In a time of turmoil, triumph: 50 years of coeducation at Yale College
It is perhaps the perfect historical moment for a celebration honoring the past 50 years of coeducation of Yale College. In a series of events across campus Sept. 19-22, Yale alumni and a roster of speakers will reflect on what coeducation has meant for the institution, for the women who came to campus in 1969, and for subsequent generations of students.
“When the undergraduate women came, in part because of the critical mass of women this brought to the university, it changed everything,” 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 of the larger year-long initiative known as 50WomenAtYale150. Rice was part of that first class of women first-years. “I knew it would be an adventure and a challenge,” Rice says. “I didn’t expect a fully-fledged coed college. I knew there was a lot of work to be done by the women who came.”
Capturing the impact and influence of women at Yale means recognizing both their earliest admission at Yale’s graduate schools some 150 years ago and the first admission of undergraduate women 50 years ago. This September’s celebration will be open to every woman who arrived at Yale in September 1969. They will participate in tours and talks, share their memories as part of an ongoing Oral History Project, watch films, participate in the dedication of the 50th Anniversary Commemorative Stone by renowned poet Elizabeth Alexander ’84 B.A., and, perhaps most significantly, feel honored in a way they may not have when they first set foot on campus 50 years ago.
“We are doing everything we can to make this celebration as enticing, inviting, validating, and welcoming for all women from these classes,” 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. Wells transferred to Yale from Howard University, a first-generation college student who had completed three years of college. She says she felt incredibly supported in her academic pursuits. “Yale was on the cutting-edge of African American studies,” Wells says, noting that the university approved African American studies as a program in 1969. “Yale prided itself on making courses relevant and interesting to undergrads.”
In her first year on campus, Wells proposed a new residential college seminar focused on black women, and, after gaining approval from the committee, brought Sylvia Ardyn Boone to campus, who had studied at the University of Ghana where she was befriended by W.E.B. Du Bois and Maya Angelou. Boone would earn her doctoral degree in art history at Yale and become Yale’s first tenured black woman professor. Underscoring the importance of representation, Wells says: “It seemed like every black woman in the classes of ’71, ’72, ’73, and ’74 showed up for one of those two sections. There were no men, and no one not of color. How she led those classes — her intelligence and insights, wow — it was such a privilege to be taught by her.” In 1996, Wells established the Sylvia Ardyn Boone Prize for the best written work by a graduate student on African or African American art.
A changing culture, at Yale and in New Haven
The year 1969 was a time of great upheaval not only on campus, but across New Haven. Student activism was at its peak, there were rallies in support of the Black Panther Party and protests against the Vietnam War, and women undergraduates were a part of this larger cultural shift. In 1969, the Afro-American Cultural Center, the Asian American Students Association, and the Yale chapter of Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán, or MEChA, were all established.
“Yale was a place where there were teach-ins on the weekend about the atrocities in Vietnam, SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] was starting up, the Black Panthers were having rallies downtown,” said Sarah Heath ’73 B.A. Her father, Fenno Heath ’50 B.A., ’53 MUS, was the director of the Yale Glee Club for 39 years, and Sarah grew up attending concerts, immersed in the old Yale culture, she says, wearing white gloves and dresses as she sat in the front row of Woolsey Hall. Later, as a high school student at Wilbur Cross, Heath and her friends saw Jimi Hendrix perform at Woolsey “with most of the audience on LSD and all of New Haven in turmoil.”
The Yale chapter of the SDS was among the loudest voices demanding coeducation, with Mark Zanger, the SDS chapter leader at Yale, penning an op-ed in the Yale Daily News titled “Women Now. Talk Later.” And it was students, led by Avi Soifer, who launched “Coeducation Week,” which brought 750 young women from Vassar, Smith, Bryn Mawr, and other colleges to experience life at Yale. That experiment, and the surrounding publicity, brought the issue of coeducation to a head.
“It's the only time that I think students actually led the movement [for coeducation],” says Sam Chauncey ’57 B.A., assistant to then-President Kingman Brewster ’41 B.A. “It probably wouldn't have happened quite as quickly if it hadn't been for students.”
As Coeducation Week came to a close with an impromptu parade, students gathered outside Brewster’s house and demanded a date when women would be admitted. Three days later Brewster committed to 1969.
Yale women rise to the challenge
That fall, Yale admitted 575 women, both as first-years and transfers. In an article published before they arrived, The New York Times dubbed them “superwomen” because of their formidable academic and extracurricular accomplishments. Reporters followed them around campus and asked how they were adjusting. The women were sometimes isolated from one another, in classes full of men. Even though many faculty were welcoming, some male professors did not take kindly to their presence. And the preparations for their arrival had been sparse: There were not enough bathrooms, inadequate health resources, and no women’s athletic teams.
On the university side, those challenges would be handled by Elga Wasserman ’76 J.D., an early champion of coeducation at Yale who had graduated summa cum laude from Smith, had a Ph.D. in chemistry from Harvard, and was an assistant dean of Yale Graduate School. When she became special assistant to Brewster and chair of the University Committee on Coeducation, 53 of Yale’s 54 administrators were men.
Those early women students had to be resilient. They had to lead the charge on changing Yale’s culture from within.
“The world was saying that we were weird and we were special,” says Connie Royster ’72 B.A., former director of development at Yale Divinity School. “The reporters were all over the place. You could barely get through Phelps gate.”
“There were guys who felt that we didn't belong there — guys, especially, who'd been to all male prep schools,” says Dr. Marcia Eckerd ’71 B.A., a Connecticut psychologist. But, she adds, she and the other women who came to campus in 1969 shared an independent spirit, and the experience of forging new paths for women at Yale made that spirit stronger. “We had a willingness to create ourselves,” Eckerd says. “All of the benefits of Yale were available to all the women.”
Lawrie Mifflin ’73 B.A. came to Yale eager to play sports, but there were no teams for women. “It was one thing if you wanted to swim in the swimming pool or use the tennis courts but to play organized competitive sports was not something that had occurred to them,” she said. She and the late Jane Curtis ’73 B.A. recruited women to play field hockey and successfully lobbied the athletic office to support a women’s team — the first varsity women’s sports team at Yale. “We agitated in the athletic department for better facilities and better treatment generally and they hired a coach in our junior year,” Mifflin says.
Others found camaraderie in women-only spaces, like the Yale Women’s Center, which opened in 1970, and the Yale Slavic Chorus, an offshoot of the men’s Yale Russian Chorus. Jane Sachs ’73, a clinical and forensic psychologist whose mother was from the Ukraine, says the Slavic Chorus — and her Russian courses — became her lifeline at Yale. “I just loved it,” Sachs says. “I sang in it the first two years and then I became the first woman conductor in my third year. I met women there with whom I felt more compatible and I think that was because we were singing together. It wasn't this sort of cerebral intellectual way of relating to each other.”
A number of women from those early coed classes went on to positions of prominence in education, the arts, politics, and law. They include Karen Lawrence ’71 B.A., the former president of Sarah Lawrence College; Joan Abrahamson ’73 B.A., founder and president of the Jefferson Institute; Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee ’72 B.A. who represents the 18th Congressional District of Texas; Frances Beinecke ’71 B.A., ’74 FES, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council; and architect Billie Tsien ’71 B.A.
It was a moment when women at Yale had to risk being the first, and rise to the challenge of shaping the world they wanted to live in. A great many of them did.
“The admission of women was transformational to women, to Yale college, and to every school,” says Linda Koch Lorimer ’77 J.D., retired vice president of Yale and a former Yale trustee who co-chairs the Steering Committee. “It’s time to step back and think about what that means in an era where we recognize the importance of inclusivity.”