Yale celebrates a year of women — from the first women grads and undergrads to the trailblazers of tomorrow

A collage of notable women from Yale history

The story of women at Yale is one that is still being told, but the year 2019 marks two important milestones — 50 years since Yale College went coed, and 150 years since the first women students were admitted to Yale School of Fine Arts (now the Yale School of Art). These milestones will be commemorated by a year-long initiative called 50WomenAtYale150 — a first-of-its-kind university-wide celebration that encompasses the graduate and professional schools, Yale College, the residential colleges, athletic teams, libraries, theaters, galleries, and student organizations through events, exhibits, and discussions dedicated to women. A related website provides historical background, related news, and ongoing event information.

In the last 150 years, Yale has undergone a transformation from an all-male institution to one that celebrates and supports women’s growth and achievements,” says Peter Salovey ’86 Ph.D., president of Yale and the Chris Argyris Professor of Psychology. “And much of that transformation is owed to the trailblazing women who first took graduate courses, who championed coeducation, and who raised their hands in those early coed classrooms at Yale College. I am grateful to them, and all the courageous pioneers in the university’s history, for making Yale what it is today: a place committed to empowering everyone, of every gender and way of understanding themselves, to bring their best and most energetic selves to work that will change the world.”

Admitting women allowed Yale to tap into a deep intellectual resource that had been largely overlooked. Those first undergraduate women students, dubbed “superwomen” by the New York Times, outperformed men academically every semester in the first four years of coeducation.

Admitting women to Yale College marked a major milestone for the university, and in many ways, the beginning of what we now recognize as modern-day Yale,” said Yale Alumni Association Executive Director Weili Cheng ’77 B.A., who arrived on campus as a first-year student in 1973. “We continue to move toward becoming a university that is more diverse, more inclusive, more representative. And while there have been many steps on the journey to arriving at this point, there is no question that the inclusion of women — and the success and contributions of those first women — has played and continues to play a significant, critical role.”

The 50WomenAtYale150 initiative aims to encompass the whole scope of women’s experience at Yale past and present, from the university’s early adjustments to coeducation, to the rise of prominent women faculty and the establishment of gender studies, to a campus today where half the students are women and where gender solidarity can be found in any number of student organizations dedicated to feminism and raising women’s voices, including Women in Science at Yale and WE@Yale, an organization that unites women entrepreneurs on campus.

Although women had been students at Yale for 100 years, they were often seen as ‘guests’ in a predominantly male school,” says Eve Rice ’73 B.A., a physician and current Yale trustee, who is chair of the 50th Anniversary Committee and also co-chairs the Steering Committee. “The year 1969 was a watershed moment for the university — partly due to the number of women who arrived that year, partly because the time had come for change nationally — that ushered in a rapid evolution of women’s roles at the university, across all its schools.  To be sure, a lot has happened in 50 years, but we continue to see that evolution today.”

Women at work at the School of Fine Arts in the 1800s, and female Yale School of Art students painting in the 2000s
Left: Students at work in the School of Fine Arts, which was the first Yale school to open its doors to women in 1869. Right: Yale School of Art students in the 2000s.

The initiative includes an Oral History Project led by Emmy award-winning producer Kyle Gibson ’78 B.A., senior executive producer of Women in the World, in which women from the Yale College classes of ’71, ’72, and ’73, who came as freshman or transfer students in the fall of 1969, share their memories and experiences on camera; and a related Written History Project, in which women from the first classes share their written remembrances. These personal histories will be collected and archived at Sterling Memorial Library.

There’s not a single spokesperson,” says Rice. “There’s a richness to what we’re trying to celebrate that can only be achieved through a multiplicity of voices.”

A broad, united effort

The anniversary year will commemorate the contributions and accomplishments of women in every graduate and professional school, as well as Yale College. Linda Koch Lorimer ’77 J.D., retired vice president of Yale and a former Yale trustee who co-chairs the Steering Committee explained: “I am thrilled that every school and museum at Yale and so many other campus organizations are seizing the opportunity to create events or exhibitions for 50WomenAtYale150.”

Planned events are broad and diverse. In October, the Yale Repertory Theater will stage the world premiere of “Girls,” a contemporary spin on Euripides’ “The Bacchae” directed by OBIE Award-winning Lileana Blain-Cruz ’12 M.F.A. and featuring a large, predominately female cast — including current Yale School of Drama students. Sterling Memorial Library has an exhibit currently on display called “The Walls are Tumbling Down: Coeducation in Yale College,” full of records, images, letters, and news clippings that detail the early days of undergraduate women on campus. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson will give a series of talks on literature and spirituality on campus, and author Anne Perkins ’81 B.A. is doing a national book tour promoting her new book “Yale Needs Women” with a number of area appearances.

This winter, Yale Bands will feature an all-women WWII Big Band concert. In October, Yale School of Medicine is hosting the first academic-led conference dedicated to women’s mental health with keynote Eve Ensler, Tony Award-winning playwright and author of the “Vagina Monologues.” And Yale Athletics will honor women athletes during games and athletes of all genders will wear commemorative patches throughout the year.  

It has worked out incredibly,” says Miko McGinty ’93 B.A., ’98 M.F.A., who is on the Steering Committee and has spearheaded the logo designs for the initiative. “People are excited and proud to be involved.”

Two coed group of incoming Yale undergrads, from 1969 and 2019.
Left: Members of the first coed class of Yale undergraduates walk across campus to Woolsey Hall to attend their Freshman Assembly in 1969. Right: Students from the incoming Class of 2023 attend the Yale College Opening Assembly in Woolsey Hall in 2019.

The initiative will be bookended by two major celebrations. On Sept. 19-22, 2019 women from the first coed Yale College classes will gather on campus for a weekend celebration that will include panel discussions with notable alumni like Margaret Warner ’71 B.A.,  senior fellow at the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and former chief global affairs correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; award-winning architect Billie Tsien ’71 B.A. of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects in midtown Manhattan; comic book legend Garry Trudeau ’70 B.A., ’73 M.F.A.; and Nancy Vickers ’76 Ph.D., president emeritus of Bryn Mawr. The celebration will also include tours, receptions, and a dedication of the 50th Anniversary Commemorative Stone with poet Elizabeth Alexander ’84 B.A., President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The closing symposium will be in November 2020 at the Schwarzman Center, a state-of-art campus center that will open in 2020, where alumnae of  the graduate and professional schools, as well as the college, will be welcomed back for a weekend that highlights the leadership of Yale women and the unfinished agenda for women here and in the world. “It will be a blast to have a reunion for these remarkable women across all the schools,” Lorimer says.

Vera Wells ’71 B.A., a retired NBC executive and former member of the Yale University Council who is on both the Steering Committee and 50th Anniversary Committee, acknowledges that women in those first coed classes did not always feel welcomed or supported. “It took having a critical mass coming at the same time at the college to turn it around for everybody,” Wells says. But, she adds: “It will be wonderful to have all these women invited back to feel acknowledged, that it was worth it, and that Yale is a better place because of them.”  

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Media Contact

Brita Belli: brita.belli@yale.edu, 203-804-1911