A reception will follow.

"The Women Faculty Forum (WFF) commissioned this portrait of the first women to earn Yale Ph.D.'s to both increase the portraiture of women on campus and to commemorate the admission of women to Yale’s graduate school in 1892," said WFF chair Paula Kavathas, professor of laboratory medicine and immunobiology, who co-chaired the project. "Yale was one of the first universities to admit women for study to obtain a doctorate.

"The seven women we are honoring were truly pioneers. What is remarkable is that all seven continued scholarly work after they graduated during a period in history when women could not even vote," adds Kavathas. "Five joined the faculty at women’s colleges: Smith (Elizabeth Hanscom, Mary Scott), Vassar (Cornelia Rogers, Laura Wylie), and Wellesley (Charlotte Roberts). Margaretta Palmer worked at the Yale Observatory as an astronomer, and Sara Rogers was a political scientist and writer of fiction. These women rose to the height of intellectual scholarship with their accomplishments. We hope that they will be an inspiration for young scholars today."

Laura Wexler, professor of American studies and women's, gender & sexuality studies, who also co-chaired the portrait project, noted that the women "were part of a growing wave of brilliant rebels,” said Wexler, noting that their contemporaries included French physicist Marie Curie, British solar photographer Annie Maunder, and Russian mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya.

“These were determined, questing women, studying foreign languages, familiarizing themselves and their students with new literatures, charting the stars,” said Wexler. “Neither male chauvinism nor hard work scared them off."

A brief history of the seven women

WFF postdoctoral associate Liena Vayzman and Postgraduate Associate Ruth Vaughan conducted archival research on the seven women who received Ph.D.’s a few years ago. They discovered that Elizabeth Deering Hanscom, who was generally considered to be the first woman to earn a Ph.D. from Yale (earning her degree in English), was indeed technically the first — but  only because her name came first alphabetically. The others were Margaretta Palmer (astronomy), Charlotte Fitch Roberts (chemistry), Cornelia H.B. Rogers (Romance languages), Sara Bulkley Rogers (history), Mary Augusta Scott (English), and Laura Johnson Wylie (English).

Deering Hanscom came to Yale with a B.A. and M.A. from Boston University. Her dissertation analyzed the Middle English poem “Piers Plowman,” by William Langland, but at Smith College, where she taught English for over 35 years, she was best known for teaching American literature. When she died in 1960 at the age of 94, her obituary in The New York Times said she “introduced the study of American literature at Smith College in 1899, at a time when the subject was not studied generally in American institutions of higher learning.”

Palmer earned her B.A. from Vassar College in 1887 and was hired to be an assistant in the Yale Observatory, where she worked until she was able to enroll in the Graduate School five years later. Her dissertation, titled “Determination of the Orbit of Comet 1847 VI,” was a study of the comet discovered by Maria Mitchell, one of her professors at Vassar. After graduation, Palmer continued to work at Yale. When the observatory was closed in 1918, she worked part time in the Yale Library classifying scientific and mathematical books and part time on her research.  

Roberts graduated from Wellesley College in 1880. Yale chemistry professor Frank Gooch called her book, “The Development and Present Aspects of Stereochemistry” (1896), “the clearest exposition of which we have knowledge of the principles and conditions” of the field, which studies the relative spatial arrangement of atoms in molecules. Roberts became a full professor at Wellesley in 1896 and devoted much of her scholarship to the historical development of her field. She was described by the Wellesley Alumnae Magazine as “one of the pioneers in America of the ‘New Chemistry.’” 

Another alumna of Wellesley College, Cornelia Hephzibah Bulkley Rogers, was an expert in Old Spanish as well as Italian and French. Her dissertation, written in Spanish, was titled “Sinalefa, sineresis, e hiato en los romances del Cid.” A 1920 Yale publication about alumnae of the Graduate School pointed out that “the very first candidate for the doctor’s degree in Romance languages at Yale was a woman … Miss Cornelia Rogers of Bridgeport. Miss Rogers began her studies here in 1892, and proved to be exceptionally well prepared for them.” The alumna spent her professional life teaching Romance languages at Vassar and providing translations for the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

Cornelia's sister, Sara Bulkley Rogers, was also a member of that first cohort. She received her B.A. from Columbia University in 1889 through the Collegiate Course for Women, which later became Barnard College. She then earned a master’s degree in history from Cornell. Her Yale dissertation was on “The Rise of Civil Government and Federation in Early New England.” She was a writer of fiction, and her stories were published in the New York Evening Post, the Commercial Advertiser, and other periodicals. Her 1897 novel, “Life's Way," was published in London by Bentley & Son.          

Before coming to Yale, Scott earned a B.A. and master’s degree from Vassar. Her dissertation was titled “The Elizabethan Drama, especially in its Relation to the Italians of the Renaissance,” and she remained immersed in the scholarship of that period all her life. Her published works include an annotated bibliography titled “Elizabethan Translations from the Italian” and an edition of “The Essays of Francis Bacon” She contributed essays to The Dial and other literary and academic journals. In 1900, she presented “The Book of the Courtier: a Possible Source of Benedick and Beatrice” at the Modern Language Association's December meeting, held at the University of Pennsylvania. In a published version of the paper she described herself as a “Sometime Fellow of Yale University” and “Instructor in English at Smith College.” 

Wylie, the third of the group to earn a Ph.D. in English, graduated from Vassar in 1877. She taught Latin and English at Packer Institute in Brooklyn for 14 years prior to pursuing graduate work at Yale when the opportunity opened up. Her dissertation, “Studies in the Evolution of English Criticism,” was published by Ginn & Company in 1894 “at the expense of the University, in the hope that it may be useful to other students of the period which it covers,” wrote Yale English Professor Albert S. Cook in the preface. Wylie was the longtime partner of Gertrude Buck, with whom she led the Department of English at Vassar during the Progressive Era. She was on the faculty at Vassar from 1897 until 1924 and was a leader in the women’s suffrage movement, serving as president of the Dutchess County (N.Y.) Suffrage Organization 1910-1918.

First, but not last

The seven women who received their Ph.D.’s in 1894 were just the first of thousands of women who have earned their doctorate at Yale. As of September 2015, there were 1353 women enrolled at the school, out of a total of 2,858 students.

The unveiling of the portrait of Yale’s first women Ph.D.’s underscores the efforts to ensure representation of diversity on campus announced by the President in the fall.