In talk and new book, alumna shares tales of early years of coeducation
Anne Gardiner Perkins ’81 arrived at Yale eight years after women were first admitted to the university as undergraduates, and by then, nobody was talking about what life was like for those pioneering female students.
In a talk at the Wilton Public Library on Sept. 10, the Yale alumna admitted that she’s “embarrassed” that, during her undergraduate years, she never asked about or tried to learn more about the first women who matriculated at the university, where she majored in history and was the first female editor-in-chief of the Yale Daily News in her junior year.
With her new book, “Yale Needs Women: How the First Group of Girls Rewrote the Rules of an Ivy League Giant,” Perkins remedied what she saw as her failure as a young student. “Yale Needs Women” tells the story of how Yale’s first women students, who were admitted in 1969, challenged centuries-old traditions at what had until then been an elite male institution to create opportunities for themselves and for the generations of women who have followed.
In a talk before a full audience that included numerous Yale alumni, Perkins — who interviewed 42 of the first female undergraduates — said her book focuses especially on the stories of five of them: Shirley Daniels, Kit McClure, Lawrie Miflin, Connie Royster, and Elizabeth Spahn. They came to Yale, she noted, at a time when the word “sexism” was so new that Time magazine put it in quotes in an article about Yale’s landmark decision to become coeducational and the phrase “sexual harassment” had not yet been coined. In an article in that same time period about the university’s decision to open its doors to women, The New York Times referred to the first female undergraduates as “superwomen,” Perkins told her audience.
What they mostly were instead, Perkins said, were “teenagers” from all over the country. There were 230 women accepted into the first-year class in 1969 and 358 women accepted as transfer students in the sophomore and junior classes. The university, meanwhile, continued its dedication to graduating “1,000 male leaders” each year, while limiting each class to only 250 women, Perkins noted. In those first coeducational classes, 40 female students were African American, 13 were Asian, and only 3 were Latina, she reported.
One of the women Perkins interviewed wrote to her to say that when she raised her hand in class, the male students in the room would turn to stare at her “as if the furniture itself had offered an opinion.”
If a white student could feel so alien and outnumbered, Perkins added, “Think what it was like for the first black women or Asian women or for the three women who were Latino.”
Perkins, a Rhodes Scholar who went on from Yale to teach at an urban high school and later worked on higher education policies and programs in her home state of Massachusetts, decided to get her Ph.D. at the age of 52, she notes in her book, and said that “Yale Needs Women” grew out of her dissertation. Alumna Janet L. Yellen ’71 Ph.D. called the book a “riveting and uplifting account of the experiences of Yale’s early women … [which] reveals the multiple barriers faced by these pioneers, as it chronicles their brave efforts to overcome them.”
“I wanted to write a book that my 33-year-old daughter Lily would read,” Perkins explained in her talk, noting that some of the challenges that the first Yale undergraduate women faced in their quest for equality are still experienced by women today — as illustrated by the ongoing fight for equal pay by members of the U.S. Women’s Soccer team, the #MeToo movement, and the “below par” representation of women in Congress.
When she decided to write about the first Yale women, Perkins said, none of the books she consulted included the voices of the women themselves.
“It’s like they were invisible,” she said, adding that she feared their stories, in time, would be lost. “I was not going to let that happen.”
During her talk, Perkins shared snippets of a few of the stories she collected for her book. She told how Kit McClure ’75, now a jazz musician, taught herself to play trombone after being discouraged from taking up a “boy’s instrument,” and later was told that women were not allowed to be part of the Yale Marching Band when she tried to join. McClure, who also played saxophone, didn’t give up her quest, and became the first female member of the band.
“The power of history is the power of stories,” Perkins said in her talk.
The Yale alumna said that during all of her interviews with Yale’s first female students, she was “struck by their courage, persistence, and creativity.” She added that these women are both “smart and tough,” and noted that an administrator who helped select the first coeducational classes had told her that “there was no point [accepting] a timid woman and putting them into the [male-dominated Yale] environment, as it could crush them.”
She told her audience that there were many “heroic acts” undertaken by males who were “allies of women” in those early days of coeducation. For example, she said, Keith Thompson, an untenured assistant professor who served on the admissions committee, bravely wrote a letter to then-President Kingman Brewster asking that 100 more women be given slots in each class, saying that otherwise the committee would have to reject highly qualified female applicants in favor of mediocre male applicants.
Yale’s decision to become coeducational was, in part, gratuitous rather than wholly a reflection of the changing times, Perkin said. Male students at the time were choosing instead to attend coeducational institutions where they “could get a date” right on campus rather than have to travel to other schools to meet women. During a question-and-answer session after Perkin’s talk, an alumnus in the audience who was a senior when Yale became coeducational noted that he and his classmates traveled nearly every weekend to college campuses where women were present.
Perkins ended her talk by sharing the story of a group of first-year women who barged into a campus gathering of all-male alumni in 1970, holding placards that read “End Women’s Oppression” and “Women Up from Under” among other statements, to protest the ratio of women to men at Yale College. First-year student Margaret Coon marched to the podium to declare, “There are not enough of us,” and demanded an increase in the number of women admitted.
Brewster essentially dismissed her demand, Perkins said. “But if he thought this was the last time he’d hear from Yale women, he was mistaken,” she concluded.
Many audience members later lined up for signed copies of “Yale Needs Women,” which had been released that same day.
This academic year, the university is celebrating two historical milestones: the 50th anniversary of the matriculation of women in Yale College and the 150th anniversary of the first women students at the university who came to study at the School of Art when it opened in 1869. Exhibitions, talks, and other events will commemorate these milestones throughout the year and can be found on the 50YaleWomen150 website. One of the university’s aims during this celebration of women at Yale is to capture the stories of the women who matriculated in 1969, such as those featured in “Yale Needs Women.”