Exhibit at Sterling Library explores history of coeducation at Yale

Part of the university’s 50WomenAtYale150 commemoration, “The Walls are Tumbling Down: Coeducation in Yale College” is on view at Sterling through Oct. 18.
Yale Daily News coverage of Coeducation Week, an event in November 1968

Yale Daily News coverage of Coeducation Week, an event in November 1968 during which more than 750 women from 22 colleges visited campus to attend classes and live in the residential colleges. (Photo credit: Dan Renzetti)

On Dec. 22, 1783, Yale President Ezra Stiles interviewed Lucinda Foote, the 12-year-old daughter of an alumnus. Her intellect and knowledge impressed him.

Stiles confided to his diary that Foote had mastered Cicero’s four orations against Cataline, the first four books of “The Aeneid,” and the Gospel of John in its original Greek.

I examined her not only where she learned but indifferently elsewhere in Virgil, Tully, and the Greek Testament and found her well fitted to be admitted into the Freshman Class,” wrote Stiles, who had encouraged Yale College students to debate the condition of women and their role in public life.

Foote was not invited to attend Yale College. It would be 186 years until women were welcomed to attend Yale College as undergraduates. Instead, Stiles presented her a parchment diploma in Latin that described her academic achievement and explained that the reason she was not admitted to Yale — sexus ratione — “if it were not for her sex.”   

The story of Lucinda Foote opens “The Walls are Tumbling Down: Coeducation in Yale College,” an exhibit on view at Sterling Memorial Library commemorating the 50th anniversary of coeducation. The exhibit, on view in the library’s Memorabilia Room through Oct. 18, presents the history of coeducation at Yale through materials in the university archives, including photographs, correspondence, records, news clippings, and other written accounts of women’s experiences on campus.

University Archivist Michael Lotstein and Carly Sheehan, a student at the Yale School of Art, curated the exhibit, which was organized in collaboration with “50WomenAtYale150,” a yearlong commemoration of the 50th anniversary of coeducation in Yale College and the 150th anniversary of women students at the university.

Without distinction of sex’

The exhibit moves from Stiles’ interaction with Foote to stories of Yale’s earliest women students, who set the stage for coeducation. Alice and Susan Silliman, daughters of chemistry professor Benjamin Silliman Jr. ’37, became the university’s first women students when they were admitted to the newly established Yale School of Fine Arts in 1869 — the university’s first coeducational school. A photograph on view shows a painting class in 1920 in which the students, men and women, stand behind easels as their subject, a woman, poses in front of the class.

In 1892, the Yale Corporation unanimously voted to amend admissions rules to make courses at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences open to candidates “without distinction of sex.” (The handwritten minutes from the corporation meeting are on display.)  Two years later, seven women received doctoral degrees from Yale. 

Yale Corporation minutes from 1892, when graduate rules were amended to admit women, on display at Sterling Library
The minutes of the Yale Corporation meeting in 1892 when admissions rules were amended to make courses at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences open to candidates “without distinction of sex.” (Photo credit: Dan Renzetti)

The exhibit presents the story of Alice Rufie Jordan Blake, 1886 LL.B., the first woman to earn a law degree from Yale. Blake, an attorney and a member of the bar in Michigan, was admitted to the Yale School of Law after listing her first initials, rather than her first names, on the application. She was allowed to attend the school because the admission rules stated that attorneys admitted to the bar of any state were entitled to admission without examination. When challenged, Blake pointed out that the rules as written did not specifically exclude women (although shortly thereafter the language was changed).

Blake was admitted, but she was not listed among the students in the class,” Lotstein said.  “Only her alumni record documents that she was a member of the class of 1886.”

Not the remotest possibility’

The possibility of undergraduate coeducation in Yale College became a subject of controversy in 1956. At a meeting of the Yale College faculty, Dean of Admissions Arthur Howe Jr. suggested that the all-male model was becoming outmoded and that the university would need to become coeducational in order to attract the best students. Word of Howe’s remarks leaked to the press and triggered an outcry. The exhibit features two letters from alumni staunchly opposed to coeducation and one from an alumnus who supported it.

Yale President A. Whitney Griswold dispelled the rumors in an article published in The New York Times on Sept. 28, 1956.

A hypothetical question raised at a faculty meeting has been exaggerated out of all proportion to its original context,” Griswold said. “Not only do our present obligations and needs preclude any such development but we are far from convinced that it would be the right course of action. There is not the remotest possibility of its taking place at Yale within the foreseeable future.”

The Yale Daily News responded to Griswold’s statement in an editorial that blended glee with nasty sarcasm.

We were saved and we will not spend our twenty-fifth reunion drinking with overweight matrons and their husbands who went to Hofstra,” stated an editorial.

Perhaps to the dismay of the editorial’s writer, the idea of coeducation gained steam into the 1960s. Concerns from alumni that admitting women to Yale College as undergraduates would leave less room for qualified male applicants formed a significant barrier to coeducation, Lotstein explained. Those concerns led Yale President Kingman Brewster in 1966 to consider the possibility of establishing an affiliated women’s college in New Haven modeled after Harvard and Columbia’s relationships with Radcliffe and Barnard, respectively.

In a telegram to Brewster on display, alumnus Hamilton Southworth ’29 endorsed the idea.

Having Vassar wife two Vassar daughters and two Yale sons I can appreciate value of bringing Vassar to New Haven as coordinated college. Both institutions would benefit tremendously,” stated the telegram.

Ultimately, Vassar’s trustees voted unanimously to reject the proposal, but the episode generated momentum for initiating coeducation at both schools, Lotstein explained.

The administration acknowledged that coeducation was an absolute necessity for Yale moving forward, and it was a question of how they would accomplish it,” he said. “That was always the challenge: How to do it in a way that would satisfy current students and alumni and how to establish it in a way that ensured its sustainability and success.”

Challenges and perseverance

In November 1968, more than 750 women from 22 colleges visited campus to attend classes and live in the residential colleges during Coeducation Week, an event sponsored by the Yale Student Advisory Board.

The experience was overwhelmingly positive for the students who visited and for the male students who hosted them,” Lotstein said. “It was based on the success of Coeducation Week that the Yale Corporation voted to start admitting women in the fall of 1969.”

Rachel Kurshan, Maryse H. Baptiste, and Susan Boyd-Bowman were residents oft Trumbull College in 1969.
Rachel Kurshan, Maryse H. Baptiste, and Susan Boyd-Bowman were residents oft Trumbull College in 1969. (Photo credit: Dan Renzetti)

The exhibit documents the steep challenges the administration and students faced as the university worked quickly to integrate women into campus life.

President Brewster admitted that Yale had no practical experience in determining the best arrangements for the new undergraduate women attending Yale College,” Lotstein said. “The university’s entire infrastructure was built exclusively for accommodating men. The administration had to quickly create facilities for women, such as restrooms, in the residential colleges and also in buildings where classes were held.”

A memo on view from Elga Wasserman ’76 J.D., special assistant to the president on the education of women and chair of the Committee on Coeducation, to the manager of the physical plant just before students arrived in 1969 included a list of women’s restrooms that were kept locked.

In order that the girls who attend classes have access to ladies rooms, I think it would be desirable to unlock these ladies rooms wherever possible,” Wasserman stated. “If you see security or other problems in doing so, please let me know.”

The lack of healthcare services for women presented a particularly daunting challenge.

A memo dated Sept. 29, 1969 from Dr. Virginia Stuermer, assistant provost responsible for student medical services, to Dr. Frederick Rodlich, dean of Yale School of Medicine, reported that space provided for gynecological care was “woefully inadequate and unequipped.”

As a Yale faculty member I am disappointed at the lack of planning for health services for women,” Stuermer wrote. “As a physician I am stunned at being asked to function at a level far below my capacities because of a lack of equipment. As a woman I am appalled at the cavalier attitude toward the women students.” 

Crowding in the residential colleges presented an additional problem, Lotstein noted.

It was a lot of crammed quarters and that tended to fuel bad relations,” he said. “Over time, things improved, but the initial period of transition and adjustment was very challenging for everyone involved.”

The exhibit presents a controversy that centered on Mory’s: The private club exclusive to Yale barred women from membership. The club only welcomed women as guests of male members and required them to sit in the club’s private dining room — the regular dining room was off limits — preventing women faculty from attending events and informal gatherings with male colleagues.

A letter from Wasserman on display urged faculty members to avoid Mory’s for work-related meetings. In 1971, Katherine Emmett ’70 J.D. filed a petition with the Connecticut Liquor Control Commission arguing that Mory’s should not be considered a private club under state law since it did not allow members to vote on its policies. The commission agreed, and Mory’s liquor license was revoked. Three years later, Mory’s opened its membership to women.

Despite the challenges and backlash, coeducation succeeded. In May 1973, the first class of women students who had attended Yale College for four years graduated. The exhibit features photographs from commencement of the graduates in their caps and gowns.

The exhibit’s text notes that the mood at graduation was mixed as people lobbied for a more equitable ratio of men to women, Lotstein said.  

The exhibit concludes by noting the expanding role of women in the Yale alumni community and marking past anniversary celebrations of coeducation. The exhibit text quotes the mission statement from the 20th-anniversary celebration:

The 20th anniversary celebration seeks to incorporate all without imposing assimilation. We embrace the opportunity to explore our distinctions and our conflicts. We recognize the need to communicate and share, for although this act may not fundamentally transform our differences, it removes stereotypes, minimizes boundaries, uncovers naivete, and eases the pain of silence.”

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Mike Cummings: michael.cummings@yale.edu, 203-432-9548